L Train Hustlers: The MVPs of New York’s Underground
In spring of 1991, a ban on begging in the New York subway system was upheld after senior Federal appeals Judge Frank Altimari ruled “whether intended as so, or not, begging in the subway often amounts to nothing less than assault,” anyone who ventures onto the trains during peak hours or late night knows there are a cast of characters waiting for you. Home to New York City’s mobile runway, the L train is in no short supply of maniacal street preachers, accidental molestation, senior citizens eating hot mayonnaise sandwiches in your face and high schoolers diligently pushing their Welch’s Fruit Snacks while b-boys backflip within an inch of your face. However, even within this subterranean ride there are a golden few that manage to rise above the rest:
Two Arms, One Hand
Entering from the platform between train cars, you hear the jingling of his collection from a Frankenstein beggars’ cup, a construction of plastic Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s remains and packing tape. He clutches the cup close to his chest with his large brown hand, sweat stains visible on his faded royal blue United Way t-shirt. He makes his way down the aisle, transfixed bulging bloodshot eyes and manila colored crusted lips working in unison to produce the humming of a barely recognizable Negro spiritual. Locked in a strange rhythmic scooting motion, he never leans over to offer his cup at a comfortable distance to suggest it’s your turn to give.
The Girl That Pukes
From the corner of my right eye, I see her head hung over, jerking in time with the car. There’s one continuous string of saliva snaking into a bag of green grapes resting her lap. The train makes a sharp stop in the tunnel between Montrose and Morgan, forcing her forward. She lurches herself awake and manages to pull her arthritic spine up by the overhead bar. “Sorry to bother you guys, but I need seventy-five dollars to rent a room this month, so I can stay off the streets,” she slurs, before holding the bag of grapes closer, gagging deep from within her throat. She wipes her mouth off before adjusting Coke bottle glasses covered in forehead grease and splatters of spit.
The Angry Street Kid
The sound of an old nylon gym bag being thrown against a metal pole announces his arrival. I look up to see a pouty-lipped boy in his early twenties, stomping by my seat in a pair of rotting Air Force Ones. He’s good looking and reminds me of the semi-homeless skaters in Tompkins during the summer. “I need six dollars and forty-three cents for allergy medicine. I have a dollar twenty-five. I’m clean, I don’t do heroin!” The crowd is less sympathetic because of his aggressive approach. Most passengers avoid eye contact. “See man this is why I hate this fucking city! You can’t even spare a little fucking change.” Pulling at the mop of greasy brown hair, he rolls up his sleeves to reveal the track marks he’d been hiding a minute prior. At this point, a young blonde clutching a Whole Foods bag holds her hand out, gesturing him over with two dollars. “Thank you Miss,” he says. “The rest of these assholes are fucking pricks.”
Gypsy with a Baby
She lifts up her shirt, attaching an infant’s mouth to her exposed breast before unfolding a crumpled piece of cardboard that reads: “Please Help. No Food. No Money. No Job.” She reiterates the sign in broken English, with an accent that conjures up visions of the Eastern Bloc and Tatiana Romanova in From Russia with Love. At first glance she seems like a Park Slope mom who got on the wrong train, dressed in flared yoga pants, blousy top and flip flops, complete with a front baby carrier. She pinballs down the aisle, bumping into passengers while trying to collect a few dollars. I look down to see her French pedicure before she exits at the next stop.
Princess of Bushwick