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The Panhandler’s Payday


Working the car-park hustle on 189th Street before he got his check.  

“I got to prove to myself that I know how to handle this money,” he says. “One hundred thousand dollars ain’t no joke.”

The strip of East 189th Street between Webster and Park Avenues seems an unlikely spot for hustling. The sidewalks are never crowded, and the block is home to just five businesses: a radiology office, a supermarket, a botanica, Sun Deli, and a Carvel Ice Cream shop. A doorway in the middle of the block connects to the back of Sears, where customers go to pick up their purchases. On this January afternoon, Eddie is still waiting for his check to arrive, so he’s working hard at his main hustle, which he calls “parking cars.”

As a car heads down the street, the driver craning to find a space, Eddie darts into the road. “Hey, yo! Hey, yo!” He points the driver to an empty spot; if there’s a choice, he’ll pick the one with the most time left on its meter. “C’mon back, baby girl,” he says, waving a driver into a space. He leans over her meter: “You got 29 minutes on there.” About half the drivers give him money, usually a dollar or two, with instructions to feed the meter and keep the rest. With a traffic-police office around the corner, tipping Eddie can seem like a wise investment.

Between two and five people work the same hustle on this block every day. There is even a square on the sidewalk they refer to as their “Walk of Fame.” Last summer, when the concrete was still wet, someone wrote PARKING CREW with a stick, and they all added their names: GREG, MONEY, MIKE, GARY, CASH $, JAY, BIG HEV, BRAIDS. According to the story that circulates on the block, Big Hev’s uncle started this car-parking hustle in the nineties, after he had an epiphany in the old Sears parking lot. Someone asked him where to park, he helped the driver find a spot, and the driver handed him a dollar. “And from there it just progressed,” Big Hev says. The current crop of car-parkers includes Jay, who says he was once an ironworker; Little Mike, a grandfather of six, who spent eight years in the military; Money, the only woman in the crew; and Big Hev, a regular on the block for fifteen years, with a name inspired by his size.

The story of how someone winds up on this block trying to squeeze money out of strangers often, though not always, has something to do with drugs. Jay freely admits he’s a crack addict who has spent half his life in prison. Big Mike also did time in state prison and has a history of smoking crack. Eddie’s relationship with drugs dates back to his childhood. When he was growing up in Sugar Hill, he used to sit on the stoop and watch Nicky Barnes’s men work the streets, selling heroin for $2 a bag. “It’s time to go upstairs. Let’s go, boy,” his mother would say. (His father left when he was a baby, and his mother supported three sons by working as a maid at the Carlyle Hotel.) Eddie would heed his mother’s call, trudging home and parking himself in front of Mighty Mouse, but as the years passed, the pull of the street became harder to resist. He started selling coke in the early eighties, and by the late eighties he was smoking his own product. Between 1988 and 2005, he was arrested for drug possession sixteen times. Eddie says he last got high in the fall of 2006, but he insists this was only a “one-night stand.” These days, he is one of the more reliable car-parkers on the block. Unlike some of his co-workers, he doesn’t disappear every few hours or, as Eddie says, “make $10 and run to the crack man.”

Once he started hustling, Eddie never had much interest in a regular job. He estimates that last year he made a little more than $10,000, tax-free, so what was the point of getting some $8-an-hour job where he’d bring home about the same? Then, of course, there’s his distaste for authority. To Eddie, the benefits of hustling are obvious: “Be my own boss. Work my own hours. Be off what days I want to be off.”

The car-parking operation has rules, and everyone is expected to obey them: You have to wait your turn to park a car, and you cannot jump the line, no matter how broke or hungry you may be. If you disappear—whether to pick up lunch, find a toilet, or get high—you lose your turn. And you have to keep track of which cars you parked. Anytime one of the car-parkers screws up and lets the meter expire on a car he was supposed to watch, he undermines the entire enterprise and everybody gets angry. Not long ago, Cash $ flagrantly violated the car-parkers’ code of conduct when he accepted $40 to look the other way while two guys smashed the window of a Lincoln Town Car cab and grabbed the radio. His co-workers berated him for days: “You idiot!” “You asshole!” Eventually, Cash $ stopped hanging out on 189th Street. “The shame of what he did got him off the block,” Jay says.


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