Saturday, August 9, 2014

Squeegee Guys

The New York Post recently reported sightings of squeegee men on major arterials into the city, raising fears of the bad old days.

It is difficult to overstate the symbolic importance of squeegee men to the perceived health of New York City.  The concerns date back many years to the days when the crack epidemic exploded and the crime rate in the city increased drastically.  New Yorkers felt besieged.  Subway cars became traveling graffiti displays, and the murder rate rose precipitously.

And there were the squeegee men.  As the Daily News explained, "Back in the '80s, drivers knew the routine -- stop at a light, get swarmed by guys wielding squeegees and buckets of questionable liquids.  Slip one a buck -- blackmail by piss -- and drive on to the next stop light and the next squeegee guy."

In 1993 came what New York Times writer John Tierney described as the "Squeegee Watershed."  In that year's mayoral election, candidate Rudolph Giuliani promised to fix the situation and was elected.

"Before Giuliani," Tierney explained, "the squeegee guys who forcibly washed car windows were considered inevitable.  He (Giuliani) was mocked for ever suggesting that they should be banished.  Columnists called it a trivial issue, a mean-spirited attack on the poor.  But Giuliani ignored them and kept pressing the issue, and the squeegee extortionists disappeared."

Giuliani brought in a new police department head, William Bratton, who introduced a "broken windows" method of policing -- vigorous arrests for violations of minor laws -- that, together with focusing police presence in troubled neighborhoods and the easing of the crack epidemic, brought crime rates down smartly.

There were 2,420 murders in the city in 1993, then 2,016 the next year, Giuliani's first in office.  The downward trend continued smartly.  Last year 333 people, the lowest number ever reported, were murdered in New York City.

A new mayor was elected last year, and he brought William Bratton back as police commissioner.

Still, any suggestion that the squeegee men are back extorting unwilling motorists raises local concerns.

In fact, this may be an occasional ripple and not a portent of civic disintegration.

New York's other tabloid, the Daily News, shook up residents in 2011 with a report that squeegee men had been sighted near Time Square.  Its report at that time strove to calm the waters, saying "Naturally, for every crackhead waving a bucket of effluvia, there's a family man with a solid work ethic, as reformers have found."

Following that report, the Village Voice found a squeegee professional who had been arrested 186 times, often, apparently, for breaking the windshield wipers of cars whose drivers had refused to pay for his unsought service.

Earlier, in the Great Recession year of 2008, there were reports of laid-off workers who had turned to squeegee entrepreneurship.

Each time such reports bubble to the surface, New Yorkers get nervous.

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