Last night I wandered out among the slowly melting glaciers festooning the Brooklyn streets and made my way to Spanish convenience store/meat market supreme Jany's in search of a bar of soap and some roast pork egg Fu Yung from the Chinese joint next door, and as I approached I saw what was unmistakably a junkie looking for a handout obscuring the entrance. The guy was a tall and scrawny early-twenty-something who twitched a lot as he nervously declared “Yo, man, I don't wanna axe nobody for no money an' shit; I just wanchoo ta buy me suntinta eat. I just got outta prison, yo…” He grinned and held out a hand, but I told him that I was broke and unemployed too, so no. He cursed and let me pass.
When I headed next door to the Chinese takeout joint I was surprised to see that the beggar was nowhere in sight and I breathed a sigh of relief. I entered, placed my order and began to read a book that I had to review for Publisher's Weekly when the junkie walked in. He noticed me and knew better than to hit me up for grub, then sidled up to the counter and attempted to look cool, but his disheveled look fooled no one and the cook looked at him with weary disdain in anticipation of the inevitable pitch.
“Yo, nigga, gimme some food, yo!” he said, displaying his apparent inability to distinguish an Asian from a black person. The cook attempted to dismiss him but he persisted and began to whine and plead pathetically, “C'mon, nigga! Gimme some food, yo! I teyya what, I trade you my bike for some food, man!” Before the cook could say anything the guy shot out of the storefront and quickly returned with a rusty, presumably stolen mountain bike with two flat tires.
He displayed this bit of vehicular refuse as though he were a spokesmodel — no pun intended — at a high-end bike show, attempting to convince the obviously uninterested cook that it was a quality piece of equipment while begging for some rice and chicken. The cook appraised the bicycle and offered a trade of a quart of chicken fried rice for the item when another black customer walked in.
The junkie went into his “I'm outta prison” spiel and found a sympathetic ear in the new customer who handed him five bucks. After the customer picked up his phoned-in order and departed, the cook suggested that the junkie just give him the cash instead of the bike; the junkie pretended that he had no cash, but then admitted that he needed to hold onto his money and the cook would have to take the bike. As this exchange volleyed back and forth another cook emerged from behind the kitchen's impenetrable bank vault-like door and swiftly whisked the feeble bicycle back among the woks and racks of spare ribs for a thorough appraisal.
The junkie attempted to protest, saying that he intended to keep the bike and return with a better one, but the cook wasn't having it. He calmed down the junkie by sending him into the night with an order of chicken fried rice, two fried chicken wings and some beef lo mein — which the beggar insisted was for someone else — with no utensils. Those would cost him cash, said the cook. The junkie just picked up his bag and bailed.
Ah, the barter system, legacy of our pioneering forefathers…