Monday, September 05, 2011
I arrived in northern Italy very late one night with a companion. We were not in the best of moods. Our reservation for an inn south of Florence had been placed by mail and was never received. They were booked solid. We drove north to Florence in hopes of securing a place to sleep for the night. We were relegated to the only place in the city with a room: a very overpriced hotel.
We had rented a car, and the hotel was located across from a train station. Adjoining the station was a municipal parking lot. Attendants in uniforms and caps were busy directing parking and collecting fees for overnight parking. I recall that the cost was around $10 - a fair amount at the time. The next morning, we examined the signs and realized we had been hustled; parking was free. With audacity, aggressiveness, and a few uniforms, those men had established a nice little night business with no overhead or taxes at the expense of ill-informed visitors.
In New York, the hustle takes on many forms tailored to to the city: chess playing, cigarette sales, subway swipers, three card monte, umbrella sales, highway water, flower sales, etc. Some activities are illegal, while others are just aggressive opportunism.
One variant of the street hustle is taking advantage of a captive audience dining al fresco on the sidewalks of the city. New York has few restaurants or cafes where outdoor dining is reasonably buffered from non-diners
(see Insult to Injury). Flower vendors will sometimes accost diners, as well as the homeless asking for money.
Over the years, I have seen a number of instances where individuals with pets, particularly unusual species, are demanding to be paid by onlookers who want to take photos. In 2006, I wrote Snake Charmer about a man with a snake, alligator, and macaw. More recently, I encountered a man with an enormous pet iguana on a leash in the park, demanding money as we took photos. Of course, photography in a public space for non-commercial use is perfectly legal, but many will try to intimidate amateurs and tourists into paying for the "privilege."
Here, in the photo at the Trattoria Spaghetto on Carmine Street, we have a hustle which combines the captive diner with the paid photo op extortion. As diners, passersby, and I took photos, Mr. Zoo York "asked" for payment.
Whether late night in Florence or by day on the streets of New York, adapted for the time and place, you will always find some variant of the urban hustle...
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