Magazine article Radical Teacher

Sidewalk. (Teaching Notes)

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Sidewalk. (Teaching Notes)

Article excerpt

By Mitchell Duneier. With an Afterword by Hakim Hasan. Photographs by Ovie Carter. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $13.

"This is Sidewalk," I announced, showing them the book on the first day of class, a second-semester Freshman English course focused on research.

"You know those guys who sell books on the sidewalks?"

"I don't know them!" said Henry.

"You've seen them."

Now, the class agreeably nodded.

"This book is about those guys.--And I say 'guys,' because when--a few years ago--and where--on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, that's who..."

"I walk by them every day," said Lora, a mature woman from Jamaica. "On my way to work and back, and they're always quite friendly, at least to me."

"And you would say most of them are guys?"

"Yes."

"African-American guys?"

"Sure. Mostly," said Lora. She knitted her brows, and said doubtfully, "But this whole book is going to be about them?"

"Yes. It's interesting. They have lives like you or me. They're businessmen."

"Bums!" said Oscar, smiling.

"You mean 'homeless'?"

He shrugged. "The ones I seen around my way are all crackheads."

"Some 'unhoused' people, that's Duneier's term, some of them are crackheads," I said.

"Yes. But not all of them are, and this book, it's by a sociologist, and several years ago he thought, without thinking, that he knew who they were. He's an urban sociologist, and he wrote the book partly because he realized he should've known better than to trust his prejudices and ignorance about who these guys are. You'll like it."

The ones that were listening, besides Lora, grumbled or shook their heads.

And, except for a couple of stretches where Duneier contextualizes his study in sociological terms or investigates the political history of the laws that make unlicensed book-vending legal on New York City sidewalks, the students did, after all, like it very much. Duneier presents the men through first-hand observations and taped dialogues, most of the talk occurring at work, on the sidewalks, as Duneier vends alongside them or participates in the various, distinct jobs that rise on the sidewalks, among them book vending (this requires some capital, long-range commitment, and storage), magazine vending (most of the magazines had been set out for recycling, so it requires less outlay but a strong sense of the market), begging (some never beg; others feel no qualms) versus space-selling (location, location, location, they'll reserve a good spot on the sidewalk for you for fifty bucks).

Two men dominate Duneier's focus: Hakim Hasan, a book vendor and, in his own and his hero Jane Jacobs's term, a "public character," as well as a former proofreader who left "corporate America" to preserve his sense of independence, and Mudrick Hayes, an illiterate, fast-talking, ruthless capitalist with no capital:

... it wasn't long before the man who had consigned the mirrors to Mudrick in the morning came back for the money they had agreed upon. "You have my ten dollars?" he said to Mudrick.

Mudrick said, again with a straight face, "No. But I have eight. I have to go and get the money."

He walked away from the table, pretending to get some money, but really getting change from the newsstand. He came back with seven dollars in his hand. …

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