8 Million Stories: From Wall Street to Main Street - or the Sidewalk

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:15

    The stock market is crashing, the sky is falling and the wheel of fortune keeps turning.

    Was the little morality play I got swept up in a couple months ago a reflection of the heightened economic tension in the city? Or just another iteration of the age-old war between the classes? I myself can relate to both the white collars and the blues. Back in the day, I did some time as a wage slave—most memorably in my hometown’s K-Mart—before becoming an office type after I graduated college.

    Since I left my full-time job a few years ago to write a novel, however, I’ve been making a hand-to-mouth living on the fringes of the magazine world. And given the dour financial situation—which is translating into fewer ad pages, slashed budgets and smaller staffs—I fear that, soon enough, I’ll no longer get enough writing assignments to survive and I’ll be forced to consider retail. Or phone sex.

    Not surprisingly, like so many other New Yorkers, I was fretting about money on Oct. 16. The Dow had taken another huge hit—losing 733 points in one of its worst days in history— and the full-time freelance gig I’d been doing was about to end. I didn’t have much else lined up. After checking the headlines one last time, I shut off my computer, left my cubicle and headed over to Ess-A-Bagel for a snack before an evening session with my shrink.

    As I ordered, I kibitzed with the baby-faced Bangladeshi man who works there. The talk was about our recent run-ins with the law: He’d gotten a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt while waiting for his wife outside a grocery store. I’d gotten a summons for riding my bike on the sidewalk in Bumblefudge, Brooklyn.

    I’d clearly been doing something wrong. My friend’s situation was a bit more Orwellian: He’d been innocently idling in his car when one traffic cop told him he couldn’t be parked in that particular spot; and it was as he was moving a few hundred feet forward at five miles per hour that a different cop pulled him over.

    We’d finished trading tales of woe and my friend had just popped a multi-grain carb-ring into the toaster for me when some young woman wandered in, mumbling into an iPhone. Though she was wearing casual clothes—Mick Jagger–inspired spandex and a hoodie—her shearling boots and monogrammed Vuitton purse made it clear she had dough. My friend asked if he could help her. She seemed somewhat irritated that he’d interrupted her call and even more put out by the tiresome task of actually having to communicate what she wanted. (The expression on her face as she looked at my friend seemed to say: When are you people going to learn to read minds?) But—good sport that she was—she managed to bark out some kind of barely discernible order regarding “salad” before returning to her very important conversation.

    My friend held up a small plastic container and pointed to it. “Do you mean something this size?” he said quietly. “Or on a sandwich? “I want a sal-ad!” the woman shouted, in a way that seemed to indicate she assumed he had trouble understanding English. He doesn’t. “With tuna!” “Oh, I see,” said my friend, polite as ever. “You want tuna salad on greens?” His attempt at clarification sent her over the edge. “You know what?” she said. “Forget it. Just forget it. I don’t have time for this.” And out the door she stormed.

    The whole thing went down so quickly— and I was so shocked by her unexpected torrent of rudeness—that I didn’t have time to tell her

    what I thought of her behavior. But as soon as I managed to shut my gaping jaw, I apologized to my friend on behalf of humanity. He brushed it off. Clearly, he’d seen that kind of thing before.

    The incident was still fresh in my mind the following evening as I headed off to a party at the Paris Review. I was supposed to meet a friend on the steps of the literary journal’s office, and I was running—or, rather, biking— late. At the intersection of Park and E. 19th, I pulled up to a red light, vaguely aware that another biker was on the other side of the street.

    When I stopped, my attention was drawn more sharply to him—a Latino delivery dude with a thermal food bag in his basket. An altercation was beginning on the opposite corner between him and an unnaturally tan guy in a navy Polo. There was a frat-boy arrogance about the prep as he grabbed the delivery dude’s handlebars and said, “Think you’re going to get away with that?” Though the delivery dude was more muscular, he backed away, hands up. He could’ve taken the prep easily, I thought, but was trying to avoid trouble.

    The prep shouted a few unattractive things and threw more shadow-punches—only because it was so clear the delivery-dude would never actually pummel him—before calling the cops to report that a biker had crashed into him. Upon hanging up, he announced smugly that the NYPD was on its way. “The poor guy’s just trying to make a living,” I shouted over to the prep. “I can’t just let it go. D’you see what he did to me?” “No,” I admitted. “But you don’t seem hurt. And I know he wasn’t going fast.” “But how many times am I supposed to let them get away this?” the prep asked.

    “’Them? There’s only one of him.” “Nah, but these guys’re always running people over.” He was slurring his words ever so slightly. “I can’t let ‘em get away with it.” The delivery dude, who did not seem to speak English, turned to me and put his hands together prayerfully. He was nodding his head like he agreed with what I was doing.

    I pressed on, asking the prep. “How many times have you let this guy get away with anything?”

    “Look,” the prep said, “I know where you’re coming from … But do you pay taxes in this city?” People who bring up taxes in the midst of any kind of street altercation always seem slightly deranged to me. “Of course I do,” I replied. “And I’d like it if the police whose salaries I theoretically contribute to concentrate on fighting criminals, rather than wasting time pestering some hard-working guy.” “Sorry, but no deal.”The prep shook his head. “They’ve got to learn a lesson.”

    We seemed to be at an impasse when an attractive man in a suit approached. “Hey buddy,” he said, addressing the prep. “You ever done anything you shouldn’t have done—like, I don’t know, jaywalking?” “Of course,” the prep said. “But come on.You know where I’m coming from.” “Have you been drinking tonight?” Mr. Suit continued.

    “Of course. But you know how it is.” Mr. Suit lifted the bottom flap of his jacket to reveal a shiny badge attached to his belt.Waving his hand like he was shooing a pigeon, he said to the prep, “Why don’t you be on your way?” The prep walked off, head held low, and Mr. Suit dismissed the delivery dude too. “Thank you!” I called out. He waved at me, and I biked off, pleased with myself.

    About three minutes later, I was biking down Broadway when a well-groomed young woman darted into the road without looking. “Watch out!” I screamed as I braked. It was no good: On impact, she was thrown to the pavement.

    “My goodness, I’m so sorry!” I circled back to her. “Are you OK?” Without answering me, she picked up her iPod—which must have prevented her from hearing my warning—and walked off with scraped palms and wounded dignity. She’d been in the wrong, technically, for crossing willy-nilly like she had. But in a city like New York, where the rules aren’t always reliably enforced and we so often have to make our own in order to survive, I couldn’t blame her. C