Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 24, 2006

Getting under a Timesman’s skin

Filed under: media,racism — louisproyect @ 4:04 pm

NY Times, June 24, 2006

About New York Squeegee Men, Still Around, Still Relentless

By DAN BARRY (in photo to the right)

THE intersection of West 41st Street and Dyer Avenue ranks among the least attractive corners of Manhattan, all bus exhaust and Lincoln Tunnel traffic. The surrounding concrete-and-fencing motif creates a sense of temporary incarceration, with only a sluggish green light to grant parole.

Lingering there Thursday were those simply trying to make a buck. The forklift operator unloading watermelon with balletic turns at the back of Stiles Farmers Market. The construction worker dabbing his trowel like a paintbrush on a canvas of wet cement. And the two men wielding a different kind of utensil with similar aesthetic intent: a squeegee.

“There’s an art to it,” one of the men, Rodney, confided as a green light liberated potential customers. “The faster you are wiping the soap and water off the window, the gooder you are. The fastest can get two or three a light.”

He and his partner, Timothy, referred to themselves as window washers, which might offend those who risk their lives for the viewing pleasure of penthouse dwellers. They both claimed to have been practicing their craft since 1980, which, if true, would entitle them to some kind of squeegee pension, if not a city proclamation for audacious endurance.

Squeegee men? How, how, so last century. It was as if they were unaware of their own extinction: a dodo’s fate that began more than a decade ago with the eradication efforts of an annoyed Mayor David N. Dinkins and then a zealous Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who somehow made them the symbol of a city slouching toward ruin.

Few recall them fondly (squeegee men, that is, not necessarily former mayors). At red lights they violated the space of your Ford or Toyota, slapped gray water on the windshield, interpreted frantic pantomimes of “No, no” to mean “More, more,” wiped away most of the gray and then waited for the pressed buttons of undefined guilt to eject a dollar through a side window’s slit.

They were the city’s unofficial greeters, standing at its portals with squeegees for flags and buckets of dirty water for confetti — until, suddenly, they vanished, dispersed by persistent policing of what the city’s administrative code calls “certain forms of aggressive solicitation.” One or two practitioners resurfaced a few years ago, just long enough to stir some silliness that their presence signaled a crime spike, a lax City Hall, Armageddon.

Amazement, then, rather than nostalgia, prompted a noontime pause to watch Rodney and Timothy in the execution of their rounds. Their retro street theater included acts of traffic-dodging contortion, clownish spills of water and facial expressions that ranged from puppy dog to attack dog.

“We don’t rob, we don’t steal, we don’t sell narcotics,” said Timothy, a sleepy-eyed reed of a man wearing a Yankees jersey. “We wash windows.”

The light turned red and he hustled out to splash soapy-soupy water onto the windshield of a cherry-red sport utility vehicle. His efforts prompted a series of crazed hand gestures within the car that perhaps he interpreted as applause.

Moments later there came fluttering from a side window a small flag of surrender the color of green.

Then Rodney, as brawny as Timothy is thin, took his turn with a gray Honda, only to come away with a sulk suggesting that the driver had failed humankind. “If they say no, don’t do it,” he advised. “You know what? There’s more than one car.”

Soon a white S.U.V. with New Jersey plates found itself being blessed with New York water by Pastor Rodney. “A buck for good luck,” he said, smiling, as the driver pulled away, not.

Rodney and Timothy both reeked of something potent, perhaps an especially bad batch of Old Spice. Now Timothy, swaying slightly, was standing in the middle of Dyer Avenue, directing the traffic that raced desperately to avoid a red light and thus his squeegee.

A blue Grand Cherokee lost the race, and Timothy tried to soothe it with strokes of his slobbering squeegee. The driver, though, wanted no part of Timothy’s cheap comfort and told him so with gesture and word.

“Come on, man,” Timothy shouted, his sleepy eyes awakening with anger.

Soon, though, he was washing another car’s window, oblivious to the green light and the sounding of horns. That was when Rodney ran over to help finish the job. “That’s called teamwork,” said Rodney.

For each window sullied and unsullied, these squeegee throwbacks received one dollar: way too much and yet not enough, it is a toll collected at the intersection.

Email: dabarry@nytimes.com

After reading this, I wrote to Dan Barry:

“Those squeegee guys don’t stink half as bad as your American Psycho/yuppie prose.”

Dan Barry’s reply (apologies for his illiterate lower-case):

wow. i bet you spent all morning coming up with this: nonsensical, with a touch of aggression, and reflective of your failure to read the piece to the end.

all in 14 words.

if you have a cogent point to make, i’ll respond more seriously.

My response:

“Go see the documentary on Giuliani.”

His reply (he must have figured out where the shift key was on his computer keyboard):

Go read the reams of stories I wrote about Giuliani as City Hall bureau chief. Some of them probably helped to inform the foundation for the movie — especially anything about his lousy relations with black leaders in this city. Then go read the many columns I have written about the homeless, the chronically inebriated, the disenfranchised. Then go read my memoir if you’re not yet tired, and find out why “yuppie” is a kneejerk and thoroughly wrong thing to call me.

Enough. Hang in there. Take care.

My final response:

Odd, I couldn’t find anything in the documentary that sounded remotely like this:

The New York Times, October 14, 1998, Wednesday, Late Edition – Final

Day of Adulation in Life of a Dues-Paying Mayor


He began yesterday by reading a children’s book about his homeric mayoral stamina to a cluster of adoring schoolchildren in Manhattan, then ended it by attending the New York Yankees playoff game in the Bronx. But in between, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani managed to make a 90-mile side trip — not to one of the city’s other three boroughs, but to Bethlehem, Pa., a tired steel city in the Lehigh Valley.

The out-of-state stop was purely political in design, a concept not reflected in “A Day in the Life of a Mayor,” the inspirational book that Mr. Giuliani had shared with youngsters shortly before leaving New York City. On this day, a more apt title to the book might have been: “A Day in the Life of a Term-Limited Mayor Currying Favor With Party Bigwigs.”

Then again, a certain innocent appeal would have been lost.

As the Bethlehem Catholic High School band played “Soul Man,” Mr. Giuliani passed under an arc of balloons to speak at a get-out-the-vote rally for local Republicans. Only about 100 people came to a 283-seat hall at Lehigh University for the event, leaving plenty of empty chairs for party loyalists to place their campaign placards. Still, those who did attend gave the guest speaker from New York City a standing ovation, as he once again explained how Republican philosophies had helped him to reduce crime and restore hope.

The visit was Mr. Giuliani’s third out-of-state political trip in as many weeks, the others being to Miami and to Los Angeles; he has also recently traveled to Iowa, South Carolina and Wisconsin, as well as Buffalo. His wanderings serve three purposes: to help fellow Republicans, to try to persuade Republican officials to choose New York City as the host city for the party’s national convention in 2000, and to raise his national profile as he considers his own political future.

But woe unto those who question whether these travels might distract the Mayor from his municipal responsibilities.

“When I’m there I work 24 hours a day,” Mr. Giuliani said, after his speech in Bethlehem yesterday afternoon. “I think my work week has gone from 90 hours a week to 85. I don’t think there’s any risk that the people of New York City are going to worry about how hard I’m working. You go find anyone who works as hard as I do and introduce them to me.”

His comments could have been lifted from the text of “A Day in the Life of a Mayor,” a recent addition to “The Kids’ Career Library Series” that was written by Liza N. Burby. Other books in the series recount the days in the lives of a park ranger, a professional golfer and a sculptor; but the publication of those titles probably did not receive quite as much promotion.

Squeezing himself into a child-sized desk at Public School 234, on Greenwich Avenue between Warren and Chambers Streets, the Mayor turned to a bank of television cameras and about 25 children to begin the reading. He wore a microphone on his lapel, while an aide stood at the ready with a second microphone, just in case one of the children said something cute enough to be captured for posterity.

The book details some of the demands of a particularly difficult job. It describes Mr. Giuliani as waking up each day at 6 A.M., working through lunch, rushing to disasters, finding little time to himself. “During emergencies, the Mayor makes decisions and tries to calm the people of the city,” the book says.

At times, however, it reads like a plea for Mr. Giuliani’s beatification, or at least like a campaign brochure in the disguise of a primer. He is praised for broadcasting his own weekly radio program (“Even though he’s very busy, Mayor Giuliani makes time to do the show.”), even for holding basic staff meetings (“After all, he can’t be everywhere all the time — even though he’d like to be! These meetings help Mayor Giuliani solve problems quickly and effectively ih-FEK-tiv-lee “).

“Mayor Giuliani won two four-year terms,” it says toward the end. “In that time, he has worked hard to cut crime and create new jobs. He loves being Mayor and that he is able to make a difference in people’s lives.”

After finishing his reading, Mr. Giuliani asked whether any of the students would like to be mayor of the city one day. “It’s too much work,” one child answered. “You have to take care of everybody.”

With that validation, the Mayor rushed off to catch a privately chartered jet, provided by Pennsylvania Republicans, to Bethlehem. Awaiting him there was a small but enthusiastic crowd, eager to hear about his urban heroics.

“We’d been looking for a high-profile Republican to come down,” said Mike Crochunis, a spokesman for Pennsylvania’s Republican state committee. “He’s kind of like the Republican who has made Republican principles work in the biggest city in the country.”

With that sort of praise ringing in his ears, Mr. Giuliani headed back to New York City for the rest of a day in the life of this Mayor.

UPDATE (Sent to Barry and the NY Times editor)

Dear Mr. Barry,

I found your anthropological observations on “Pastor Rodney” and “toll” collection at intersections neither clever nor insightful; just smug, supercilious and deeply contemptuous of folks who make more honest a living than some columnists churning out meaningless drivel for a self-absorbed audience.

I don’t live in New York, but coming from New Delhi, where armies of women and children with dirty rags descend upon the motorists at every intersection, I am well aware of what you are talking about. If you are bothered by smelly people forcibly collecting money for unwanted services, you are better off training your guns at the US state using its military might to divert our money to large corporations through this hugely unpopular war. You have far more odious people there, extracting far more money with far graver consequences.

-Shalini Gera Hayward, CA

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