Friday, February 12, 2010
McDonald's and Sweaters
When I want a break from office politics I have lunch at the McDonald's on W171st & Broadway. I like to people watch there, and on the way I can do some shopping. All kinds of things are sold off tables on the streets of Washington Heights (Lancome moisturizer, lipstick, gloves, books, shoes, you name it). Today I stopped by the $2 sweater guy. He sometimes shows up on the corner of W170th and Broadway selling fresh from the factory (still in the cellophane!) sweaters for two dollars. Since you can't open the packages, it can be a hit or miss affair. But you can't beat the price, the guy is always friendly, and once I hit the jackpot with a green cashmere blend cardigan. That was when a woman in my office berated me, not because I'd taken a lunch break but because she assumed the sweaters were stolen. My take is this: if the guy is selling sweaters for $2 on the street (especially if he's standing in partially melted snow drifts like he was today) he probably needs the money. There's stronger stuff that he could be selling on the street, and I'd rather give my business to him than to companies who over charge for sweaters made in the sweatshops of the Developing World. So, with my $2 sweaters in hand, I walked into a music-less McDonald's. Usually there's bachata playing at the walk-up window (in Manhattan the McDonald's are better for your health-- you don't drive up, you walk up), and soul playing inside. Today conversations compensated for the music. I sat in a high traffic area, watching and listening (in this McDonald's you're more likely to hear Spanish than English). A little boy scurried back and forth to the serve-yourself soda fountain. His eyes lit up with a devious gleam over breaking the rules (you're only supposed to fill up once, but everyone looks the other way here). Gradually I became aware of the conversation behind me. A man boasted to a woman how he had been paid $4 an hour to do apartment repairs. "Off the books," he said, "But sometimes the owners would give me big tips to make up for it. Once I got $1500 at Christmas. The boss got nada." But the boss must have found out, because he started sending the man to different buildings where the tips dried up. He was back to $4 an hour. Now, his voice darkened, he had nothing, not even $4 an hour. That's when the sound system blasted into action with, "She gives me love, love, love, love, crazy love!" That drew my attention to the red heart-shaped balloons decorating the cash registers and the Valentine's streamers hanging from the ceiling. Suddenly the place felt like a party. I half expected Cookie Monster to appear with a basket of free Valentine's Day chocolates. But there ain't no free lunch in life, and that didn't happen. After I finished my Big Mac, I walked out the door and past the walk-up window. It was playing bachata again and everything was back to normal.