The 42nd Street Hawker

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Author’s Note: This essay received honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. It was first published at magazine.nd.edu.

I have walked past Geoff nearly every day for a year.

After getting off the bus in Midtown Manhattan, I need to cut two avenues east and seven blocks north. I always choose the path that goes down 42nd Street that passes Geoff.

Forty-second Street at 9 a.m. is one of the black diamonds of New York terrain. Commuters and tourists alike unload from buses at Port Authority — the busiest bus terminal in the world — and mix like oil and water on the streets. They mostly move in one direction, streaming through the city’s concrete arteries towards Times Square, its thumping heart.

I hit my stride as I walk down 42nd, expertly swimming through the crowds, spying then slipping into open pockets of space. I pass a glorified McDonald’s with a glittering golden arch, breakfast lines spilling onto the sidewalk. Pop music blasts from the “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” museum and larger-than-life video screens compete with the morning sun.

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But as I approach the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, a single man’s voice soars above the drone of music, cars and construction.

“Haaaave a great Monday! Enjoy that job!”

It’s Geoff, standing there in his usual spot beside the 42nd Street subway entrance. He’s handing out AM New York, a free daily newspaper popular with commuters. Geoff is a hawker, stationed at this high-traffic location and paid to deliver the paper to anyone who walks by.

“Enjoy your work, young lady! Have a great morning on your job!”

Geoff is different from other hawkers, though. He’s never aggressive, never thrusts the paper at your face, and always tells you to have a good day.

Geoff puts his entire body into the greeting, first making eye contact, then smiling and bouncing on his feet before shaking his fist in a way that says go tackle that day.Sometimes, I wonder if he thinks his job is getting New Yorkers to smile.

“Happy hump day! Knock out your work!”

Geoff looks to be in his mid-forties. He wears a red vest and baseball cap and sets his eyeglasses perched precariously on his forehead. He’s never fazed by the swarms of people coming out of the subway or the pounding music from nearby tourist traps. For hours he yells over it all.

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Photo by HelveticaFanatic http://www.flickr.com/photos/helveticafanatic/

“Only eighteen hours till Friday! Come on, you know it. That’s all we got.”

The smiles Geoff gives often go unrequited. Once in a while, someone will emerge from the subway and greet him. How ya doin’, my man? How bout them Giants? But many ignore him — absorbed in phone conversations — or take a paper without saying anything at all.

Months after I started passing “the man who hands out the papers,” I finally asked his name. It was one morning in August when the clouds hung thickly overhead but the crowds on the street were thin. People anxiously gripped their umbrellas, prepared for the oncoming downpour. It seemed like the right time to approach him, but I felt nervous for some reason, nervous to go from just another young lady to an acquaintance.

He handed me the paper.

“Thanks,” I said. “Excuse me, what’s your name?”

“Geoff,” he replied, a slight questioning tone in his voice.

“Geoff, thanks for being so…” I didn’t immediately have words to describe what I was thanking him for, but he understood. He smiled and fist-bumped me. After a few moments I turned around and looked back through the bustling crowds, catching Geoff’s eye. He was still smiling and waving at me from 50 yards away.

The scene is so absurd. It’s 9 a.m. in New York City and thousands of people rush, straight faced, to wherever they need to be. And then there’s Geoff, relentlessly happy, sending sparks of enthusiasm to anyone who walks by. For the most part, those greetings fall short of passersby, evaporating quickly on the hot, hostile concrete. But every once in a while, someone turns and smiled.

One day, a little old man, no taller than five foot four, struggled to make his way east down 42nd Street. Surrounded by Times Square lights, this man’s life just seemed dim. Briefcases, heels and tourists in matching T-Shirts rushed by him — yet he and his wobbling cane seemed to exist alone in the crowd.

“Have a great day, young man!” Geoff called out from beneath the subway awning.“Have a great day!” The man didn’t look up. He didn’t react. He just kept pushing forward, step by step by step.

I waited to see if he would turn around. He was likely a veteran New Yorker who had long ago learned to ignore the white noise of hawkers.

New Yorkers like him don’t believe in acknowledging hawkers. Street salesmen are everywhere, calling the same things, blending into the drone of the city. Maybe he feared letting in one hawker meant letting in them all, and he was too old, too weak to fend off these intruders of personal space.

He never turned.

I wondered how many people like Geoff I pass each day, but disregard in my hurry — how many faces and voices get lost among the city’s sights and sounds.

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52 thoughts on “The 42nd Street Hawker

  1. Love the story. brings back memories of New Yorkers and it’s hawkers, gawkers and loud cell phone talkers. I head west across Eighth Ave in the teeth of wintery blasts off the Hudson that make you think some one put an ice pack on your chest where your tie used to be. I squint my eyes against the dust and spot Morahan’s Irish House. I never thought it would look so inviting at 7:30 in the morning but I settle for the run down deli and a get a watery coffee and a hard roll with strange tasting butter. Oh well maybe the guys will stop for a few after work. I’ll check out Sully and Conlon, yeah that’s what I’ll do I say to myself and burrow my chin deeper into my coat before heading off towards the above ground burrow known as 811 tenth Ave

  2. Papa – I always love your comments. I can definitely feel the wintry blasts coming off the Hudson!

    Especially love this part: “yeah that’s what I’ll do I say to myself and burrow my chin deeper into my coat before heading off towards the above ground burrow known as 811 tenth Ave.”

  3. Sara you and Clonbur both have such a beautiful and descriptive writing style. I always love your pieces Sara and then I check back to read Clonbur’s comments which are always great!
    Guess we know where you get it from!

  4. When you’re invisible to others, you do get used to it, in a way. But it still does sting.

    Your words paint a portrait of an every day occurrence that shines a spotlight on it and makes it special, something to pay attention to and think about. It would be interesting to interview a man like Geoff.

    Love the last line. Good stuff.

  5. Excellent descriptive prose. Street hawkers do lend a sort of seedy charm to NYC. Geoff, though, seems to have a positive moxie that, sadly enough, would probably be much more infectious just about anywhere else on the planet!

  6. They say you can stand on a street corner in busy New York and within an hour you will see someone you know. I tried it. I saw my reflection in the window of a store and that satisfied the statement.

  7. Thanks for sharing this essay. By reading through it I can undoubtedly say that you must be a very kind person. Also you do have a different view of looking at things around which is great.

  8. Awe this was beautiful! I felt like I was in the moment with you. My favorite part was when you were trying to tell him thank you, almost got me misty-eyed! Thank you for sharing this.

  9. That’s captures attitude around Times Square really well. I avoid being there whenever possible because of crowds and hawkers. It’s hard to see people on an individual level with all that bustling about. This is a great perspective for me to think about.

  10. “…a little old man, no taller than five foot four…” That height (about 163cm to use modern measurement) is what I used to be. Now, this 1940-vintage bloke has settled down to 160. I consume less of the planet’s resources. These tall guys and gals are nice enough people but they could have four sections of leg bones taken out and be like us normal, so-called little, people. The odd thing is that they think we norms are touchy about the subject.

  11. This reminds me of all of the reasons why I fell in love with the city. I miss the steady busy flow of people during rush hour and surprisingly the hot sticky feeling one gets as they wait underground for the 3 train at 96th street in the summer time. You’ve brought all of these memories back to me. Thank you.

  12. I enjoyed your essay but I dislike the AM New York guys. But then, I avoid Times Square whenever possible and almost punched a comedy show hawker in the face once. So maybe I’m not the best judge of charm.

  13. I have only been to New York twice in my life. I currently live in Alabama and reading this I am challenged even in a state where everyone is friendly with everyone, to keep my eyes up and my smile on. Loved it, great read!

  14. Reblogged this on microcapmovies and commented:
    Very Vivid Descriptive Writing. Just like the whole piece altogether. Like the afterthought as well. How Many people Can relate to that? It’s much easier to not elaborate on such oversight.

  15. Absolutely loved this… I’m going to be (FINALLY!) visiting New York early next year, and it’s this kind of stuff that I’m looking forward to experiencing : )

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