Modern-day newsies

Hundreds of people hawk newspapers in New York City weekday mornings--not a high kick or Disney ballad in sight

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.”

I ask Adams how many newspapers he has left to hand out. There are 18 bundles dotted around him, each with, he guesses, 100 newspapers in them. Will he be able to shift them all? “I get rid of all of them,” he said. “We’re not allowed to have no returns.” He gives out papers until 10, then spends the rest of his day working part-time on food trucks, or running errands for his stepmother, he said. Being a news vendor isn’t Adams’ primary job, but “I take pride in my work—a lot of pride in my work,” he said firmly.

Over on the corner of West 32nd Street and Seventh Avenue, opposite Penn Station, Nathaniel Benjamin is far more playful and talkative. Tall and thin, the 44-year-old is close to Adams’ age but looks much younger. He wears a red cap, a blue shirt rolled up at the elbows, jeans, off-white sneakers, and a blue Daily News vest. He starts work at 6am, targeting the stream of commuters that pours out of the station, and is done by 10.

By the end of his shift, “nobody want no paper then. And tourists don’t want them neither. They’re looking around [instead].” Out of every 20 people that have walked by, he guesses only four picked up a paper this morning. “It’s a good day on Friday because they get paid, so they be happy. They don’t care. ‘Let me get one, let me get one,’” he said, laughing. On Mondays though, the workday blues are in effect, and hardly anyone wants a paper, he said.

The best thing about his job, handing out free supplements of the Daily News, is that “you don’t have no boss behind you breathing down your neck, and you get to mingle with the people.” The worst thing is winter. “They should pay you more in wintertime,” Benjamin said. “I be skinny, and me and the cold don’t get along.” Benjamin used to work for amNew York, which reaches over 300,000 readers, and Metro, but the Daily News, in the top five US papers by circulation with more than 500,000 readers, pays more. (He said he gets $10 an hour.) “One dollar more. But a dollar more, is more.”

Benjamin has been a vendor for a year because, he said, he couldn’t find a better job.
His last job was as a messenger, but he prefers handing out papers. “[It’s] much easier. I just got to stand right here. There’s no comparison,” he said. As a messenger, he was paid 45 cents per package, with no hourly rate. “You got to deliver 100 packages a day to get $45, and that’s no good.”

Unlike Adams, Benjamin is rather casual about his job and the commuters he serves each day. “Just take the paper, it’s free. You ain’t got to look at me like,” and he scrunches up his face in a comical frown. “Just take it, and if you don’t want it, you can throw it away up the block,” he said. “I ain’t got to sell it. I ain’t gotta make nobody take it. You either want it or you don’t. I still get paid, no matter what.”

But right across the street, in front of Penn Station, Charlotte Robinson is doing all she can to attract attention. “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! AmNew York!” she bellows.”Pick it up! Pick it up!” Her voice is curt and stentorian, and she speaks as rapidly as an auctioneer, or an excited horse-race announcer. There are four other vendors nearby, but Robinson, 58, still stands out. Short and stocky, with her hair tied back severely in a small plait, she wears khaki shorts, sensible black sneakers, and a bright pink T-shirt that clashes with her red amNew York vest. A middle-aged man in a blue-checked shirt and jeans greets Robinson by name and hugs her, before dashing off with his paper. She says he works nearby. “I see all of these people here, every day,” she said. “Everybody knows me.”

Robinson has been a vendor at Penn Station for four years. “I was on public assistance at the time, and public assistance wanted people to get a job. So I went out and got a job,” she said. All sorts of people pass through the station. “You got some cranky people. Some that’s alright,” she said, and “some that laugh and joke with you.” A few regular commuters look out for her during the holiday season, giving her cards and money at Thanksgiving or Christmas.

She appreciates their kindness and takes real pleasure in the people she meets. “I like to kid and joke a lot. I like to make people smile,” she said. “I still have a little kid in me.”

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , , ,