Hakim Hasan is a book vendor and street intellectual at the busy intersection of Eighth Street, Greenwich Avenue, and the Avenue of the Americas - a.k.a. Sixth Avenue. He is a sturdy and stocky 5'7 African American, 42 years' old. In the winter, he wears Timberland boots, jeans, a hooded sweat-shirt, a down vest, and a Banana Republic baseball cap.
Hakim is one of many street book vendors throughout Greenwich Village and New York City generally. Most of these specialize in one or more of the following: expensive art and photography books; dictionaries; New York Times bestsellers; 'black books'; new quality mass-market and trade paperbacks of all varieties; used and out-of-print books; comic books; pornography; and discarded magazines.
On Sixth Avenue alone, among the vendors of new books, a passerby may encounter Muhammad and his family, who sell 'black books' and an incense known as 'the Sweet Smell of Success' at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. Down the block, an elderly white man sells bestsellers and high-quality hardcovers on the weekends. At Sixth and Greenwich (across the street), one encounters Howard, a comics vendor, also white, and Alice, a Filipina woman (Hakim's sometime business partner), who sells used paperbacks and current bestsellers.
It goes without saying, perhaps, that one good way to find out more about people is to get to know them at first hand, but this is more easily said than done. When I began, I knew that, if I was to find out what was taking place on the sidewalk, I would have to bridge many gaps between myself and the people I hoped to understand. This involved thinking carefully about who they are and who I am.
I was uneasy.
One of the most notorious gaps in US society is the difference between people related to race and the discourse revolving around this volatile issue. Though there were also differences between our social classes (I was raised in a middle-class suburb, whereas most of them grew up in lower- and working-class urban neighborhoods), religions (I am Jewish and most of them are Muslim or Christian), levels of education (I hold a Ph.D. in sociology and attended two years of law school, whereas some of them did not