Invasion of the Squeegee Guys? Not Quite

Alert the townspeople — the squeegee guys are back!

According to a recent NY Post story, squeegee men are now “terrorizing” the streets of New York City. The article implied that the bad old days may have returned to town, when miscreants roamed our streets. So far, a grand total of three squeegee guys were documented by the Post, so I’m not going into panic mode just yet.

But yes, it did bring back distant memories, when an innocent young Brooklyn lad with his first car drove into the big bad city, and a smiling squeegee guy approached and offered to clean his windshield.

Alright, my windshield.

I grinned back and said “no thanks,” but he cleaned it anyway — if your definition of “cleaned” is smearing it with a filthy rag. Still smiling, he came over and requested a tip. When I politely refused, he smashed his squeegee down with fury, denting my hood.

Ah yes, the good old days!

Now there is the suggestion that those dreaded times may be back. The truth is, these guys will be gone before you finish this sentence. If you think NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton will let even one New Yorker (beside a headline writer) think the city is back to the bad old days under his watch, you don’t know Bill Bratton.

Talking on “CBS This Morning” recently, Bratton calmly said no, we’re not being overrun, and that the handful of “squeegee pests” will be “taken care of very, very quickly.”

Bratton, who is in his second tour as commissioner, is well aware that the specter of a squeegee army is symbolic, meant to frighten you into thinking you will soon be unable to navigate your way around the city without being accosted by creeps.

But while that may seem an absurd thought in tranquil 2014 NYC, don’t laugh too loudly. Those who were here in the early 1990s or before still remember a time when muggings were rampant, when you’d tape signs on the back window of your parked car pleading “No radio, no valuables.”

Now we are in a newer, brighter day, and I don’t think we have to worry about returning to the dark side of New York just yet.

But if you see Spider-Man wielding a squeegee, all bets are off.

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Gentrification and Untaxed Loosies Prove Deadly Combo

Gentrification can be lethal.

The Tomkinsville section of Staten Island, walking distance from the S.I. Ferry and bordering on the up-and-coming neighborhood of St. George, is where Eric Garner died. His crime was selling untaxed single cigarettes. But why were cops really there that day?

The area was given an extensive write-up in The New York Times real estate section in June that began, “In praise of St. George, a historic neighborhood on Staten Island that gazes on New York Harbor . . .” The neighborhood will soon undergo an extensive “reinvention,” including a huge Ferris wheel, mall, restaurants, theater, housing and a hotel.

This gentrification push came to mind when I read about the order to crack down on untaxed cigarette sales on the Bay Street block where the Garner confrontation occurred on July 17 in front of a beauty supply store. I am familiar with that block, sometimes being invited to play guitar at the cafe right beside the beauty shop.

Although the neighborhood isn’t yet what you’d call gentrified, it’s getting there. And when the Daily News reported last week that the order to crack down on “loosie” sales on Bay Street came from high up in police headquarters, I wasn’t surprised — there are often fights on that block.

An early step in gentrification is addressing quality-of-life issues. The broken-windows theory of policing — going after small offenses to ensure a sense of order and prevent more serious crime — has drawn both support and condemnation. While still being debated, there is evidence the practice has done its part to make New York City a safer place. The issue is not whether the strategy is effective, but how it’s implemented. A petty crime such as selling loose cigarettes obviously could have been dealt with in scores of nonlethal ways.

Gentrification is another issue that is neither black nor white, but gray. It all depends on how it is handled. And in the neighborhoods around the Staten Island Ferry terminal, the jury is still out, to say the least.

“Along the water sits the gated Bay Street Landing complex, a former shipping area that began conversion in the 1980s,” continues the Times spiel, as the area’s gentrification efforts gather speed.

But at what price?

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Did the Underground Economy Put Eric Garner Underground?

The woman is about 40 years old, and walks five dogs. Makes over $100 a day off the books. I asked her if she was ever hassled by the police. She looked confused by the question. “Never,” she answered.

Eric Garner was selling “loosies”__single cigarettes. Not paying taxes. When the police came to get him, he resisted__verbally.  His last words before “I can’t breathe” were “I’m minding my business, officer. Please leave me alone.”

The underground economy has grown tremendously since the economic collapse of 2008. Dog walkers. Day laborers. Stoop sale hosts. Those who hawk cold water on sweltering NYC streets.  And yes, those who sell illegal “loosies.”

While unemployment numbers are gradually improving, economists estimate that 18-19% of income nationwide is still unreported (about $2 trillion dollars annually).

Let’s face it, most of us know someone who is currently working off the books. If they started arresting everyone who was paid in cash, the jails would be overflowing within a week.

That’s what Eric Garner was__a member of the underground economy. And when the cops came by, Garner, a former Parks Department horticulturalist, asked them to just leave him alone.

“He always felt he was being targeted and harassed by officers arresting him on no basis,” his former Legal Aid attorney Christopher Pisciotta told NY1.

Garner died horribly after being put in a chokehold. But those who blame all police for the actions of a few are doing no one any favors. The problem goes deeper than that. An economy where not only jobs, but business addresses, are shipped overseas, as major corporations move their headquarters across the ocean to avoid paying billions in taxes. A Congress that belittles those out of work or on unemployment as shiftless bums. A society that clamps down on street vendors while putting no regulations on bankers who stole trillions of dollars from our economy.

Meanwhile, those selling water, food and yes, loose cigarettes on the street are regularly hassled, while the well-to-do hire maids and nannies and illegally pay them in cash, without fear of arrest.

Mayor de Blasio, Police Commissioner Bratton and Al Sharpton had a high profile meeting last week to discuss ways to avoid future Eric Garner-type situations,  with retraining of police and other noble suggestions offered.

But when this will really end?

The first time a cop puts a chokehold on a protesting middle class dog walker__or a crooked banker.

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What’s Scarier Than a Shark? A Skeeter

A monster storm unleashes nature’s deadliest killer on New York City!

Nope, that’s not the weather forecast, it’s the premise of the movie Sharknado 2,  which debuts this week on Syfy. Sharks are always good for a scare or three. It’s no accident that Jaws is one of the most popular — and scariest — movies of all time.

Three great white sharks were caught off NYC in a one week span last month, starting our summer off with a frightening DAH-dah, DAH-dah . . .

But the truth is that sharks are not nature’s deadliest killer — not even close. They only killed about a dozen people last year worldwide, putting them way down the list of the world’s deadliest animals.

So what is the world’s worst people killer? Did someone say other humans? Nope, we’re only second worst.

The mosquito.

Don’t laugh. Mosquitoes carry lethal diseases, with malaria being the most prevalent. It kills more than half a million people each year.

But do these deadly insects have the fear factor of sharks? Ha!

“Considering their impact, you might expect mosquitoes to get more attention than they do,” Bill Gates said in April, when he tried to create a buzz with a “Mosquito Week” alert on his blog. But it was no match for Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” annual scarefest.

Although most deaths from mosquitoes happen in impoverished nations, the United States isn’t totally spared. In 2013, the mosquito-borne West Nile virus was responsible for 119 deaths here — 117 more than were caused by sharks.

But people are always afraid of the wrong things, aren’t they? For example, many people are terrified of flying, relaxing only after they land — when they are statistically in greater danger on the car ride home.

So how do we get people to pay attention to the real dangers facing them, in this case from mosquitoes?

Gates has suggested a movie titled “Skeeternado,” to alert people to the menace posed by the buggers.

So if you’re down at the beach this weekend and see that telltale shark fin jutting out of the ocean, relax — it poses little danger.

But when a mosquito buzzes by? That may be another story. So forget the sharks. Get the swat team!

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Mindless Newsman Ambushes Topless Woman in Bryant Park

The caressing sun breaking through the clouds, soft piano music in the background, and a gaggle of topless women reading in the grass. I love New York!

The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society visited Bryant Park last Wednesday, behind the New York Public Library. After members removed their tops, they whipped out a variety of reading material, from a novel called “Brainquake” by the film director Samuel Fuller to “The Getaway Car” by crime writer Donald E. Westlake.

Most New Yorkers took the group’s visit in stride. A scattering of businessmen on lunch break took surreptitious photos and videos. A couple of teenage boys strolling by did double takes, also snapping some photos on their iPhones, then quickened their stride out of the park, obviously eager to get home and crack open a book.

I asked co-founder Alethea Andrews how the topless reading group came about. “Four summers ago, a friend and I were talking about the fact that it’s legal for women in New York to go topless anywhere a man can,” she said, soaking in the rays, “but you never saw women exercising that right. We formed a group because there’s safety in numbers, and made a book club out of it.”

Since then, the group has had more than 100 women join them for such events. Wednesday’s gathering included a bartender and a computer scientist.

The tranquillity of the afternoon was temporarily disturbed when Fox News reporter Jesse Watters showed up with a cameraman. You’d think he’d pursue the reading or freedom angle. Instead the smirking reporter started grilling one of the women on the Middle East. Maybe the rubes who’d watch this ambush on Fox would slap their thighs and chortle, but to the sunbathers and other sophisticated New Yorkers on the scene, Watters was the one who appeared clueless.

Andrews and her merry band shrugged it off. “This group is really about equal rights,” she told me. “When it’s 90 degrees out, it’s simply more comfortable not to have a sweaty shirt on — never mind a shirt and bra. People who treat women’s breasts as somehow more scandalous than men’s are being foolish.”

Sounds right to me.

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Loose Manhole Cover Makes New Yorker Flip Lid

Ca-CLANK!

The loose manhole cover right outside Ron’s bedroom window on Central Park West was driving him nuts. He called Con Edison, but was given the runaround for weeks. He tossed and turned night after night, showing up for work in shambles.

Ca-CLANK!

“These ill-fitting covers are made on the cheap in India,” Ron said. He kept trying Con Ed, to no avail. Finally, he took matters into his own hands.

In the wee hours, Ron decided to do his own repairs. He slipped out and stuffed wood wedges into the manhole cover gaps, then went back to his apartment. Success! He slept for the first time in ages. But soon after . . .

Ca-CLANK!

“The filling fell through,” he told me. “It only lasted a day.”

Again, Ron went to his job exhausted. “After a few more sleepless nights, I guess I just snapped,” he admitted. At 3 a.m. he dressed himself all in black, tiptoed out of his apartment and into the street. When the coast was clear, Ron began gluing the manhole shut. Suddenly the headlights of two police cars blinded him. “Put your hands in the air — now!” the cops demanded. As they approached, Ron could see they had their hands on their holsters.

“Let me see some ID!”

Ron suddenly realized they might think he was a terrorist — that they could have easily shot him. He pleaded his case. They huddled, and to his eternal gratitude, the officers let him off with a stern warning.

“Maybe one of them had the same experience,” Ron guessed.

It’s possible. This isn’t the first time a faulty manhole cover has caused chaos. Last month a loose cover in the Bronx was dislodged by a passing car and flew into the air, killing a trucker.

Ron was determined to solve this problem. He kept badgering Con Edison, until weeks later, it finally sent a representative to view the offending cover.

Ca-CLANK!

“You’ve got a point here,” he grudgingly admitted to Ron. Soon after, Con Edison sent down a crew fixed the cover.

Ron slept through the night for the first time in months, frightened by how far he had gone, but pleased with the result.

“One lid at a time,” Ron concluded.

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Nice Meeting You, But I’ve Got to Run

Not long ago, a beautiful redhead moved in down the hall from me. My joy was tempered when, a few days later, a sharp-dressed guy entered the apartment. Her significant other?

About a month later, an older couple fumbled with the keys at the same door, chatting in French.

Wait a minute . . .

Airbnb! The service allows New Yorkers and others to rent their apartments to visitors when they’ll be out of town for short periods of time. Someone in my building was utilizing the service on a regular basis.

The company has grown dramatically, and last week emerged as a sponsor of the New York City Marathon, which attracts runners from all over the world.

Airbnb emailed its users, saying “We know Airbnb hosts will open their doors and welcome runners who can’t wait to have an authentic New York experience.”

One authentic New York experience Airbnb is having is agita. The hotel industry has strongly criticized the New York Road Runners Club for partnering with Airbnb, and the state has been looking into whether the service violates tax provisions and rules against unregulated hotels.

State law prohibits absentee owners or renters of multi-unit buildings from renting their places for less than 30 days.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Airbnb recently agreed on host information, protecting the rights of renters who are not violating the law while “pursuing anyone running illegal hotels,” says the attorney general.

“It’s important to realize that 90 percent of our hosts have only one listing and it’s the home they live in,” David Hantman, a spokesman for Airbnb, told The New York Times.

Yes, a personal, social networking type, sharing community. Not corporate at all. Kind of like Facebook used to be. Hmm . . .

So as we cheer the marathon runners in November, understand that at least some of them will be renting homes from your neighbors. I appreciate making some cash on my apartment when I’m away, but am afraid of coming back to find the place trashed. And I don’t want a parade of transients down the hall either.

Wait a minute — two gorgeous Scandinavian women hauling suitcases just got off on my floor. Never mind.

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This Fourth, Remember: This Land IS Your Land

When you think of the 4th of July, what comes to mind? Firecrackers? Beaches? Barbecues?

Here’s a corny word we sophisticated New Yorkers shy away from: Freedom.

We hear so much misuse of the term from phony patriots that it sometimes turns us off. But don’t let the charlatans steal the meaning of July Fourth from us.

Freedom! Say it loud. How are you celebrating it this weekend? Maybe you’re headed to Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island to watch Joey Chestnut go for his eighth straight win and try to smash his hot dog-eating contest record of 69 franks.

Or maybe you’re heading out to the ballpark. I don’t know if you’re a Yankees or Mets fan, but one thing I do know — you’ll likely be cheering your lungs out for an Asian or Hispanic immigrant. The Great American Pastime is now dominated by foreign-born players, and baseball is all the better for it.

Because in New York, we don’t put down immigrants, or parading gays, or any version of “the other.” We cheer them. We ride the subways with them. We are related to them. We are them. America has always taken pride in being the great melting pot, and we are proud that our beloved city is the resulting, tasty stew.

And not to be a wet blanket, but why not take just a moment during your picnic or barbecue and think about freedom and the threat to it. The freedom to practice your religion in peace, or not at all. The freedom to marry your girlfriend or boyfriend, no matter what your sexual orientation. The freedom to have children, or not; and to choose when, if and how. And the freedom to tell those who would have the government withhold those rights how truly un-American they are and to back off.

So whether you’re at the beach, watching the Macy’s fireworks display on the East River or just relaxing at home, take a moment to think about what this holiday really means, and the dream of freedom our visionary Founding Fathers fought for. Let’s keep fighting that good fight. Because despite what you might hear to the contrary, this land is very much your land.

So Happy Fourth!

(updated from an earlier blog)

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Go-Go NYC Now Slo-Mo

Slow down!

Yes, I’m talking to you, speed demon, whipping down our streets at 28 mph. Sure, other cars are passing you like you’re standing still, but now NYC streets will be subject to a new law initiated by Mayor de Blasio and approved last week by state lawmakers that lowers the city speed limit from 30 to 25 mph, if Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs it as expected.

As a lifetime New Yorker, I’ve flipped the bird to more speeding lunatics than I can count on the other nine fingers, as they recklessly race down our streets to make a light and burn rubber turning the corner (why do they always seem to have Jersey plates?). I’m absolutely in favor of anything that lessens the danger of New Yorkers being run down by these maniacs.

That said, is 25 mph a realistic limit for every city street? For example, does the mayor truly expect to see drivers crawling down Brooklyn’s expansive Ocean Parkway at that turtle’s pace? As a Brooklyn guy, de Blasio must know that’s a bit unrealistic. So what can we really expect?

More money in the city’s coffers, that’s what! The city has been using new speed cameras to nab drivers exceeding the limit (imagine when it officially drops to 25), and police have been issuing jaywalking tickets at a record pace.

The mayor seems quite earnest about this push for pedestrian safety, and that’s commendable.

From the start of his administration, de Blasio emphasized his Vision Zero proposal designed to bring safety to our streets. Then he was (d’oh!) videoed jaywalking in Brooklyn and his SUV was taped speeding and ignoring stop signs soon after he announced his grand plan.

But that’s old news, and with this latest success, the mayor has accelerated his quest to reduce the number of city pedestrian fatalities (176 in 2013) “literally to zero” in 10 years.

Of course, by now de Blasio has learned that the best way to lead is by example.

So the next time our habitually tardy mayor is late for an appointment and tells his driver to step on it, I’m sure he’ll catch himself and chuckle. “Did I say gun it? Of course, I meant slow down.”

Yep, I’m absolutely certain of that.

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Just Another Day on the NYC Subway

As the F train rumbled through Brooklyn, a tall man practiced his ballet, pirouetting and jete-ing throughout the half-empty car. A couple of rough-looking guys sat down the aisle, and I feared for this would-be Baryshnikov, but they couldn’t care less. Dressed all in black, the dancer lifted his toe almost to the ceiling without losing his balance, even as the train lurched around the bend.

The man whirled off the train at Jay Street, as I dashed across the platform for the A, which filled to capacity as we wended our way through lower Manhattan.

I sat beside a young woman deep into reading The New York Times online. The train stalled at the 42nd Street station with the familiar “We should be moving shortly” refrain wafting from the speaker. Although the humidity was uncomfortably high, people remained calm.

Suddenly, the power shut off and the train plunged into darkness. The words over the speaker were now more ominous: a “police action” investigating “someone down on the track” at the 59th Street station. The young woman’s demeanor quickly changed, eyes opened wide in fear. She bolted from her seat, proclaiming, “I have to get off this train!”

A man tried to joke with her and lighten the mood, but she was having none of it. She wove her way to the doors and pounded frantically on the glass.

“I need to get out!” she screamed.

Panic attacks are terrifying, and this was the last place someone prone to them needed to be. Other riders spoke softly to the frantic woman, and after another 10 minutes or so the lights and air conditioning came back on, and she gradually relaxed.

But is there any other city in America where every rider except the poor, claustrophobic young woman would remain so calm in this situation, packed tightly in darkness with no air conditioning in drenching humidity?

When the train moved again, people started talking to one another, as New Yorkers tend to do in such circumstances. I told my new friend, Jeremiah, the guy who tried to joke with the woman, how remarkable it was that everyone stayed so cool.

“Hey, just another day on the subway,” he smiled.

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