My Dad, the Squeegee Kids, and Me

Squeegee

 

By Benjamin M. Adams on July 5, 2017  @BenAdamsO_O

Growing up in and around Manhattan in the 1970’s was kind of a wild ride. The juxtaposition of that New York City to the city we know today is stark. Take as an example my experience of watching games at Yankee Stadium: I heard all manner of profanity yelled at decibel levels that I had never imagined possible. People passed joints around freely. I witnessed frightening brawls between drunken fans, which were always cheered riotously as people craned their necks for a better view. Cops responding to break up the fight were booed boisterously by the crowd. This was the view from the good seats. The subway cars taking people to and from the stadium were covered with graffiti, no exceptions. If you want to understand just how much things have changed, go to Yankee Stadium today and try to yell profanity or smoke a joint. You will experience firsthand how profoundly the city has changed, and you will experience that change at the hands of the police.

A similar transition has occurred in public spaces across the city. Walk through Times Square today and then remember the 1970’s version if you can. The transformation in those spaces is no less dramatic than the one that has taken place at Yankee Stadium. While I admit to feeling a strange sense of loss at the disappearance of the old, gritty regime, I am not one to romanticize the past and pretend that the changes are somehow all bad. As a boy, I treasured my trips to watch the Yankees play above all other earthly things. Still, I wouldn’t take my own kids into that kind of atmosphere if it existed today. As much as I loved the old NYC, I wouldn’t have wanted my wife walking alone in Times Square or trying to get a bus at Port Authority late at night. Now, I wouldn’t have the slightest concern. So, it’s all good, I guess.

Or perhaps not.

My dad owned a flower shop at the northeast corner of 37th Street and Third Avenue. That stretch of 37th is one of the streets where traffic exits from the Lincoln Tunnel, so there was always a steady stream and always lots of cars stopped at the traffic light. (That part certainly hasn’t changed.) A disproportionate share of these cars carried unsuspecting people from New Jersey. Through a confluence of factors, this street was the perfect place for squeegee kids to camp out and ply their trade.

Even if you live in NYC today, you’ve probably never seen a squeegee kid. These were kids from Harlem who came downtown with a bucket, some soap, and a squeegee. They filled their buckets with water and set them down on the sidewalks along 37th Street. When a light would turn red, cars would stop. The kid would then take his wet squeegee and start cleaning the windshield of a car stopped at the light. In law, we call this officious intermeddling — when you do work for someone that they didn’t request. The kids didn’t ask the driver for permission to clean their windshield. They just approached the car and started cleaning the windshield.

By the time the driver had any idea what was going on, the kid was always halfway done. At that point, resistance by the drivers was futile. Their windshields were soaped up before the drivers knew what was happening. They certainly weren’t going to stop the kids from finishing the job by removing the soapy water with the squeegee. After the windshield was clean, the kid would stand by the driver-side window hoping for a tip.  If the driver didn’t tip, they had gotten a free window washing. If a tip did come, the coins were promptly dropped into the bucket of soapy water for safe keeping while the rare dollar was pocketed. Sometimes the tip came — more often it did not — but never did I see a kid offer an unkind word or gesture to any driver. I did see plenty of drivers getting angry at the kids, but the kids would just laugh it off. The squeegee kids had no time for drama. They were working.

I guess my dad realized this because he let the kids mingle among the plants and flowers that he would leave on the street for display. He let them use his hose freely so that they could periodically refill their buckets with clean water. He may not have loved those kids working his corner, but he never gave any indication of that. He treated them for what they were — kids working hard to earn money, just like the suburban kids who delivered newspapers to our new home in Westchester. I loved spending time at the store with my dad. Often I went on a Sunday after he took us to Church.

One particular evening, dad and I were headed home from the store just as two of the squeegee kids were done for the day. Dad asked them where they lived. They volunteered the information easily, and he offered them a ride home. So me and my dad and the two squeegee kids hopped into his Cadillac and headed uptown on Third Avenue. I’m sure it was a brief ride, but it was long enough for dad to ask them some questions. I don’t remember them precisely but I know he asked them how much money they had earned that day, and I recall being surprised at how much it was. To my greater surprise, I learned that one of the boys was turning over his earnings to his family, who needed them for basic living expenses.

That was what I remember, but I took away much more. I took away an appreciation for my dad’s ability to see beyond race and class, to see not only the goodness in these young men but also their innocence. I saw how easily he could break through boundaries that most people view as impenetrable, not by acting cool or hip, but simply through the genuine care he felt for them. I also took away a deep appreciation for what a good man my father could be and how much I wanted to be like him.

The NYC of old. It was dirty and it was gritty, but it wasn’t all bad.

About Benjamin M. Adams
Recovering Attorney, Dad of Six, Concerned Citizen

3 Responses to My Dad, the Squeegee Kids, and Me

  1. Melissa Adams Reynolds says:

    Awwwww Ben! Lovely.
    On Jul 5, 2017 1:17 PM, “The Pretty Ugly Blog by Benjamin M. Adams” wrote:
    > Benjamin M. Adams posted: ” By Benjamin M. Adams on July 5, 2017 > @BenAdamsO_O Growing up in and around Manhattan in the 1970’s was kind of > a wild ride. The juxtaposition of that New York City to the city we know > today is stark. Take as an example my experience of watchin” >

    Like

  2. John Q Adams says:

    Thank you son for that love letter. It caused me to feel discovered. So much of what many fathers do is motivated by a deep love for their families. Often, the act goes unseen, but it doesn’t matter because it was never the motive. But, every now and then, in this case my son shares a tender recollection of an event both shared that opens the heart, moistens the eyes, and reveals a priceless learning experience that was a result of invested love.

    Like

  3. Joan Adams says:

    What a wonderful memory to have and to share with us. You are, indeed, very like your father in all the best ways. And, since I have never heard this story before, I am surprised and very deeply touched.

    Like

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