New York City's Street Kids

Excerpt from the book

photograph of Stephanie eating

Stephanie and Fraggle worked hard to support their drug habits. Both panhandled, yet to earn enough cash, they had to supplement their "spangeing" (from "spare any change"). On a good day, Stephanie made as much as $10 an hour panhandling. But she made much more money copping - purchasing drugs. By the summer, she had begun copping heroin regularly and cocaine occasionally for neighborhood and uptown junkies, clean-shaven professionals in Burberry coats, beefy young men wearing sweatshirts and gold jewelry and driving big cars with Jersey plates, scrawny college students hauling knapsacks packed with books, and strung-out artists, photographers, and musicians. She copped for an exterminator, an engineer, a chef of a five-star French restaurant, and a top model whose photo she had seen on the cover of a fashion magazine. Some knew where to buy the dope themselves and simply didn't want to risk getting arrested, but many didn't have a clue. For each $10 bag of dope, depending on the customer, Stephanie could make an extra $10, enough for a bag for herself.

She rarely "wasted" the money she made on food. Strangers or people she knew often would buy Stephanie her favorites: pizza, cereal with milk, noodles or mashed potatoes with gravy, oatmeal pies, Oreos, and chocolate soft ice cream cones. She also ate restaurant meals, leftovers people dropped on her blanket; soup and sandwiches from neighborhood churches and soup kitchens; and Chinese food dug out of garbage bins on the street.

Fraggle had less success panhandling than Stephanie. He was self-conscious, introverted, and male, and perhaps because he had been on the streets longer, much more cynical. Fraggle's main source of income was shoplifting. On the street, there was a market and fence for almost anything. Stephanie rarely shoplifted for fear of getting caught, but Fraggle lifted videocassettes, CDs, and the hottest titles from the major bookstore chains and sold them to street vendors who then sold them at a reduced price. He stole Colgate toothpaste, Café Bustello, Excedrin PM, Nyquil, Lysol spray, Black Flag roach killer, Endust, Ajax dishwashing liquid, cheese, and candy bars, which he sold to a bodega on the Lower East Side. He also stole clothes and backpacks and socks and underwear for himself. When he was dope-sick and needed money, he gave hand jobs and received blow jobs.

It was a risky way to live, so Stephanie and Fraggle tried to meet daily at one p.m. to reassure themselves that neither was in jail or in trouble. They met again, late at night, and settled into a doorway or near a tree by the East River to sleep. In the morning, they separated and went to work.

Not every day, however, went as planned. One Tuesday in late August, it was ten o'clock at night before Stephanie saw Fraggle again. He'd left her sleeping in a doorway on Seventh Street early that morning and hadn't shown up at noon as she'd expected. Stephanie had spent the afternoon worried. When Fraggle finally walked into Tompkins Square Park, she'd just shot a bag of dope and simply wanted to be alone with him.

But Fraggle was dope-sick: His eyes were red, his nose was running, and his hands were trembling. If he didn't get a bag of heroin soon, his entire body would start to quake, his stomach cramp. The quickest way to make money was to shoplift. If he stole ten bags of coffee, sold the coffee for $1 per bag, he'd make enough cash for a bag of heroin. But there was a problem. At this hour, the supermarket would be empty. He'd have to go in with enough cash to buy something. When he told Stephanie his plan, she gave him $5 and reluctantly agreed to go with him. She hated it when Fraggle shoplifted because even though he seldom got caught, she knew it was just a matter of time before he was arrested, leaving her alone on the street.

Fraggle moved quickly, and dragging her laundry cart behind her, Stephanie struggled to keep up. When they reached Fourteenth Street, Stephanie parked her cart against an apartment building across the street from the supermarket. Grabbing her panda, she sat on the cement and leaned back against the bricks. Wearing an empty backpack, Fraggle crossed the avenue and walked into the supermarket. He'd told me he was going to buy cereal. I sat beside Stephanie and waited.

Months later, Fraggle told me what happened. The first thing Fraggle did when he passed through the sliding doors was scan the room. He'd hit the supermarket many times before and knew the layout. There were no cameras or door alarms. That night, the store was nearly empty, and because it was late, only two store employees were working.

The bodega that Fraggle did business with wanted Café Bustello. His hands were shaking, but Fraggle walked confidently toward the coffee aisle. When he noticed one of the employees sweeping the floor nearby, Fraggle kept walking. He'd played this game of cat and mouse hundreds of times. Watching, waiting, and anticipating his opponent's next move, Fraggle felt the adrenaline surge through his body, his heart pounding. It felt good. Wandering through the store, Fraggle picked up cans of peas and boxes of detergent, inspecting the labels carefully, then putting them back on the shelves. By the time he grabbed a box of Honeycombs cereal, the coffee aisle was empty.

Quickly, he swung his backpack off his shoulder, unzipped it, and shoved in ten bags of coffee. Now all he had left to do was to buy the cereal. Fraggle walked to the front of the store, his eyes focused on the check-out counter. He was just a few yards from the cash register, when the store manager grabbed him from behind. When Fraggle tried to pull away, a second man grabbed Fraggle and dragged him to a back room, where they dumped the ten bags of coffee out of his knapsack and onto a table.

The manager yelled at Fraggle, telling him he was tired of having kids like Fraggle rip him off. He dared Fraggle to run away and threatened to punch him. When Fraggle raised his hands to protect his face, the manager grew even more angry. When the police finally arrived forty-five minutes later, Fraggle was relieved to see them. His body was aching, his hands trembling, and in jail he knew he would get methadone.

Across the street, Stephanie sat slumped, still high from the bag of dope she had done an hour earlier. Her head bobbed up and down as she drifted in and out of consciousness, saliva dribbling from the side of her mouth. People who walked by glanced at her, then quickly away: Some stared with sympathy; others with disgust. Some dropped coins and bills into her cup. A kid in his late teens, carrying a heavy backpack and wearing a silk-screened T-shirt of the Puerto Rican flag, bent over and dropped a ten-dollar bill in her lap.

Suddenly, two police cars with their lights on sped up to the curb in front of the store. Fifteen minutes later, nearly an hour and a half after he had entered the store, Fraggle came out handcuffed. "I love you, Stephanie," he yelled across the busy intersection, his hands locked together behind his back. Stephanie, out cold, heard nothing.