Local Color—Manhattan: New York Stories, Which I Only Now Realize Are All About Petty Crimes

Originally posted on my old site. I’d have called this “New York After Dark”, but the souvlaki guy story happened in the middle of the afternoon.

Looking out for the homeless

After a night of shooting on a small movie I was doing sound for, a bunch of us went to the Russian deli Veselka on 2nd Avenue in New York. It was peak hours – about 2:30 in the morning – and Veselka was packed, so we had to wait for a table on a line that trailed out the door.

As we waited on the sidewalk, halfway up the block a vagrant sat on a box and wailed. “I’m HUNNNNGRY. OOOOOOH, GOD. I’M SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO HUNNNNNNGRY.” The guy sounded like if he didn’t get some food in him immediately he was going to keel over and die. So the production manager Beth and I took some pity on him, and decided to get him something to eat. After a moment of strange negotiations we somehow agreed on splitting the cost of a bagel and cream cheese for him. We went in to the take-out counter to order such.

This being New York, it took 15 minutes to order and be served a bagel with cream cheese at 2 in the morning. By the time we got back outside with it, the vagrant wasn’t there. We saw his box sitting alone on the sidewalk where he had been.

We cased the block up and down, looking into side alleys, so we could give him the bagel. He was nowhere to be found.

But while we were looking for him, I saw someone walk up and steal his box!

Wildlife in the subway

One night I was on my way home to a place I was staying in Brooklyn. I was in a subway station down on Canal street. It must have been 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. There’s this lit waiting area on the upper level of the station so you don’t have to wait down on the empty platform at night.

There were two people sitting on the waiting area bench when I sat down – a woman in a trenchcoat, probably in her 30’s, and this rasta guy. The woman was very upset. She kept crying, “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kill him.” She wouldn’t tell us who it was or what he did to her. We said she should go to the cops and she said she couldn’t. She refused to give us any further detail but was very distraught and kept carrying on and we were sympathetic. Then, as she was moving around, at one point her trenchcoat fell slightly open and I saw down the top of it, and saw that underneath it she was naked.

Now, after a few minutes of this, on the other side of the waiting area, this man comes down the steps into the station, a tall, skinny Puerto Rican guy, in his late twenties. He had this incredibly angry expression on his face, and I remember thinking to myself when I saw him, “Wow, that is the angriest-looking man I have ever seen.” He stormed up to the bench and without a word he grabbed the woman by the wrist, and pulled her down the stairs to the train platform.

A few minutes later, as the train was due, me & the rasta dude went down to the platform. The wide stairs came down near the end of the platform, dead center and facing away from the wall, so the about 20 feet of platform between the staircase and the wall was blocked from view. We heard the woman and the puerto rican guy shuffling around behind there, it sounded like they were emptying their pockets. I heard coins jingling and stuff for a couple of minutes, then they were quiet.

So, the train comes & we get on it. There’s this barrier between the train and the platform that partly blocks the view of the platform from on board the train. The barrier had periodic breaks, so as the train moved you could see flashes of the platform through the gaps.

So, as the train is pulling past the stairs, I catch a glimpse of them through one of the gaps. They were squatting on the platform behind the stairs, facing each other, and the woman had her trenchoat open, and they were just FUCKING.

I could have been dog food

At my last job in New York, I was working down in Tribeca, a three mile shot straight down 8th Avenue from Penn Station, where I caught the Long Island Rail Road to and from home. My last night there, I worked real late, clearing out my desk and stuff.

So I left the office around 12:30 am, and flagged a cab as it went by but missed it. Suddenly a big black car pulled up next to me. “Where are you going?” the driver asked. The car had no markings but I looked at his dashboard, and he had the gear, the fare meter, etc. – must have been a private car-for-hire. So I told him I was going to Penn Station & got in.

We pulled up Franklin, which turns into 8th Avenue, for about two blocks. Then he unexpectedly made a left turn.

“Where are you going?” I asked him.

“There’s construction on 8th, I’m going to take 10th Ave.”

I started to get suspicious. I asked him, “About how much do you think this is going to cost?” He gave a strange answer. “Umm, you do this all the time, you know how much it’ll be.”

“No, I don’t. I’ve never done this before. How much do you think?”

He said, “Oh, about 10 dollars.”

I said, “No, you were right, I do do this all the time, it costs $5.75. You’re scamming me.” Right at that moment we were at a stop sign, so I jumped out.

It was only later that I realized that 10th Avenue doesn’t run that far south. He was going to drive me up through the desolate, empty meat packing district at almost 1 AM. Where do you think I’d be today if I’d stayed in that car?

A slave somewhere in China, or just sausage?

Would you like a little random violence with that, sir?

My last job in New York was at Legal Aid For New York, a nonprofit law firm doing free legal work for tenants’ groups, other nonprofits, etc. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. Among the many, many wonderful things about working at LANY was that I was able to go get lunch every day at this one souvlaki cart on the street. That’s right, New York isn’t all bad, there are some great things about it, and one of them is that there are guys selling souvlaki on the streets. You can’t even get a souvlaki in San Francisco, anywhere.

This one guy made the best souvlakis. (He was very generous with the sauce.) I actually used to walk past another souvlaki cart to go to him.

So, one afternoon I went down to him and when I got there there was this little old crazywoman yabbering at him. The guy was busily making a souvlaki for the customer in line ahead of me, but she was in his face, and he was getting really bothered, and was snapping at her.

As he got more and more upset, he intensified the attacks. The souvlaki cart was basically a big portable steam table, full of steaming water to keep the ingredients warm. As he was putting the souvlaki together, he took one of the trays out of the steam table, put a great big wooden spoon into it, and started splashing the hot water on the old woman in between the various stages of assembling the souvlaki. It had no effect, and she kept on berating him.

At about the time he finished the customer ahead of me and began making my souvlaki, the old woman waddled off down the street. At this point he was clearly agitated – he kept looking down the street after her as she walked away, and instead of his usual practiced, steady hand at putting together this most perfect of sandwiches, he was sloppy and distracted, and I could see he was rushing to get it done. When he finished it, he threw it in my hands and quickly pocketed my money.

Then he grabbed the big wooden spoon and took off down the street after the old woman. When he reached her, about half a block up, he ran up from behind her with the spoon, and just hit her with it. It was brutal.

Nothing like a little needless street violence to sour a lunch.

It tell it like it’s a joke, but things like this are the reason I left New York, the reason I’d always wanted to leave New York.