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.

Why do they call it an "Egg Cream?"

It isn't made with eggs, or cream. This famous soda fountain concoction was a favorite for many of us, and is currently enjoying a comeback in many restaurants and diners. A mixture of milk, syrup and seltzer water, just how it got its name is one of those things nobody seems to know for sure. But recently a friend gave me a copy of the 1983 edition of NYC ACCESS, which attempts to explain the drink's origins.
According to NYCA, the original egg cream was produced in Manhattan. The syrup which was used was made with eggs, and cream was used to give it a richer taste. Later milk and regular syrup were employed, but the name was kept. However, recently I discussed the matter with a Bronx native who recalls getting a drink with the same name that had egg whites added to make it more frothy. If any of you wish to share your own experiences with this beverage, please feel free.

The egg and cream issues aside, most locals agree that traditional New York egg creams were made by placing a small amount of chocolate or vanilla syrup at the bottom of a tall glass. To this was added a few ounces of very cold milk. Just like a properly-poured pint of Guinness, there was a certain art in the preparation of a good egg cream. A good "soda jerk," as fountain counter servers were frequently called, would first inject a brief spurt of seltzer straight down into the syrup in order to cause it to mix with the milk. They would then fill it to the top by directing the stream against the side of the glass, to avoid creating too much foam.
As soda fountains and ice cream parlors disappeared, true egg creams became harder and harder to find. Some of us tried making our own, but unless you could get real seltzer water delivered to your home, the results were usually rather lame. I am happy to report, however, that more and more restaurants around town are again offering the real thing. At one place I visited the waitress actually brought the siphon bottle to our table.

The Coney Island Bicycle Railroad

New York has seen some creative approaches to transit, from the pneumatic subway secretly built under Broadway to the helicopter pad that once sat atop the Pan Am building. But for sheer originality, nothing compares with the experimental rail line built by a Mr. Boynton in 1879.

Boynton's idea was simplicity in itself: adapt bicycle technology to railroading. Conventional trains required over a ton of equipment per passenger, and much of the energy that they expended was wasted due to factors such as wind resistance and side sway. But Boynton was convinced that a system incorporating a single rail on the ground, plus another on the top of the train for stability, would not only be more efficient, but could transport people at the then-unheard-of rate of over 60 miles per hour. Brimming with enthusiasm, he set up an experimental line approximately a mile long in the grasslands of Coney Island. His locomotive, which was dubbed "The Flying Billboard" by some critics, weighed a scant 4 tons, and pulled a series of double-decker passenger coaches only 4 feet wide. In test runs the train indeed hit sixty MPH, and could have conceivably gone much faster, had there been sufficient track for it to reach full velocity, and the ride was so smooth that the upper rail hardly seemed necessary. The public was impressed, although some doctors expressed the then-popular notion that such high rates of travel could be dangerous to passengers' health. Boynton began to propose rebuilding the city's elevated lines to accommodate his new technology, and spoke of inter-urban lines to Boston.

Although Boynton's invention fascinated many scientists and engineers of his day, he was never able to garner enough backing to expand beyond his small demonstration line in Brooklyn. Railroad historians, however, believe that his major handicap was simply being born a century too soon, as modern monorails incorporate the same principles which he advocated in 1879.