On the first day of the New York City transit strike of 2005 I went to talk to Rosa Gutgold. She sells pearls, and is usually good for a few pearls of wisdom. But Rosa did not come to work on the first day of the strike. Nor the second. On the third day the tiny kiosk she normally occupies on 47th Street in the diamond district was still empty, its glass shelves bare.
In the Kiosk next to Rosa sat a man named Hey. Each day I had seen him working, but now I spoke to him. I asked him how Rosa was handling the strike. “
“She’s not handling it!” said Hey, “She’s staying home!” “But you came in,” I said. “All the sellers come in! It’s the customers who don’t come,” said Hey, whose business card features only that one name – “Hey,” like Prince, or Madonna. He spoke to me but did not look up from his small work desk, where he was labeling narrow manila envelopes that would soon contain diamond rings. The people who worked on the stones and the rings, the people with the small, dentist-like tools, were all busy on 47th Street. The people whose work was to sell those things were not.
Nearby, a man spoke solicitously into the phone. “Would you happen to have an oval ruby to measure about eleven by eight?” he paused for a moment, listening. “They don’t want to spend too much money,” he added.
For all the novelty of the wide open spaces and changing routines of these wide open days of the strike, for every person who could exult in the fulfillment of their long held desire to walk to work down the middle of 5th Avenue, for all the snuggly cozies who for one reason or another spent these frigid days cuddled up at home, there was one group of people for whom this transit strike has distinctly sucked, one group who has suffered even worse than the commuters packed like refugees into Penn Station, worse than the negotiators and strikers – the people who sell things. This has been a bad strike for the sellers.
Wall Street and its environs may be the hub of global capitalism, but none of it is available to the pedestrian and most of the selling and buying that goes on there, at street level, involves donuts, cheap suits and gold chains. But on 47th Street you can see selling and buying. Rosa Gutgold and her witty, Viennese pronouncements. Rosa had stayed home. So had most of the customers on this crucial week. All up and down the street you saw men standing with both palms face down on glass counters, waiting.
I overheard two other men speaking in Yiddish, one of them still focusing on the ring he was working on, while the other one leaned on the counter of the little kiosk. A snippet of English surfaced amidst the Yiddish – “There was no reason for her not to become engaged six years ago, seven years ago!” – then back to Yiddish.
I interrupted them to ask their opinions on the transit strike.
“That they should do this to the people on this street,” one of them said, shaking his head.
“Who is they?”
“The strikers! I can line up a 100,000 people who would want the jobs they have. The people on this street think they should be shot. I have a 55-years-old retirement? I’m going to be working until I’m a 110! It’s like they’re killing the people on this street, killing them without a gun.”
I asked the man for his name but he was reluctant. After much consideration he said, “Bernie,” and seemed pleased with this improvisation. He smiled at his friend, who glanced up at him for a fleeting moment before returning his focus – through the magnifying lenses attached to his glasses – to the precious thing in his fingers.
“O.K., Bernie,” I said. “But why don’t you give me your real first name. What is your first name.”
“A beautiful name! Let me use it. Why not?”
“Because I’m an orthodox Jew, but I don’t want to make this thing about the strike a Jewish issue. They’re killing Christians, too!”
“I think you should let me use Herschel.”
He had a long discussion with his friend in Yiddish. Back and forth. He turned to me. “O.K, you can use Herschel.”
Out on the street, a man bellowed into his cell phone, “Look, I have three gold coins for him, if he wants them, it’s 600. That’s it. I don’t usually do coins.”
It was noon. The FedEx and U.P.S. trucks were all lined up on at the curb, the drivers loading and unloading. From inside of one of the trucks a voice called out over the low clatter of a transistor radio.
“The strike’s over people!” yelled the FedEx man. “Get back to work!”