Self-parody good for New York's soul

March 26, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NEW YORK -- In the frosty, frantic rush-hour traffic at 42nd Street and Third Avenue, this guy's set up his permanent floating business operation, which is a card table full of jewelry and a sales pitch that pretends to glance over its shoulder.

"Freshly stolen from Bloomingdale's," the guy announces. He's got a spread of pearls in front of him, dozens of necklaces and bracelets and little pocketbooks, and a staccato delivery that punctures the jangly city noises and draws a crowd of tourists who have heard of such things happening in the big city and, by golly, here it is.

Five bucks apiece for any of the pearls, the guy says. Or two for $9. Or five for $20.

Or make him an offer.

"Freshly stolen from Bloomingdale's," he announces again. "I saw what they were charging. Made me mad. Had to steal some of it. Have your money ready."

It's a voice that never comes up for air, that depends on manic, nonstop chatter plus the understanding that there's a sliver of larceny in everybody's soul. Are we really buying hot merchandise here? Are are we really sneaking one past Bloomingdale's?

Nah. After all these years, even the rubes must know this city's street vendors are mostly hustling warehouse overload. They avoid the big prices with imitation goods, and with avoidance of store rents.

But, what's remarkable here on 42nd Street isn't the display, it's the delivery. It's an in-joke, where everybody's welcomed in. It's patter while pretending to worry about the cops. Freshly stolen, indeed. Bloomingdale's, indeed. By now, we know better. So the bargaining takes on a nouveau comic tone, and we all become role players in the funny business. We understand it's not hot stuff, but why let it get in the way of a good bargain?

On Madison Avenue, a burly street beggar holds out a paper cup. You see such things everywhere -- in this city, in Baltimore, and in the outstretched hands of the newly hustling poor in the places like Towson and Parkville and Essex. But the game's been played too long now in the big cities, so the pitch for money needs some refining.

On Madison Avenue, the guy with the cup, looking not even slightly destitute, says, "You got a hundred dollars?"

You find yourself laughing out loud, which is the intent. You don't give him a hundred dollars, or even a quarter, because you've grown wary of the requests for help by now. But that's the point. Times change. Americans are notorious for our short attention spans, and we've grown tired of the poor. They depress us, they frighten us. We suspect them. So the hip poor, sensing this, are now doing parodies of themselves: freshly stolen from Bloomingdale's; gimme a hundred bucks. What cards!

Inside Grand Central Station, once rimmed with homeless people, some of them sullen, some of them sadly addled, the only nontraveler seems to be a long-haired fellow playing a violin for handouts. On a Sunday morning, he's doing "Ave Maria." The inside of his violin case has been gifted with money.

"Thank you," says a man with a suitcase who drops in a few coins, "for the music, and for the sense of civility."

Outside the station, a couple of young guys with shoeshine kits have a pretty good riff going with passers-by. It's not just, "Shoeshine, mister?" It's an entire commentary on each man's sartorial shortcomings, which would be brightened by a spit shine -- all done good-naturedly, done in a comic, nonthreatening style. Come on, they seem to be saying, lighten up.

As New York is always years ahead of all other Eastern big cities, we wonder if this is some sort of wave of the future. This city seems to have lost some of its famous anger. The Daily News ran a poll the other day on the things that most annoy the local denizens. Crime, and the fear of it, didn't even make the top 10.

In fact, the city's murder, robbery and burglary rates dropped last year to their lowest levels in a quarter-century. Shooting and killing were down 30 percent, and auto theft dropped 25 percent.

In Baltimore, we haven't turned such corners. The homicide rate's still depressingly high, there's more heroin circulating than there was five years ago, and the sight of those asking for money on the street, once confined to the city, has now spread increasingly to the suburbs.

New York still has problems beyond the counting. But maybe, having spent so many years screaming, screeching, loudly lamenting all of its woes, it's learning to laugh at itself here and there. It's therapeutic. Baltimore, wintry in its soul, could learn a lesson from such things.

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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