Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

"Blinkies," "Punch Drunks" and Other Famous NYC Beggars

Making it is tough in this city, especially for a panhandler. Let's face it, you have to be good to get a jaded New Yorker to fork over some loose change. In this installment we will look at some of the more colorful, not-always-honest mendicants in our town's history.

Up until about the time of the New Deal care of indigent New Yorkers was generally provided by crowded, depressing institutions such as the municipal Almshouse on what is now Roosevelt Island, or vermin-infested sleeping quarters located in local police precinct houses. Compared to life in such a place, panhandling was a practical option. Amongst the ranks of those who solicited to survive were a large number of people with visible infirmities, often the results of wartime injuries. A person with such an affliction was clearly more likely to obtain money from strangers than a well-appearing counterpart, and it eventually dawned upon a few entrepreneurs that profits could be made in teaching the able-bodied to appear infirm, and to supply them with the requisite props. The result were a number of 19th Century establishments known as "Cripple Factories," Fagin-esque academies where one could learn the art of appearing blind, or borrow a false prosthesis which could fit over a healthy extremity. After a day of begging the student would no doubt have developed quite a thirst, which could be conveniently quenched at the saloon with which the school was affiliated.

"Blinkies," as those feigning blindness were termed, could be so skilled in their craft that only a physician was able to determine whether they were malingering. And this was exactly what the City tried to do in 1937 when it instituted a unique program called the Beggars Clinic. Since being a vagrant was technically illegal, panhandlers were rounded up by the Police Mendicant Squad (a rather low-status assignment within the Department) and brought to the Night Court, where a team of medical personnel would determine if their disabilities were real. In the case of alleged blindness, the doctor would shine a light into the beggar's eye. If the suspect were truly blind, the theory stated, his or her eyes would not blink. (Of course, it may be argued that the majority of people meeting the legal standards for blindness have a small amount of residual vision, and their eyes would probably react to the bright light as well). Those judged to be legitimately incapacitated were brought to charitable agencies for assistance, while the rest were charged with indigence. How successful the Beggars Clinic could be will never be known; budget cuts forced it to close only a year later.

One particularly tragic type of solicitor who was well-known during the rough-and-ready days of boxing in our town was the "PD," or "Punch Drunk." Victims of brain damage caused by too many blows to the head, PD's would often be seen outside out of arenas where boxing matches were conducted. Considering them bad for business, a few boxing promoters would agree to give their local PD's generous payments in return for their not begging in front of their premises.
Other panhandlers chose to rely upon outrageous conduct in order to dramatize the alleged severity of their plight. The Safety Pin King was a fixture in front of the Empire Hotel in the 1930's. As aghast tourists looked on, he would proceed to swallow pins and other metal objects while asking for change. Eventually the police brought him in for a medical examination, which revealed no permanent damage to his no doubt rugged digestive tract, and he was then sent to a mental hospital. "Diving" was a strategy which was typically utilized by several beggars working together. When a likely donor was spotted, a crust of bread would be tossed into the gutter by one of the participants in the scheme. Immediately accomplices would dive upon it, often convincing the passer-by to take pity upon them. "Nibblers" would stand outside a restaurant, pretending to gnaw upon a small scrap of stale bread, hoping that those who had just partaken of an expensive meal could be shamed into reaching into their pockets.

Popular opinion regarding solicitation has always been sharply divided in NYC. Despite the notion prevailing in much of America that ours is a bastion of "bleeding heart liberalism," both official policy and informal attitudes have usually been quite hostile to panhandlers. Stories have always abounded of beggars carrying their wheelchairs up and down subway stairs, blind performers spotting approaching trouble and the now cliche "Spare some change for something to eat?" But despite this animosity many New Yorkers do continue to give. At the same time, local mendicants have continued to find new and creative ways to appeal for funds, and to locate the best sites for their craft. The theatre district has been an historically fertile turf, as have the subway lines which run beneath it. It may be that Broadway audiences are flush with cash (as one must be to afford dinner and a show nowadays!). Or perhaps theatre fans appreciate the ongoing drama and comedy in a town where, to paraphrase the Bard, all the sidewalks are a stage.
Luc Sant, Low Life, NY, Vintage Books, 1991.
Meyer Berger, The Eight Million, NY, Columbia University Press, 1983.


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