I'll always remember the first time it happened. I was interviewing a Bronx Community Solutions client, when I asked him whether he was employed, he said, "yes." "What is your job?" I asked. "Hustling," he replied. I asked him to elaborate, but he didn't want to volunteer any details. The idea has a definite air of illegality, and also implies a marginal, ad-hoc, or gray area quality.
A lot of Bronx Community Solutions clients are arrested for engaging in street-level sales and services: drugs, bootleg cigarettes and DVDs, or prostitution. All of this activity seems to fall on a spectrum. While some of it is obviously a serious crime and a serious social problem, other things seem simply scruffy, entrepenurial, and unlicensed.
As noted previously in this space, the issue presents a dilemma for government. Whenever the authorities seek to regulate and control informal urban behavior (including things like subway harassment), the risk exists that legal (even beneficial) behavior - the vending and services that are valuable part of the fabric of urban life - can also be restricted. I covered some recent developments in New York City regarding vending, greenmarkets, and other related issues here.
This article from the Norwood News, "Street Vendors Seek Legitimacy" by Stephen Baron, details the issues faced by street vendors in the Bronx, both licensed and unlicensed. And this story in the New York Times, "On Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Hustling for a Living" by James Angelos, profiles the daily lives of men on "Gasoline Alley" in words, and in photos.
THEY can be seen all along Atlantic Avenue — urban foragers of a sort, often bedraggled and always in search of a dollar. Many of them pump gas, but that is not the only hustle along the strip.Click here to Read More.
As one regular walks on sections of Atlantic, a traffic-clogged 10-mile road that runs from the Brooklyn waterfront to the Van Wyck Expressway in western Queens, he holds a bottle of glass cleaner and offers to wash car windows. Outside an auto parts store, street mechanics replace brake pads and tune transmissions, using tools hauled around in shopping carts....
Whatever the hustle, as the road travels east and the neighborhoods along it get poorer, the number of self-styled entrepreneurs only grows. At three stops along the way, they can be seen making a living, or at least a few extra dollars, off the endless rumble of cars and trucks that pummel the avenue’s rutted surface.
The Hess Station
Beneath the peeling roof of a Hess station at Ralph Avenue in Stuyvesant Heights, framed on the north by the Brevoort housing project and on the south by Kingsborough Houses, are eight self-service pumps — and often just as many hustlers who come and go as their economic needs dictate. The competition can be fierce; one hustler, called DMX by other gas pumpers, described it as a battle between lions and tigers.
“Coming in! White truck!” DMX yelled one afternoon as he sought to claim an S.U.V. even before it turned into the station.
DMX, who was a station regular earlier this summer, is tall and wears a white headband. On his cheek is a three-inch scar, which he said was carved into his face during a fight in a prison upstate.
Like several other people interviewed for this article, many of whom lead cryptic lives, he declined to give his full name. But like nearly all the hustlers in the neighborhood, he has a nickname; he earned his because he can make his voice sound as raspy as that of the rapper of the same name.
Street etiquette dictates that once a hustler claims a car, he has exclusive rights to approach it. But sometimes this arrangement breaks down, as it did recently.
“Yo, why you step in front of me like that?” a gas pumper yelled to another as passengers in a sedan that had pulled up to a pump looked out the windows with stunned expressions.
Amid such competition, the gas pumpers sometimes turn to intimidation.
“I’m going to get every car that gets in here,” DMX announced loudly at one point. “I got to eat.
“If they get in my way, I’m going to cut somebody.”
Such hostility is in sharp contrast to the fawning attentiveness that DMX showers on customers. Smiling broadly, he refers to them as “my sister” or “my dude.” For babies in the back seats, it’s “Hey, cutie!”
“Once you get them smiling,” he said, “you don’t know what may come out of their pockets.”
When a woman in a cream-colored PT Cruiser pulled up to Pump No. 2, DMX gazed into her eyes. “You all right?” he asked. “You look good.” After pumping her gas, he received a dollar.
In this respect, the gas pumpers are not like the squeegee men, who were ubiquitous in the city during the 1980s and were notorious for intimidating drivers stopped at red lights by demanding payment for unsolicited services like wiping dirty rags across windshields. The hustlers of Atlantic Avenue approach customers with careful hesitance and usually accept rejection politely, often with a guilt-inducing “God bless you.”
The station’s employees work in a little white hut equipped with bulletproof windows. They have become accustomed to the gas pumpers, and have even developed a rapport with the regulars. The station manager, who said his name was Tony, said that he had called 311 a few times to shoo the hustlers away, but that he no longer bothered.
Police officers come and hand out tickets. But once they leave, the hustlers return. “It’s unstoppable,” Tony said.
An eight-hour workday can land a gas pumper about $50, and for the more energetic ones, maybe more. DMX, who lives nearby, said he spent his earnings on food and clothing. Other gas pumpers, some of whom have sketchier housing situations, say that they spend much of their earnings on crack cocaine. Flip, a stocky 43-year-old who habitually toots a silver harmonica, says he sometimes sleeps on the A train, keeping company with a four-inch glass pipe.
As Flip talked about his past one recent morning over a cheeseburger at a McDonald’s next to the gas station, his eyes watered as he described what he called “all the positive things I was supposed to be.” As a child, he enjoyed acting, and he said he was an extra on “The Magnificent Major,” a 1977 children’s special on NBC about a little girl who didn’t like to read.
Mr. B, a skinny, 29-year-old regular at the station, also has a crack habit, though he says he is not addicted. “Psychology of the mind,” he says, keeps him from being dependent on the drug. His glassy eyes roll slightly upward, and he often looks as if he is trying to suppress a grin. He likes to mention his grandmother. “Today is my grandmother’s 90th birthday,” he told two customers, each on a different day. “I’m going to see her later.”
Both Flip and Mr. B take 30-minute breaks, drifting away from the station and returning dazed and sometimes a little paranoid. When Flip returned from one such break, he said, “I went to go see Oz.” In fact, he had made his way to Kingsborough Houses, where, he said, he took the elevator to the fifth floor of a building, puffed on his glass pipe and then rode back down.
The same afternoon, Mr. B left the station and began walking along Atlantic Avenue toward the sunset, passing the weeds that grow through the cracks in the sidewalk. “He won’t be back for a long time,” Flip said with a laugh.
But Mr. B returned about an hour later. He stood silently next to Pump No. 8, looking lost in a tangle of dismal thoughts. Asked where he had gone, Mr. B flashed his famous grin and replied, “Eat, eat, eat, eat.”
While the gas pumpers rely on a mixture of intimidation, charm and charity to make a living, other Atlantic Avenue hustlers sell their automotive skills.
Outside an AutoZone store near Washington Avenue in Clinton Hill, several street mechanics work under cars parked on the side of the road, installing parts purchased by the store’s customers.
On a hot spring day, a 36-year-old street mechanic named Matthew Joseph lay precariously on the baking asphalt of Atlantic Avenue, near three lanes of westbound traffic that whizzed by as he jacked up the left front side of a Hyundai sedan. Mr. Joseph wore a black do-rag and a white tank top that exposed his muscular arms. After a few years of working on the side of the road, he is used to the traffic being only a few feet away.
Pulling off the tire, Mr. Joseph released a cloud of dust that looked orange in the sunlight, and began replacing the car’s brake pads. Doing this sort of work, he usually earns about $150 a day, which helps him pay the $950 monthly rent for his one-bedroom apartment nearby. For this job, he charged the car’s owner $40, about half what a garage would charge, he said.
Mr. Joseph is enthusiastic about fixing cars, and he likes to explain automotive problems to his customers, though his explanations are sometimes dizzying in their complexity.
“You have to see if your injector has an injector control module,” he told a driver in a red minivan that afternoon. “If your injector has an injector control module, then you check to see if the control module for the injector maybe isn’t firing.”
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The Gasoline HustleSlide Show
The Gasoline Hustle
“I feel you,” the driver replied, though he looked confused.
Later that day, Mr. Joseph sat in the passenger seat of a blue Jeep, the brakes of which he had just replaced. The driver sped up and down Atlantic Avenue, testing the work.
“The front brakes is good,” Mr. Joseph announced. “Beautiful. Beautiful delay. Hard and sturdy.”
Mr. Joseph offered his cellphone number to the car owner in case there were any problems. “You could call me, too, all right,” he said. “You’d be driving, even at nighttime, call me. I’m official.”
Walter Malone also works near the AutoZone. He is in the auto body repair business, which he conducts on the sidewalk outside an old muffler garage. In addition, he lives in the garage, sleeping on a makeshift bed of mats and cushions protected from leaks in the roof by tarps. Mr. Malone, who often wears a red hard hat and silver chains around his neck, is deaf and speaks only in grunts.
One afternoon, a man who identified himself as Broadway pulled up to the garage in a rusty green pickup. Mr. Malone examined the truck carefully.
He pointed to the dented hood, making a hammering motion with his large hands, indicating that he would pound the dent out. He walked around the truck, making a “bah” sound when he found a problem and pantomiming how he would fix it. After the inspection, Mr. Malone rubbed together his thumb and index finger to indicate that this job would be costly. Using pen and paper, the two men eventually agreed to a price of $300. Broadway promised to bring back the pickup the next morning.
As it turned out, Broadway did not return. But before driving off, he explained that he had bought the truck for $200, and he planned to use it for, among other things, picking up mattresses left on the street and delivering them to a refurbishing business that would pay him $15 for each one.
“Everybody’s got a hustle,” Broadway said. “You can make a dollar in this here New York City.”
The gas pumping hustle at a Mobil station at Bedford Avenue, near the Bedford-Atlantic Armory and its homeless shelter, is a lot less cutthroat than the one at the Hess station a mile and half to the east. One day not long ago, a student from the nearby Science Skills Center High School named John Greene could be seen wandering among the station’s 16 pumps after school. John, who was wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt, was craving a snack of nachos, but first he needed to raise the money.
“Can I pump your gas for you?” he asked over and over.
A large man who calls himself Big Earl pulled up to Pump No. 13 in a minivan that blared R & B music. “It’s cool,” Big Earl said in response to the boy’s offer. John filled the tank with regular, and Big Earl handed him a fistful of change, nearly $2.
“Children are our resources,” Big Earl said. “If we don’t take care of our resources, we don’t take care of our future.”
Once John had collected $4, enough for two servings of nachos, he headed for the nachos machine in the station’s convenience store. “It’s my favorite,” he said as he pressed the buttons that released chili and cheese from the plastic tubes of the dispenser. Two days later, he said, he would be back for more.
A more familiar face at the Mobil station belongs to a skinny and mysterious man with a graying beard who has been pumping gas and acting as the convenience store’s de facto doorman for five years. Vishal Khosla, the station’s manager, calls the man “Green” — no relation to the student John Greene — and says he likes having him around because he keeps an eye out for thieves and troublemakers.
Most days, Green arrives at the station at 7 a.m. He earns more than enough to pay his $10 daily rent for a room nearby, he said. When the weather gets too hot, he quits early, and is happy to be able to come and go as he pleases.
“I be good here,” he said one afternoon, his linen polka-dot shirt rippling in the warm breeze. “I don’t try to get over on anybody. Everybody gets to like me because I do good.”
As he spoke, he opened the door for customers, receiving a dollar from one.
“If you do good,” he said, “you shall prosper.”