The Panhandler’s Payday
Eddie Wise hustled for every dollar in his pocket. Until he got a check for $100,000.
New York | May 7, 2007
EDDIE IS ONE OF THOSE RARE NEW YORKERS who have perfected the art of making a living without holding a job. He’s been called a panhandler, a mooch, a beggar, a bum, but he prefers the term hustler, which he inherited from his father, Fast Eddie, a Harlem coke dealer who made four trips to state prison, his last one at age 62. Every hustler has his area of expertise, and Eddie’s lies in his ability to coax bills out of the pockets of passersby. On Friday nights, his skills are on display in front of North End Liquors on Webster Avenue in the Bronx. “Excuse me, sir. No disrespect or harm. Can you help a brother on your way out?” If the customer reaches into his pocket, Eddie stops him: “No, no. I’ll wait till you come out.” He is not interested in quarters; he wants dollars. And he’s found that waiting until the customer exits the store, liquor bottle in hand, tends to increase the size of the donation. On his best nights, Eddie can make $60 in three hours. “My prayer book is my mouth, the way I talk to get my money,” he says. “If you don’t know how to talk, you can’t hustle.”
Eddie is 45 years old and almost always wears the same outfit: dark-blue Maurice Malone jeans (a gift from someone who works in the neighborhood), two hooded sweatshirts, a beat-up pair of Air Jordans, and a ten-year-old leather jacket with a broken zipper. He keeps his hair pulled back in seven braids, which is how he acquired his nickname: Braids. Though he’s only five foot five and is missing a front tooth, he likes to say he resembles Latrell Sprewell. “If my teeth weren’t out, you’d think I look just like him,” he says. Some people assume Eddie is homeless, but he hasn’t been homeless for about fifteen years. At night, he stays at his girlfriend’s apartment.
He has worked as a school aide, a security guard, a warehouse laborer, and, for five months, a National Guardsman, but for the past two decades he has spent most of his time piecing together an income from donations and tips of one sort or another. Every morning, six days a week, he would set a quota for himself—usually $30 or $40—and he wouldn’t stop working until he made it. “You can’t sit in the house all day thinking money is going to come to you,” he says. “You gotta go to the money.”
In December 2006, after all these years of hustling on the streets of New York, Eddie made the score of a lifetime. The city offered to pay him $100,001 if he dropped a lawsuit he’d filed against the police on behalf of himself and other panhandlers who’d been wrongly arrested. He agreed, and now he is about to go from scratching out a living, a dollar or two at a time, to collecting a six-figure check, an amount that would take him a decade to earn if he kept on hustling.
The news spread quickly through the Fordham section of the Bronx. Walking the streets, Eddie heard acquaintances call out “The $100,000 Man!” Locals drove down 189th Street, hitting the horn and shouting his name. Soon, everyone started debating what Eddie was going to do with the money. “In three months, he’ll be broke,” says an employee from North End Liquors as he walks by. “I got bets on it.” Predictions like this one do not sit well with Eddie. “Everybody in the neighborhood is thinking that it’s going to be gone, that I’m going to be broke pretty soon,” he says. “Talking about, I’m going to spend $100,000 on crack. I’ll be dead by then! What do I look like, a stupid fool?”
But if you were a betting man, you too might lay odds against him. After all, Eddie had blown a second chance once before. In the early nineties, when he was working as a deliveryman, he got a hefty payment after his hand was crushed by a six-foot roll of paper. By Eddie’s own admission, the money—tens of thousands of dollars, he recalls—was gone in a matter of months, much of it used to buy cocaine. He says he spent up to $1,000 a day, smoking and sniffing so much that he began hallucinating and blood poured from his nose.
The six-figure check coming his way offers the promise of better days, but it’s also shaping up to be a test of his character, his determination not to smoke crack again, his financial savvy, and his ability to imagine a different sort of future. Whenever he is on the street, standing around with his friends, he acts confident. “I know what I’m doing,” he says. “My last name’s not Wise for nothing.” Other times, though, when he is by himself and feeling more subdued, he sounds less certain.
“I got to prove to myself that I know how to handle this money,” he says. “One hundred thousand dollars ain’t no joke.”
THE STRIP OF EAST 189th Street between Webster and Park Avenues seems an unlikely spot for hustling. The sidewalks are never crowded, and the block is home to just five businesses: a radiology office, a supermarket, a botanica, Sun Deli, and a Carvel Ice Cream shop. A doorway in the middle of the block connects to the back of Sears, where customers go to pick up their purchases. On this January afternoon, Eddie is still waiting for his check to arrive, so he’s working hard at his main hustle, which he calls “parking cars.”
As a car heads down the street, the driver craning to find a space, Eddie darts into the road. “Hey, yo! Hey, yo!” He points the driver to an empty spot; if there’s a choice, he’ll pick the one with the most time left on its meter. “C’mon back, baby girl,” he says, waving a driver into a space. He leans over her meter: “You got 29 minutes on there.” About half the drivers give him money, usually a dollar or two, with instructions to feed the meter and keep the rest. With a traffic-police office around the corner, tipping Eddie can seem like a wise investment.
Between two and five people work the same hustle on this block every day. There is even a square on the sidewalk they refer to as their “Walk of Fame.” Last summer, when the concrete was still wet, someone wrote PARKING CREW with a stick, and they all added their names: GREG, MONEY, MIKE, GARY, CASH $, JAY, BIG HEV, BRAIDS. According to the story that circulates on the block, Big Hev’s uncle started this car-parking hustle in the nineties, after he had an epiphany in the old Sears parking lot. Someone asked him where to park, he helped the driver find a spot, and the driver handed him a dollar. “And from there it just progressed,” Big Hev says. The current crop of car-parkers includes Jay, who says he was once an ironworker; Little Mike, a grandfather of six, who spent eight years in the military; Money, the only woman in the crew; and Big Hev, a regular on the block for fifteen years, with a name inspired by his size.
The story of how someone winds up on this block trying to squeeze money out of strangers often, though not always, has something to do with drugs. Jay freely admits he’s a crack addict who has spent half his life in prison. Big Mike also did time in state prison and has a history of smoking crack. Eddie’s relationship with drugs dates back to his childhood. When he was growing up in Sugar Hill, he used to sit on the stoop and watch Nicky Barnes’s men work the streets, selling heroin for $2 a bag. “It’s time to go upstairs. Let’s go, boy,” his mother would say. (His father left when he was a baby, and his mother supported three sons by working as a maid at the Carlyle Hotel.) Eddie would heed his mother’s call, trudging home and parking himself in front of Mighty Mouse, but as the years passed, the pull of the street became harder to resist. He started selling coke in the early eighties, and by the late eighties he was smoking his own product. Between 1988 and 2005, he was arrested for drug possession sixteen times. Eddie says he last got high in the fall of 2006, but he insists this was only a “one-night stand.” These days, he is one of the more reliable car-parkers on the block. Unlike some of his co-workers, he doesn’t disappear every few hours or, as Eddie says, “make $10 and run to the crack man.”
Once he started hustling, Eddie never had much interest in a regular job. He estimates that last year he made a little more than $10,000, tax-free, so what was the point of getting some $8-an-hour job where he’d bring home about the same? Then, of course, there’s his distaste for authority. To Eddie, the benefits of hustling are obvious: “Be my own boss. Work my own hours. Be off what days I want to be off.”
The car-parking operation has rules, and everyone is expected to obey them: You have to wait your turn to park a car, and you cannot jump the line, no matter how broke or hungry you may be. If you disappear—whether to pick up lunch, find a toilet, or get high—you lose your turn. And you have to keep track of which cars you parked. Anytime one of the car-parkers screws up and lets the meter expire on a car he was supposed to watch, he undermines the entire enterprise and everybody gets angry. Not long ago, Cash $ flagrantly violated the car-parkers’ code of conduct when he accepted $40 to look the other way while two guys smashed the window of a Lincoln Town Car cab and grabbed the radio. His co-workers berated him for days: “You idiot!” “You asshole!” Eventually, Cash $ stopped hanging out on 189th Street. “The shame of what he did got him off the block,” Jay says.
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.
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.”
He walks over to the McDonald’s on Fordham Road and meets up with his daughter Neecy, 21, and his 2-year-old granddaughter Remy. He buys Remy a Happy Meal, and he gives them both cash: $50 for Neecy, $5 for Remy. Then he visits BX Fashion on Webster Avenue, around the corner from 189th, and picks up a pair of black denim jeans and two shirts for $41. By 3 p.m., he is back at the bank, hunched over an ATM, trying to figure out how to get another $200.
Over the next week, his spending slows and most of his purchases are edible. He spends day after day cooped up in his girlfriend’s apartment, eating, sleeping, and watching cartoons. (A self-described “cartoon freak,” his tastes run from South Park to Dora the Explorer.) He buys Froot Loops and Apple Jacks, and eats each box in a single sitting. He makes regular runs for Chinese takeout, buying rib tips and chicken wings for $5.75. Since his girlfriend is in the hospital with pneumonia, he has the place to himself. He buys her a $12 bathrobe and a few meals, but relations between the two are tense. A few weeks earlier, he had found a condom in the garbage that wasn’t his. Every few days she asks, “When are you going to get out of my house?”
The trouble is, Eddie’s not sure where else to go. His plans to move down south have been put on hold for the moment. He heard he needed I.D. to board an Amtrak train, but he had lost all his I.D. years ago during one of his jail stays, and he doesn’t want to try to find a job and housing in another state without at least a Social Security card in hand. Besides, hanging out in the apartment has been good for him, he figures, keeping him out of trouble and away from the crack man. “That’s why I stay in the house,” he says. “Go to the store, do what I got to do. And go back upstairs.” To fight temptation, he employs a mantra of his own making: “You say to yourself, ‘Eddie, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.’”
SIXTEEN DAYS AFTER his check cleared, Eddie turns off the television. Hanging around the apartment had been fun for a while, but now he is bored, and a little lonely. He puts on his new sneakers and a new shirt, then his old leather jacket, the one with the zipper that long ago pulled away from the seam, and takes the bus over to the neighborhood where he used to hustle. It’s not that he wants to go back to parking cars, but there are a few things about his old life that he misses: the camaraderie of the car-parkers, the rhythm of the street, the endless opportunities to show off his hustling skills. After wandering in and out of a few stores, he ventures onto 189th Street.
“Hey, Mr. Millionaire,” says Greg, seated on a plastic crate in the middle of the sidewalk, his hands puffy and covered with sores. “What’s up?”
Greg used to park cars, but now he is too far gone for that. He spends most of his days in front of the liquor store, shaking a cup, sometimes hugging a telephone box to keep from tipping over. Eddie has known him for nearly a decade; he knows that Greg suffers from seizures, that he was hit by a car on Webster Avenue, that he has a metal plate in his head. Month after month, Eddie would watch Greg leave the block in the back of an ambulance, only to return the next day and start drinking once again.
“What’s up?” Greg says. “Where you been in the world? Now you’re talking to a poor man.”
“Me. I got no money to spend.”
Eddie pulls out three singles. “My man, here,” he says, handing over the cash. “What do you say?”
“Say ‘Thank you.’”
Eddie’s presence on the block draws the attention of Little Mike and Jay, who take a break from parking cars. “Lunch is on you today,” Jay says. “You know I’m going to have to charge you for your visit. There’s a visit tax for the block. The rich guys aren’t allowed.” Eddie laughs, but not too hard.
Everyone fills Eddie in on the news he’s missed. Jay says the police took him in the day before, though he claims he did nothing wrong. Greg says the police hassled him, too. But the biggest news involves Eddie himself: Big Mike has been telling everyone he is already broke, that he smoked so much crack that the $100,000 is already gone. But when Big Mike actually shows up, he relays a different rumor: that Eddie had $76,000 in his pocket and was flashing the bills on the street.
“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.”