He gets up before dawn, ready to work when the rest of us are still rolling out of bed. His office is a shady patch on the corner of Broadway and 125th street in Manhattan. He spends hours trying to get people to take something for free.
His name is Gregory Adams, and he is a newsie.
On a Thursday morning, the busy intersection where Morningside Heights meets Harlem is a cacophony of sound: the roar of the subway train, the clatter of cars and buses, and a piercing baritone voice calling, “Metro! Metro!” Adams, 49, is handing out copies of the free newspaper to passersby, as he does every weekday morning. In the age of smartphones and the internet, news vendors are something of a throwback, last remnants of the heyday of print, but Adams is one of 170 vendors who help the paper reach more than 700,000 readers in New York City. In tan Timberland boots, a fluorescent orange vest, and worn green khakis, his right pocket bursting with yellow plastic tabs for tying paper bundles, Adams paces back and forth as he tries to get people’s attention.
He started handing out papers seven-and-a-half months ago to make extra money. “[It’s] something to keep me busy,” he said. “It’s only four hours a day. Anyone can get a job doing this.” And in the current economy, Adams takes the extra funds very seriously. “You always better have something in your pocket than have nothing in your pocket.”
In late 19th- and early 20th-century New York, newsies were the town criers of their day. Boys, and some girls, hawked papers at street corners from dawn until dusk, working for a pittance in all weathers. They didn’t work for the newspaper companies—at least, not directly. Instead, newsboys bought stacks of papers in the hopes of selling them all by the end of the day, and weren’t reimbursed for any unsold copies. This helped lead to perhaps the most famous incident in New York newsie history: the Newsboys Strike of 1899.
For two weeks in July 1899, thousands of newsboys refused to buy and sell copies of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Evening World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal, because both papers had hiked their prices during the Spanish-American War (1898), and then refused to lower them. The press barons eventually agreed to buy back any papers the newsboys couldn’t sell. Nearly a century later, the strike would inspire both a flop film and a hit Broadway musical. (The New York Times has an article on the history of the strike here, and this podcast by history buffs the Bowery Boys is also worth a listen.)
The introduction of stricter labor laws meant newsboys faded from city streets by the second world war. Today, newspapers like Metro recruit vendors by placing ads in their own pages. And vendors don’t have to buy papers—they get paid to give them out instead.
Every weekday, Adams wakes up at 4:30am, catches a 5:30 bus, and arrives at 6:15, in time for the Metro dropoff. He distributes newspapers at three stations on the 1 line—137th Street-City College; 125th Street; and 116th Street-Columbia University—and shuttles between them throughout the morning. He piles papers next to the turnstiles or sets them out on racks near the entrance, then settles outside and waits for the first commuters to pass.
“This is where I mainly work, right here,” he said, gesturing at the stairs leading up to the 125th Street station. That area sees the most foot traffic, he said, though 116th does get busy around 9am. Scores of people rush past as we talk; some ignore him completely.
Those who do notice Adams simply reach for a paper without breaking their stride, though most of them take the time to smile. “The best thing about having this job is you get to interact with other people, with other races,” he said. “I get to make them smile and laugh and vice-versa.” And the downsides? “There really ain’t no worse thing,” he said. “I can’t feel mad or anything. I have to be thankful because I got up this morning.” Some people aren’t as lucky, he said.
A heavyset Latino man walks past without the merest glance in Adams’ direction.”Good morning. You have a good day,” Adams calls after him, cheerfully. “Even the ones that don’t take the paper, that don’t even look your way, you still greet them with courtesy and tell them to have a good day.” Besides, he feels his job is as much about cheering people up as it is handing them papers. “A person can be down, and something you say can turn them from being down to making them smile.”