THE FOUL SMELL OF "PINE PIMPIN’"▷ A school-age boy peddles car freshener on the 145th Street Bridge in the South Bronx in 1990.
HE STOOD ON THE BRONX END of the approach to the 145th Street Bridge that crosses the Harlem River, the narrow strait that dissects 'money making' Manhattan and 'The Boogie Down.' An eastward-bound BX19 bus shoots past and the dust it kicks up engulfs the young man as he shields his eyes with the two cardboard displays holding pine-scented car freshener. That the boards are emblazoned with 'Air Freshener Center' is an irony not lost on me. Squinting, he spots an open-top jeep idling in the morning's traffic and runs over. “Dope car incense,” he yells. “Only one dollar.” There are four older boys in the car. After a few jokes at the incense peddler’s expense, they over-spin the Wrangler’s tires and tear away leaving the acrid smell of burnt rubber in their wake. Looking drab and defeated, the boy returns to the concrete median barrier near 149th Street and River Avenue and cops a squat. No sale.
▷ Pine Pimpin' on the 145th Street Bridge.
A short time later, another boy of similar age approaches and it quickly becomes clear that he is also in the scent business. It's also obvious that he's more street savvy: he's detached his batch of fresheners from their cardboard backing and is holding them fanned out like a prized hand in a game of poker. Mister Savvy cuts in front on his partner although he was there first. Then it strikes me: they are working on commission and it's 'every man for himself' in a scented bout of survival of the fittest. He wedges past and puts his hand on the table: "Car freshener, Mister," he beckons aggressively to a man with his car window rolled down. "Do your parents know you're cutting school?" comes back the answer from inside the vehicle. Another revelation hits me: this IS taking place during school hours, where given their age, is precisely where they should be.
The traffic begins to move and boys step back, being careful as the merged traffic (due to road work) separates into two lanes again at this point.
▷ A pine peddler's job is never done.
In more affluent neighborhoods, kids peddle lemonade during the school year's summer break from the edge of a manicured lawn. Here, in the poorest congressional district in the nation, that Rockwellian tableaux is a scarcity, as are the social service programs that would keep them off the streets and engaged in sports or other recreational activities during the hot and turbulent days of an urban summer. Two terms of President Ronald Reagan's "Reaganomics" made sure of that, as the 'trickle-down' he promised never made it into this region. The era of 'Giuliani time' would not be ushered in for another three years, where upon he would take aim at 'squeegee men' with an iron-hand crackdown via his so-called "quality-of-life" initiatives that would mostly affect communities of color and the poor (civil liberties be damned). Surely, panhandling, graffiti, public drinking, prostitution, homelessness, and school-cutting adolescents peddling pine would be at the top of that list.
For their efforts, they are rewarded with a dollar for every 12-count board of freshener they sell, the oldest one—who appeared to be legally an adult—pockets the rest. “Pine Pimp,” I immediately thought to myself at the time. On this day, five underage boys are working the bridge: 3 boys have earned $3 dollars each, another has made $2, and another gets to take a single buck home after a long day of criss-crossing dangerous traffic and missing a full day of school. For the pimp in the racing motif jumpsuit, it's another matter: he has effectively taken in $132 tax-free, less his initial wholesale investment and $11 paid out to his rag-tag contingent of peddlers (combined). Despite all the sweet pine being chucked about, something doesn't smell quite right here...
▷ The crew watches over the operation.
More than the promise of making a few dollars, however, the boys appear genuinely content in the camaraderie that palling around with older males affords. On the bridge they are transitional, working in a vacuum between seeming to be headed somewhere and nowhere at once. But among themselves, they are creating a sense of purpose and belonging. I wasn't sure if they had crossed over from the Harlem or Bronx side. What was certain—at least to me—was that these young men were being used as pawns in a bigger game than mere 'big brothership.' And with that notion, I trek back home to soup the film. I've smelled enough.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
▷ The 'get fresh' posse poses with their product and earnings after a long day's toil on a bridge headed to Nowhere USA.
Published: 10/1/15. Images shot 1990.