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The Littlest Hustler

Portrait of a New York childhood, in the extreme.

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Photographs by Danielle Levitt
Fourteen-year-old Alex Goldberg, in the kitchen at Peasant.  

The hotel room was boring.

So Alex Goldberg did what he normally does when he’s bored, which is often: He sneaked out. It was last year, and he was vacationing with his mom and sister at the Ritz-Carlton in Miami. But Alex wanted to go where the action was. He shuffled out of the lobby of the Ritz and cruised down Collins Avenue along the row of Art Deco hotels. There was a party going on at the Delano. Alex marched through the crowd in cargo shorts, belly out in a baggy T-shirt, sneaker laces dragging. He found a spot on the edge of the pool and plunged his toes into the water.

“What are you doing here?” asked a woman in a bathing suit. “Where are your parents?”

“Taking a nap at the Ritz. I just wanted to check this place out.” She didn’t believe him. “C’mon. I know you. I did a casting with you in New York.” Alex shook his head. “No, you didn’t.”

“I did too. Your name is Josh something. You’re 11. What’s the name of the movie you were in?”

“I’m not in any movie. And I’m 12.”

Alex borrowed a video camera from the woman’s friend and disappeared into the crowd to interview people. He found his first victim in the shallow end. She was a blonde in a blue bikini, clumsily moving to the music.

“Are you a professional dancer?” Alex asked sarcastically.

She looked curiously at the four-foot-nine-inch-tall boy. “Are you making a movie for school or something?” she asked. “Is this … educational?”

Alex was grinning. Her friends started getting ideas. “Show him some ass, girl,” said one. Shake it a little. And she did. She turned around. Jiggle jiggle jiggle.

Next up: Jamie Foxx. The actor was near the bar, giving a woman a massage, and saw the crowd now gathered around Alex. Foxx offered to buy him a drink. What do you want, little boy? “A piña colada,” Alex said. The crowd laughed, and he got one, virgin.

Alex’s adventure ended hours later, at Nobu, where the pool crowd had migrated to feast on junket sushi. He had been chatting up Venus and Serena Williams at a nearby table, and mugging for cameras with a cigar hanging from his lips while eating a bowl of ice cream. Then the faces at his table went blank. Alex looked up and saw what they saw. His mother.

Busted.

If you catch him leaving school or going to basketball practice, Alex can seem like any other New York kid. He has long shaggy hair and big round cheeks, and looks young for his age (he turned 14 last month). He’s student-council president at his private school on the East Side. According to his Facebook profile, he likes “Golf, Tennis, Baseball, basketball, Soccer, Knicks, Waterskiing” and musicians like Akon, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Black Sabbath. He likes to skateboard. He likes cool clothes. He talks a lot on his cell phone. He worries about girls he likes and whether they like him back.

But Alex isn’t like other boys his age. He’s had free rein over the streets of Nolita since before he can remember, and he quickly learned the rules of that playground, turning his relationships with the neighborhood’s shop owners into access to free gourmet meals and designer clothes and trendy sneakers, then turning those freebies into even better stuff (like courtside Knicks tickets), and leveraging those perks into even more valuable things, like connections to athletes, rappers, nightclub owners, and so on. On any given day after school, you can find him strutting down Elizabeth or Mulberry or Mott, past the foundations of his barter operation. He’s worked at Supreme, the clothing store and skate shop on Lafayette. He’s helped the chefs at Peasant. On Sunday mornings, he likes to get to DiPalo’s early, before the noon rush, and stretch the mozzarella with Louie, the cheese store’s owner, and kibitz with Violanda, his 80-year-old mother. He helps out at Papabubble, a designer candy store that opened recently on Broome Street, and hawks peanuts at Vinny’s Nut House on Mulberry and Grand. “He’s like a man trapped in a baby’s body—that’s how I always describe him,” says Vinny Peanuts.

After school for the last couple of years, Alex clocked in at his favorite job of all: at NikeID, the design-your-own-shoe mecca. He scored this gig by accident. He was hanging out on the sidewalk in Nolita, smoking a cigarette in big dramatic puffs, when a striking woman in her twenties passed by.

“You know,” said Vashtie Kola, “you smoking a cigarette is not cool.”

“It’s a fake,” he said. “Don’t worry, my babysitter is right over there.”


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