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The Panhandler’s Payday


More than anyone else here, Eddie possesses an uncanny ability to spot moneymaking opportunities. One afternoon, he sees Jimmy, the manager of Sun Deli, pushing an empty handcart down the sidewalk. “You want me to help you?” Eddie shouts. Jimmy doesn’t answer, but Eddie follows him anyway. A car pulls up, and a couple gets out. “Hey, help me out, baby,” Eddie says as he glances at the empty meter. “You got zero-zero.” Eddie slides in a quarter; the man hands him a dollar. By now, Jimmy is across the street, heading north on Webster Avenue. Eddie chases after him, then spies a botanica worker with a handcart, accompanying a customer to her car. Eddie lifts her boxes into the trunk, collects another dollar, spins around, jogs up Webster, passes a curvaceous woman, turns around to admire her backside, and keeps going, disappearing inside Sears. A few minutes later, he reappears with Jimmy, pushing a handcart loaded with boxes. For his help, Jimmy gives him $5. Watching the scene from across the street, Jay shakes his head. “You got to be quick to keep up with him.”

Ross Biernick arrived on this block in 2004 to oversee the radiology office. Back then, a group of men would congregate every day right in front of the entrance to his building. Of all the men, Eddie gave him the hardest time. When Ross would tell him to move away from the front door, Eddie would shoot back, “What did you say?” “Move to the side,” Ross would repeat. After a few more exchanges, Eddie would drop his act and start laughing.

Over the months, Ross’s relationship with Eddie evolved into something of a friendship. “For some reason, he grows on you,” Ross says. Every time Ross walks outside for a cigarette, Eddie comes over and asks for one, too. As they smoke together, Eddie passes on the car-parkers’ gossip—who returned to jail, whose mother kicked him out—and confides in Ross about his troubles with his girlfriend. Ross gives money to all the guys on the block, but he gives more to Eddie, maybe $10 or $20 a week. “It adds up,” Ross says. “I should be able to deduct him on my taxes.”

Lately, Ross and Eddie’s sidewalk chats have focused on everyone’s favorite topic: Eddie’s upcoming payday. “Be careful who your friends are,” Ross says. “People in the street don’t really wish you well. They’re waiting for you to fuck up. There’s a saying: Your best revenge is living well. Quietly.” Week after week, throughout January and into February, Ross urges Eddie to leave the block—and the city—as soon as his check arrives. “I don’t want to see him do something stupid,” Ross says. “I’d rather him get his check, cash it, and go. Just get the hell out of here. Because he’ll never keep that money here. Even if he doesn’t blow it on stupid stuff like drugs and drinking, someone will take it from him.”

Eddie’s luck began to turn at 1:02 a.m. on January 25, 2004, when he was arrested in front of University Pizza on Fordham Road for “engaging numerous pedestrians in conversation with his hand out requesting money,” according to the police report. Being arrested “on the job” was nothing new for Eddie; he’d been hauled in at least twenty times in the prior two years for panhandling. This time, while Eddie was waiting to be arraigned, stuck in a holding pen at the courthouse, he spotted a lawyer he knew from the Bronx Defenders. “Lisa! Lisa!” he shouted. “I need help!” The Bronx Defenders represents poor people accused of crimes, and Lisa C. Cartier Giroux had helped Eddie get another case dismissed not long before. On this night, she was supposed to pick up only felonies, but Lisa likes Eddie and she agreed to take his case, too.

When she glanced at his charge, it struck her as strange. After a few minutes on the courtroom computer, she learned that the statute against loitering for the purpose of begging had been found unconstitutional before she even got to law school. In 1990, a group of young people who panhandled around Tompkins Square Park had grown tired of police officers telling them to “move on,” so they sued—and won. The city appealed, and in 1993 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit declared the state’s anti-panhandling law unconstitutional under the First Amendment. (There is now, however, a city law prohibiting “aggressive” panhandling.)

Somehow the news failed to trickle down to the cops, and they continued to punish peaceful panhandlers by giving out summonses and making arrests. Six weeks later, as Eddie’s case crawled through the system, another officer arrested him for begging in front of a bar. Three weeks later, the same cop who arrested Eddie in late January arrested him yet again, this time for panhandling outside North End Liquors. Eventually, in May, the judge dismissed the loitering charges. But three arrests in quick succession—for something he now knew wasn’t even a crime—had left Eddie fuming.


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