Yesterday in front of the library on 23rd Street, I saw a little man in a red and black lumberjack’s coat race over to the curb and grab up a nickel that was lying there and shove it in his pocket. Then he dashed into the street to wave down the cross-town bus, coming right at him, even though it was stopping anyway. Something was wrong with him, and he reminded me very much of a man I used to see when I had my coffee wagon years ago, on the corner of Liberty and Broadway. I had my wagon next to Old Helen the Greek, the pretzel and chestnut vendor. Helen looked tough as leather from all her years of working on the street, but she was a very goodhearted person, even though that wasn’t always obvious.
There were certain unwritten rules that the street vendors had to abide by, and Helen was their enforcer. Once when she showed up and found a brand new vendor on her spot, I watched her tell him in a friendly way that he’d have to move and he refused. So she took hold of his wagon and pushed it right out into Broadway with him in it, yelling her head off. She had been on that spot since 1967 and she was much tougher than her husband, who I’d see early in the morning pushing his hotdog wagon down Broadway towards Trinity Church. It was impossible to imagine how old Helen was, but she must have been in her sixties then. Her mother sometimes came and sat on a wooden box and visited with her, and she was a very regal looking lady with white hair. When her mother was around, Helen never used the kind of language she did the rest of the time. She told me once that her mother was a close friend of Melina Mercouri, the actress who was then the Minister of Culture of Greece.
Every day at fifteen minutes before noon, the peculiar man I was reminded of yesterday would come tearing across Broadway and circle around Helen’s wagon. He always wore the same plaid suit and the kind of thick, coke-bottle glasses that make a person’s eyes look enormous. He had some kind of job in the Trade Center, and something was the matter with him. Whatever his affliction was, it was apparent in everything he did. His mental capacity could be wondered at, but whether he was a genius or an idiot was blurry. He walked with his head tilted drastically to one side with one of his magnified eyes pointed directly at the ground. The pockets of his plaid suit jacket were crammed with papers and pencils, and he had an unbreakable stare.
The first time he came, I heard him say, “Lady, how much is a pretzel?” When Helen told him, he shouted, “WHAT? ARE YOU CRAZY?” He turned and hurried away, made a big circle in the plaza, and came back to ask her again. She told him to get lost. For a while after that, he did the same thing every day without buying anything. Finally Helen got sick of answering him and started to ignore him. Then he got bored and came over to me. He said, “Hi there. What’s your name?” I said, “That’s a secret.” He aimed one buggy eye at me. “Oh, yeah? Well then I’ll just call you Secret then. How much is a coffee?”
Before I could say anything, Helen came over to intervene. She took hold of his plaid sleeve and said, “Listen, Malaka. You know you don’t want nothin’, man. You not gonna pay. So look. You get lost, I pay you.” She opened her hand and showed him a few shiny pennies. She threw them out into the plaza, where they rang out in all directions over the bricks. He shot out after them with his legs like two bent sticks and his eye to the ground. Old Helen doubled over laughing, watching him race around the plaza picking up the pennies and stuffing them into the pockets of his plaid suit. She shouted, “Look! Look! Just like chicken! He chase penny just like chicken!” He came back to Helen winded and smiling. She handed him a pretzel and said, “Get out of here! Get lost!” He went back across Broadway towards the Trade Center and Helen laughed some more. She named him “The Penny Man.”
Whenever she saw him coming, she’d shout out to me, “Look! Look! Penny Man! He’s coming!” She kept a little stack of pennies waiting for him and every day they played that game as if it were the first time they had ever done it. Sometimes she’d throw the pennies out over Broadway and he’d dash right out into the traffic, dodging cars while Helen laughed her head off and shouted, “Be careful! Just like chicken! You crazy! Don’t get run over!” And after he’d snatched up all the pennies, she would give him a free pretzel, which he would eat right away, standing right next to her, and while he was eating it she would be telling him that I was a prostitute while winking at me and burning holes in his plaid jacket with her cigarette. She was both kind and horrible to him at once, and somehow, he both did and didn’t deserve it. Sometimes Helen would toss a penny suddenly, without any warning, and then just like a cat with a mouse, he would tear off after it even if he was in the middle of eating his pretzel. He just couldn’t not chase a penny.
Yesterday wasn’t the first time I’d thought of The Penny Man since then, it was just the first time I’ve seen anyone so much like him. I think of him every time I see a penny lying in the street. And whenever I see one I pick it up and put it in my pocket.
14 November 2010