Making a Living in NY: Three Stories

Opportunity Makes a Thief

Thursday, January 31, 2013. Walking along Seventh Avenue at midday in Midtown Manhattan with my wife. In the next 45 minutes, I will learn a little more about how people earn a living; one way or another.

It is cold and blustery. The wind is at its nastiest, drying your skin to the point of irritation and cracking. We need to find a Starbucks to get out of the cold.

The street is busy and a young man appears on my left, offering me a CD. I take it, curious. He begins to walk with me. “This is our band. Say, where are you from?”


“Hey, let your friends know about us back in the Windy City. By the way, anything you can do to help the cause would be appreciated.”

Only after he says that do I realize that he is perhaps not even a musician, but even if he is, he is doing some version of what young men in Chicago did a few years ago when your car was stopped at a traffic light in the summertime. They carried squeegees, the kind that you use to get the dirt off your car windshield, and then they proceeded to do just that, quite uninvited, expecting that you would pay them something after they imposed this service.

I give the CD back. “Aw, hey man, I thought you were my brother by another mother!”

I laugh at the pitchman’s good-natured joke. I laugh because he is a few decades younger than I, which makes our literal “brotherhood” unlikely. Then, there is the fact that he is black and I’m white. In an instant he is gone, looking for another customer.

We find a Starbucks, get warm drinks, and grab a table. It is a small establishment, one manned by young baristas and filled with a youthful crowd. My back is to the counter. The door is only a few steps away on my left. Not a big place.

A slim, dishwater blonde young woman, early 30s, sits to my right, looking bored. She raises her voice and speaks toward the counter. “He’s taking your tip jar.” There is no reaction from anyone. She repeats it to the baristas: “He’s taking you tip jar.”

My wife saw only a little of what happened, but I ask her to tell me what she can: “A twenty-something man, tall and slender, walked in about a minute ago. He was standing off to the side of the counter, close to the transparent jar that held gratuities from the customers.”

Apparently, the thief wore a long, flowing coat and proceeded to do a few dance-like moves, including a pirouette. Just when people determined he was odd and started to ignore him — at the instant that the cashier moved away from her station, he grabbed the jar and bolted toward the door, which was only perhaps 15 feet away. By the time that the dishwater blonde female alerted the staff, the miscreant was through the exit.

The small number of employees are heard talking behind me. “What happened?” says one. “A guy took our tips,” responds another. “How much was there?” “I think I saw about $18 in bills plus some change.” More muttering. Business is back to usual almost immediately. The customers drink and the baristas serve.

Freeze the tape. Stop reading for a moment and think about what I’ve just told you. Imagine that you are a customer in the coffee shop.


I just wanted you to envision the scene as if you were there and discover whether any thoughts or feelings came to mind. They did to at least one person in the establishment. Back to the story.

On my left is a middle-aged couple. Social status is impossible to determine with everyone so bundled-up. The couple is talking quietly for a few minutes after the crime. The male has anonymous facial features, the kind of person who, when you see him in a crowd, the crowd stands out. The kind of person whose visage would be impossible to recall even if you spent 20 minutes in his presence. The kind of person who is known only by what he does and says, not by appearances.

The gentleman stands, goes to the cash register, and gets the attention of the woman who seems to be in charge.

“How much did you lose?

“I don’t know.”

“Well, here’s $20. Be sure you put it in a safe place.”

I turn to see the moon-faced manager smiling as she takes the bill and says, “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.”

The man sits back down and resumes his conversation, intent on finishing his drink.

I lean over and turn toward him: “That was nice of you. Why did you do it?”

“Hey, they don’t make that much money here and I can spare it. They probably can’t afford the drinks they serve without a discount. No big deal. When I’m dying, I won’t be kicking myself and thinking, ‘Boy, I wish I had that $20 back.'”

My wife and I leave to resume our walk.

Within a couple of blocks we spy a dark-haired man in his early 20s. He seems oblivious to the cold or perhaps is so numb he no longer cares. I’m thinking that he is used to being in the street, perhaps homeless. Wrong He sports a cardboard sign: “Need money for weed.”

In another block we pass someone who is a good deal older, a white-bearded, scruffy looking guy whose sign reads a bit differently: “Need money for pot, pizza, or beer.”

“Well, at least he is giving us a choice of which cause to support,” I say to my wife. “I guess he has more experience in this sort of thing than the younger guy.”

What does it cost to live in NYC? According to the Living Wage Project, in 2012 you needed to make at least $11.86 per hour in order to survive in Manhattan, though the minimum wage is $7.25. My guess is you didn’t live very well (or alone) on your $11.86, because the Center for an Urban Future reported in 2009 that a person who made $60,000 per year in the Big Apple was living the equivalent level of prosperity that attached to a wage of $26,092 in Atlanta. An annual salary of $123,322 got you the standard of living of someone earning $50,000 in Houston.

Baristas, street people, a pitchman and a thief, all trying to make a buck or take a buck. And one man who had a buck and tried to help. A man of forgettable appearance who you will remember.

The top painting is the 1896 painting Opportunity Makes a Thief by Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau. The second image is the work of Murdertogo. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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