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.”