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The Panhandler’s Payday

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He asked Lisa if he could sue the NYPD, and she introduced him to McGregor Smyth, the Yale Law grad who heads the Bronx Defenders’ civil unit. McGregor joined up with two lawyers from Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, and in the summer of 2005, they filed a lawsuit to stop the police from enforcing the statute—and to win damages for Eddie.

Nineteen months later, on the afternoon of February 26, 2007, Eddie sits with McGregor at the Chase branch on East 161st Street in the South Bronx, waiting for the news that his check has cleared. He is wearing the same outfit he’s had on for weeks, but by now white stripes circle the bottom of his pant legs, rings of salt crust left by dirty snow. He has only $28.10 in his pocket—his entire net worth—which he’d made in five hours earlier in the day. Seated in a bank cubicle, being called Mr. Wise by everyone, Eddie cannot seem to believe his good fortune. The prospect of no longer being poor has him in a reflective mood, and he starts talking about his darkest days, when he slept on rooftops in Harlem fifteen years earlier. “I used to eat out of garbage cans,” he says. “I ain’t going to lie to you, I used to smoke. But I snapped out of that. Got myself together. Look at me now.”

In Eddie’s view, his check from the city is not the result of dumb luck, not at all like the prize one might win by rubbing a nickel on a scratch ticket. After all, for close to three years, he’d been an active participant in the suit, calling McGregor regularly to check on his case. Eddie considers the money a reward for his persistence—as well as payback for all the times he was put through the system, a reason to feel proud in a lifetime full of reasons not to, and the ultimate evidence of his hustling skills. With the help of his lawyers, he’d outsmarted the cops who’d arrested him and ended up with $100,001 plus interest. Not only that, but he paved the way for other panhandlers who’ve been illegally arrested. His lawyers have found six other plaintiffs, including Big Mike from the car-parking crew, and are seeking to certify the lawsuit as a class-action case.

In recent weeks, Eddie had begun to refer to his payment as his “pension” from hustling. “Like I had a job and I retired,” he says. “Giving this game up.” He’s thinking about moving to North Carolina, where an uncle lives, and buying a trailer. Forgetting his criminal record for the moment, he says maybe he’ll work in security. “I wouldn’t mind working down south,” he says. “As soon as I get off work, I can go home in a car. Get me a DVD player and a satellite dish and just lay around on the days I’m off. Get me a nice little pit bull. A cutie. Put my dog in the yard, and let him run around. Ain’t going to miss nobody.”

At the bank, there are questions to be answered and forms to be signed. Eddie decides to put $91,000 in his first-ever savings account, and the rest in checking—though he turns down the bank rep’s offer of a checkbook. “I don’t know how to use it,” he says. He meets briefly with an investment adviser, but he’s not that interested in what he has to say. Eddie equates investing with gambling, and he equates gambling with the day when he was a child, sent to the store by his mother, and lost $20 playing three-card monte.

Finally, Eddie hears the words he’s been waiting for: “How much cash do you need today?” He asks for $400. He doesn’t hold the money in his hand, counting every ten and twenty, savoring the sight of so much crisp cash. Instead, he shoves the bills deep inside his front pocket and hopes nobody is paying attention to how much he has. All he wants is to get home without getting robbed. “I’m in shock,” he says, blinking hard. “Is this me? I don’t believe I did it. I stuck to my guns until the bullet came out.” Eddie shakes his lawyer’s hand, then walks up to Grand Concourse. He usually takes the bus, but on this day he sticks his arm out and, a few moments later, a white Lincoln Town Car picks him up.

The next morning, Eddie leaves the apartment early and goes shopping on Fordham Road, then heads to 189th Street, a pack of Newports ($5) in his pocket and brand-new Nike Air Maxes ($120) on his feet. Little Mike and Big Hev are the only ones out parking cars. “Come here,” Eddie says to Big Hev, handing him a $20 bill. “Y’all split that.” A few minutes later, Big Hev asks, “You got change for a ten?” Eddie knows exactly what Big Hev is thinking: He doesn’t really want change—he wants more bills. “That’s it,” Eddie says. “I ain’t giving out no more money. No more charity.”


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