The Squeegee Man was the personification of old, dysfunctional, pre-Giuliani New York City. These guys were extortion artists, who would “help” motorists stuck in clogged automotive arteries, such as those leading to the Lincoln Tunnel, by forcing their unsolicited windshield-cleaning services on them and then demanding payment, the demand generally being accompanied by verbal abuse or the threat of violence — and, occasionally, with actual violence. Squeegee Man symbolized the disorder and lawlessness of New York life — not a murderer or a rapist, just one of the many lower-level hassles and terrors that made the city so unbearable back in what some insist on remembering as the good ol’ days of crack addicts and hookers on Times Square.
Squeegee Man is making a comeback, both in his traditional form — as documented by the New York Post — and in a new, mutant form: Sunday Hijacker. Sunday Hijacker is cleverer and more cynical than his predecessor, and his modus operandi is to make a scene inside a church during worship until somebody pays him to go away. Screaming, knocking over furnishings, and threatening violence are his shtick.
On Sunday, I was at Mass at a congregation with whom I sometimes worship (Catholic liturgy on Park Avenue — that’s a National Review Sunday, missing only the tying of a soft-shackle Edwards), and was intrigued by one of the announcements at the end of the service: Parishioners were asked to call 9-1-1 if they were threatened inside the church or on the church grounds by people demanding money. We were implored to make a donation to one of the many Catholic charities caring for the homeless instead of complying with vagrants’ demands for cash. The police, parishioners were assured, had been contacted, and they had promised to pay extra attention to the church.
I had a pretty good idea what they were talking about: A few minutes before Mass began, a very angry and incoherent man had been raging through the church, shouting various obscenities and generally making an urban spectacle of himself. The ushers, exhibiting the telltale signs of resignation, gently showed him out, inquiring as to whether he’d care to spend the remainder of the day with the police. Said inquiry was met with a negative, and a not especially polite one.
On Monday, I spoke with a church employee about the situation — and, as we spoke, the same guy was in the church, making the same spectacle, threatening elderly people, particularly women. “He’s here every single day,” she said. “It’s dangerous. We talked to the police. They took him to Bellevue,” a nearby hospital with a psychiatric ward. “He was released, and back here the next day. We don’t know what else to do.” Because the church is a place that is open to the public, she said, it probably will be obliged to get a restraining order — dealing with Sunday Hijackers on a case-by-case basis.
Detective Frank Bogucki, the community-affairs officer for the 17th Precinct, said that my inquiry was the first he had heard of the matter. “It’s not common, but it happens sometimes,” he said. “It’s happened in other parishes.” NYPD headquarters did not respond to a request for comment.
This is not unique to New York City. In Philadelphia, which still is awaiting its Rudy Giuliani, aggressive panhandling, some of it nearly indistinguishable from mugging, was common both inside churches and on their grounds during my time there. This was especially true on holidays. The Easter Vigil Mass and, especially, the Christmas Eve Mass at the downtown cathedral were absolute freak shows when the congregation was dismissed.
There is, as noted above, a very strong element of cynicism at work here. Panhandlers are rational economic actors, and they know that the institutions least likely to evict them are churches. They also know that people at church or coming from Sunday worship are probably more psychologically inclined to endure such abuse as they choose to proffer. Christians believe that we have a special mission to the poor, and it feels unseemly to kick poor people out of the church — even when we know that they are there not for worship but for extortion.
But the fact is that there is practically no legitimate reason to be engaged in street-level begging in New York City, which has splendidly provided for services, public and private, to feed and shelter those who need it. The people who sleep on the streets in New York are mostly addicts and mentally ill people, the neglect of whom is a national scandal, and those who refuse, for whatever reason, to avail themselves of such services as are available. It is difficult for Christians and other charitably minded people to accept, but there are poor people who are bad people, and who are willing to use threats and violence to get their way.
The Sunday Hijacker is emblematic of a city reverting to chaos. He is not the only emblem. My own experience attests that places such as the 33rd Street subway station, the City Hall station, and Penn Station have become noticeably more disorderly over the course of the past year — more vagrancy, more filth, more people using them as camp sites. Shootings are up across the city.
And Squeegee Man is back on the job, just down the street from National Review’s offices, as it turns out. And Mayor Bill de Blasio? His main interest in office so far is trying to kill the city’s charter schools. His attention to police matters at the moment is dominated by an insurgency on his left in the wake of a homicide involving a police officer using a chokehold against NYPD regulations. Lucky for New York, the Reverend Al Sharpton is on the scene, in case anybody needs a riot incited.
The more things change, the more I shop for real estate in Taos.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.