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The Panhandler’s Payday

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“If I had $76,000, you think I’d come out here and show it?” Eddie asks.

“You’d be robbed before you got off the block,” Jay says.

After an hour on 189th Street, hanging out here doesn’t seem like much fun anymore. Joking around with his former co-workers isn’t the same, not when he feels like every one of them wants to stick a hand in his pocket. He decides he’s had enough, and he starts to walk away.

“Eddie, what’s up with lunch?” Jay says.

Eddie spins around. “What do you want?” he asks. “A shake?”

“Yeah, get me a shake.”

Standing in the middle of the street, Eddie raises his arms, curls his hands into fists, and gives Jay what he asked for, shaking his hips from side to side. Then he throws back his head, sending peals of laughter echoing down the block.

When Ross Biernick hears that Eddie has been hanging out on 189th Street again, he is not pleased. “Come see me,” he tells Eddie over the phone, and a few days later, Eddie is on his way to Ross’s office. Twenty days have passed since Eddie got his money, and he carries a plastic shopping bag filled with his latest purchases, a DVD player ($65) and another pair of pants from BX Fashion ($20, but Eddie talked his way down to $12).

At the corner of 189th and Webster, he stops in at the botanica, and as soon as he sees Steve Amateau, one of the co-owners, he says, “Have you heard the rumor going around that I smoked $100,000?”

“Let the rumors continue,” Steve says. “It’s better for you.”

Spring had announced its arrival the week before with two back-to-back days of 60-plus-degree weather, but now it’s not quite 40 and Eddie is wearing only a T-shirt under his jacket. He had always dressed for the weather when he was parking cars, but now he starts to shiver. Surveying 189th Street, he doesn’t see any of the car-parkers. Maybe because it’s cold, or maybe because Sears has closed, hurting everyone’s ability to make money. The only noise is the sound of snow crunching beneath a shovel as an employee clears off the sidewalk in front of the radiology office.

Ross appears after a few minutes, dressed as always in a suit and tie, and he doesn’t waste words: “What the fuck are you doing? If you’re going down south, go down south.”

“I don’t have no I.D.,” says Eddie, by way of explanation.

“What do you have? A debit card?”

“I got this.” He reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a bank card, black with a Visa logo, and at the bottom, MR. EDDIE WISE.

“You’ve got a platinum card! You crack me up, Eddie. It took me ten years to get one of these.”

“It took me a couple days.”

Ross laughs again, but then gets serious. Has he been smoking crack?

“I don’t do that anymore,” Eddie says.

“You look clean. You look better.”

“I’m not going out like no sucker. I’m not going out like that.”

A Dodge Intrepid pulls into a parking space, and a woman gets out. “What’s on the meter?” she asks, directing her question to Eddie.

“You don’t know who you’re talking to?” Ross says. “Platinum Eddie!”

Eddie tells Ross about the North Carolina plan. He had hoped to live in a trailer there, but he heard from his uncle that a trailer could cost $85,000, and that would mean he’d have only $15,000 left. “You’re going to piss through that in no time, and you’ll be right back here,” Ross says. “If you want my advice, before you put $85,000 down on a trailer, go out there and live for a year. Pay your bills. See what it costs to live. Become a citizen. Go and do it right.”

It is too cold to stand outside much longer. Ross takes one last drag and tosses his cigarette on the sidewalk. “Stay away from the shit,” he says. They both know what he means: No smoking crack. The two men shake hands, then pull each other close for a quick hug. “Ross, I’ll call you,” Eddie says. As Ross heads back inside, Eddie sees the manager of Sun Deli closing up, and he waves to him. “Bye, Jimmy.” His voice carries an air of finality, as if this good-bye might be his last.

By the end of April, two months have passed since Eddie got his check, and his life hasn’t changed much. A couple of weeks earlier, he abandoned his plan to go to North Carolina. He has not seen his uncle there in fifteen or twenty years, and when he spoke to him on the phone, he thought his uncle sounded a little too eager. “I think he just wants money,” says Eddie. “I’m not with it.” And Eddie figured he probably wouldn’t have liked living down south anyway. “I’d miss the street life. You can’t catch a bus. You can’t catch a cab. I’d be in the damn boondocks, the woods.”

And all the people from the block where he used to hustle wouldn’t be there either. He figures he’d miss hanging out in a neighborhood where everyone knows him, where people shout “Hey, Mr. Millionaire” whenever he walks by. Every week or two, he still wanders back down Webster to 189th Street, staying just long enough to see who is parking cars and catch up on the gossip. Almost every time he returns to these streets somebody asks him for money, but he’s got the perfect cover: “I ain’t got it, man. I’m broke. I spent it all on crack.”


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