The economic downturn is shaking up the rabble just south of Times Square. I was walking along Eighth Avenue, and a man leaped at me some fifteen feet from the edge of the sidewalk, grabbing my forearm. There had been a guy who almost tore the lapel off my wool coat last winter. But somehow the man today was more desperate. More determined to seize another’s attention. More compelled to invade personal space. Wanting to survive, needing to matter, bowling alone.

I chatted with a thin woman bundled in a dark pockmarked coat just outside Penn Station who said she needed $12 to get home. She was situated under one of those ramshackle walkways intended to steer pedestrian traffic away from the main sidewalk while some construction rattles on, but that almost always serves as an impromptu shelter in the winter. She told me that I was the only one who talked with her in two hours. Whether her story was true or not, she was pretty hard to miss. Her large cardboard sign had the word STRANDED! in big blocky letters, a kind of Bic-imbued pointillism. The details in her story didn’t add up, but I gave her a dollar that I didn’t really have. There was the man I saw begging for a cigarette just outside a diner. A woman stood with a smile on her face, smoking three cigarettes in a row. The man wouldn’t go away. He was persistent. She didn’t budge. He dived for one of the butts she had dropped on the sidewalk and then asked her for a light. She refused. I had no cigarettes or matches on me. It would have made some difference.

Someone told me yesterday that she had been given $40 and a box to collect her possessions upon submitting her resignation notice. No pay for the last two weeks. The White Castle on Eighth Avenue announces that it’s hiring. Benefits are the big selling point. And it can’t be an accident that a bundle of comfort burgers over there is called a Crave.

Everyone craves a little security these days. More than a White Castle burger, which you have twenty minutes to sit around and eat until they kick you out. If you’re not let go just because, then you’re certainly craven, hoping to keep whatever job you have. Whether it has become necessary to sacrifice a little liberty and empathy to pay the rent is a question I can’t possibly answer. But you can feel the bristling fear in the streets.


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