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NEW YORK--Though you could tell something was up around Madison Square Garden this past weekend, you probably wouldn't have guessed that the president of the United States, the royal court and the pretenders to the throne were on their way into town. Hotels up and down Seventh Avenue gleamed a bit more brightly and familiar network faces beaming at ActionCams drew crowds of "Hi Mom"-ers, but most of the people, bicycles, carts and cars just stumbled along in the humidity, grumbling and snarling.
A month ago in Detroit the allegedly reborn party of Abraham Lincoln and Jesse Helms gathered to crown its champion. Fanatically grateful for any attention, the Motown elders cleared out one end of their city a week before Ronnie's legions arrived. A sticky labor strike evaporated, the streets around Cobo Hall were cleaned, and everyone was so damned nice. New York is just too tired and too grumpy to make such an effort.
Shopkeepers and street vendors have not tempered their renowned surliness; cabbies don't bother to ask "how ya doin', how doya like da city?" as they did in Detroit. The streets, even way downtown in Conventionsville, are dirtier than ever. City Hall's half-hearted promise to round up prostitutes and other undesirables has resulted in increased police presence and improved arrest statistics but little substantial change on the sidewalks and in the alleyways below Times Square, where New York's regulars push and show to keep pace--whether or not there happens to be a convention at the Garden.
Diagonally across Seventh Avenue from the hulking home of the Knicks, Rangers, and, for a week, the Democratic National Committee, sits a blind Jew reading the Talmud (ancient biblical interpretations) in braille. He wears no sunglasses and shamelessly allows his empty eyes to wander over the shuffling stream of pedestrians. Every few minutes a passerby drops some coins in the old Jew's plastic dish, and he nods, mumbling a thank you. But his crudely lettered sign does not beg for charity; it states simply, "Blind Man's Newsstand." For 30 cents you do more than ease your conscience; you get the late city edition of the New York Post.
It is hardened resignation to his condition, not blind trust in his fellow man, that keeps the blind Jew in the newspaper business. "Sure people must take two papers sometimes, or the Voice instead of the Times, but what can I do?" In fact, he doesn't even trust you enough to reveal his name.
After some coaxing, however, he agrees to relate his unique view of the city, the economy and the convention that will at once surround him with its color and vulgarity and be as far away as the legendary scholars whose musings he traces slowly with a dirty, calloused finger.
"I've been at this sport for ten, maybe 12 years," he begins, reluctantly closing his tattered book. "It's a good spot. Lots of people pass by. I do okay...You know, some years I make a little, more, some years a little less. Who cares as long as you can eat? I'm not exactly in a position to go out looking for a job. (Chuckles.) Look, life is tough... Who knows about inflation, or whatever, not me. I try to get enough to eat. Everyone has to struggle. Why should this country be different?
"...The big difference over the years has been that people don't have time for anything anymore. People don't stop and talk to me, you know, say a little 'hello,' a little 'how are you,' or whatever. Everyone rushes. Now with this convention business, even more...more rushing. Is this a way to live? Rushing about? No. I don't think so."
The blind Jew doesn't vote. "There are certain complications, and, well...complications where I live." He doesn't really care who emerges from the Democratic wrestling match either: "So what's the difference, one from the other? You tell me." But he brightens at the suggestion that out-of-towners might stop to talk when they come upon his unusual enterprise. "Yeah, that would be nice."
Three steps away from the blind Jew is a little Italian guy twirling an embryonic pizza at the counter of La Trattoria, one of the many sidewalk ethnic food joints which are wedged into former storefornts. Staring aimlessly into the passing traffic, the pizzaman seems as blind as his neighbor. Asking the pizzaman for his name seems a sure bet to end the conversation, so he too, remains anonymous.
"Sure (the convention) is a good thing. Business is very good, but only for a few days. Everything is very slow. Nothing is right. People doesn't have money, and they don't go out." The gray blob soars dangerously close to the low ceiling, but returns with a soft slap to the pizzaman's fist.
Questioned about the city's failure to shake off its chronic ailments--pollution, crime, unemployment, suffering--the pizzaman just shakes his head. "So they'll clean up a little here, for a while. We are used to it. The garbage is part of it." His voice trails off as a co-worker notices him chatting on the job with a stranger. Without even a nod, the pizzaman turns his back and ends the exchange.
There are, of course, many New Yorkers hanging around the Garden specifically because of what is happening or will happen inside. James Bland, for instance, has forgotten about the bus he had to catch and will gleefully take on all comers on anything from Black unity to Ted Kennedy and the "open convention" gambit.
Bland wears a bright blue fishing hat with the brim rolled up all the way around. He carries a Daily News under his arm and smiles broadly as he lectures on the topic of the day.
"Now I'm a Kennedy man myself, been with the Kennedy boys for a while, but this open convention business is serious and separate from that." Bland relishes a good smile:" (The delegates) they're like this, see (crosses his arms in front of him) handcuffed." He doesn't listen to the suggestion that the push to free delegates stinks of hypocrisy, that the same people who assailed Carter as a tyrannical slave merchant originally backed the reform which gave more power to the primary voter, that if Kennedy were the probable choice, this debate would not have surfaced.
"Let's not talk in 'maybes.' All I know is that in the time between the last primary and the convention, the nominee can be thrown in jail on a rape charge, and we couldn't do nothing about it...The delegate is elected to use someone else's power. The power has been dele-gated, right? Well, how can they use that power if they are chained?" (Crosses his arms again.)
Even more important to Bland than the Democratic wheeling and dealing is the future of the Black Community as a political force. He wears an orange button identifying him as a member of the United Urban Party ("We are the Balance of Power"). He explains: "It's a small group based here in New York which is committed to unifying the Black peoples into a singular, powerful voice to demand improvement in places like the South Bronx. We've heard all the promises. We need action." Her refuses to be more specific about the size or activity of his organization, adding only that, "we are the descendants of slaves who think it is time to unburden ourselves and get something done."
Al Harrow is more definite about his political affiliations. Sitting behind a portable bridge table on the corner of Seventh and 33rd, he conducts an independent voter survey "in cooperation with Edward Bennet Williams and his committee." Sure enough, there is a sign propped up on the side of Harrow's table which depict a man bellowing, "Call for an Open Convention. "Harrow is quick to add that he is not formally employed by Williams. The neatly dressed old man will take his poll--which actually does not mention open convention, but merely asks which candidate the respondent would like to see on the Democratic ticket--to the open convention folks "to do with as they like. I'm just trying to help out."
A friend approaches Harrow Dragging a two-wheeled shopping cart and prodding, "Look, there are more people down at 32nd. Here you get a hundred. That's peanuts. Down there you get a thousand in no time."
Harrow smiles from behind his horn-rimmed sunglasses. "I know," he says, but I'm comfortable here." A1 Harrow knows deep down that he is sitting in the hot sun in his olive green suit and hound's tooth the to have something to do. But no one is laughing out loud at him, and he is having a fine time playing Lou Harris for the afternoon.
"My poll show Kennedy with a big lead. Obviously, people who see my sign and come over will most likely be Kennedy people...Myself? I'm really for an open convention, and I think a Muskie/Jackson ticket would be the strongest... You can see that people don't want Carter. People are damned angry. Look at Miami and Chatanooga. The poor and the minorities want someone they can hang their hat on. They would be happy with a Muskie/Jackson ticket."
"What is this a poll for?" asks a woman with a small girl dangling from her arm.
"Oh it's just a little something I'm working up, madam," says Harrow with a shy smile. She marks a check under Kennedy's name, and Harrow thanks her. Some people are very glad the convention is in town, even if it's only a temporary distraction
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