Every man has the place he hangs out. The employees of this magazine, at its old location, had the fancy Italian restaurant for editorial lunches and dinners. But for daily use we went to the burger joint with military insignia displayed over the bar (the owner had fought at Imjin River) or the not-fancy Italian restaurant whose owner had briefly been a Yankee (with slight encouragement he would interrupt Dino or Frank to sample the play-by-play account of his lone homer). Five conditions must be fulfilled before any place achieves placehood. It must be close; it must be comfortably within budget; they must know you; you must know them; and anytime you go you must also know a number of the other patrons, either because you all went there together, or you went separately but simultaneously, as if by prearrangement. Your money is good, your smiles are returned, you return all smiles, and you come and go on feet not wheels.
There is a welfare office a block from my house and those who go there also have a place. Hillary Clinton’s husband ended welfare as we know it, but the city keeps its own programs going, like a Native State under the Raj. The building that houses the welfare office occupies almost half a block. It is tall, square, old, and plain; the only ornaments are the flags hanging over the front door, the Stars and Stripes and the flag of the city, quaintly decorated with an Indian and a Dutchman.
Every weekday during office hours, a stream of people come and go, while a small crowd waits. Is there no place to wait inside? Given my experience of hospitals, post offices, courts, and other public spaces, the answer is either that there is no place, or that whatever place there is is jammed. (Or smoking is forbidden. Sidewalks — the last don’t-tread-on-me space in the city.)
Clients and their companions are a diverse lot: blacks and Hispanics, Hasids and Muslims. (They arrive via a big subway station nearby; the street signs aboveground are confusing; I often direct wandering newcomers to this location.) What unites them, and distinguishes them from other pedestrians, is their pace. In a city of bustle, they shuffle. If I were seeking relief from a bureaucrat, would I shuffle too? At what x, if x is the percentage of my neighbors and ancestors engaged in the same pursuit, does shuffling commence? Discuss. Meanwhile the forecourt of the welfare office is a low-speed zone.
A handful of small businesses have sprung up to serve the crowd. There is a hot-dog vendor under a blue and yellow umbrella. His rivals purvey a U.N. of meats — gyros, Italian sausage, Philly cheese steaks, all guaranteed to be halal. What a country — any believer can partake of our dullest food.
Most interesting is the bookseller. Literacy is in decline, everything is going to YouTube and Instagram. But the bookseller is there day in, day out. His offerings are all for small children, the pages stiff and bright. Kitties teach how to count; cows say moo. Some of his stock is single-sheet: a poster of the human body; placemats showing the presidents, or famous African Americans (after 2008, I realized the new editions would have a subject in common). When it drizzles he spreads a clear plastic sheet over his wares to keep everything dry. One day a gust of a summer storm snuck under the covers and sent books scurrying down the sidewalk and across the street. I retrieved one from under a parked car. He always finds takers; the mothers here may not walk as fast as I do but they will get something for their kids.
These entrepreneurs have acquired neighbors — the phone scammers. They are the best-dressed people on the block, and the most voluble (the food vendors and booksellers don’t talk much, perhaps because English is their second language). The phone scammers are all-American, jive division, and they want you to share their blessings. The most common initial reaction from their marks seems to be puzzlement; they really have to work to make their pitch. And yet there is always a new phone owner or two signing on the dotted line. They are quick amateur sociologists, as any good salesman must be; I am never approached, whether because I am tall, white, white-haired, or I otherwise radiate some aura of old-fart untimeliness (I still have a landline).
What is most striking about the place outside the welfare office is how incommodious it is. The building has a few front steps, and a ramp for wheelchairs, which narrows the sidewalk a bit. The carts and tables of the vendors lined up along the curb narrow it still more. In the remaining gap everyone jams up, as on a subway platform at rush hour. There is no place to sit, hardly even any place to lean; people make do with the railings of the ramp, or the wall of the building. This year the sidewalk needed repair, perhaps because chips might cause stumbles which would create endless hassle. So foot traffic was rerouted into a narrow chute on the street, while the merchants and those they served simply had to move their whole show 50 feet away. It seemed an endless process; entire weeks passed when nothing appeared to be happening and rain fell dismally on temporary tarps. And yet a new sidewalk finally did appear, whereupon the whole show moved back to its wonted location. The saddest thing about the place is that it is no place. At night the building goes dark, the sidewalk is empty, except perhaps for a bum.
What goes on inside the building? Where is the place of the administrators and personnel inside? I never see anyone wearing the insignia of office — a necktie, a plastic ID badge — buying a hot dog, a halal cheese steak, or a kitty-counts book. Mysteries down the block.