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Floating City

Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York
Venkatesh, Sudhir
Allen Lane


I arrived at the gallery early, nervous and excited. Shine was com­ing into my world. For five years, ever since arriving in New York City in 1997, I had been trying to understand the city's underground economy, the little-known world of shadows where people hid income, broke laws, and found an endless number of creative ways to make a buck. The technical term for my vocation is "ethnographer," which is a fancy word for a sociologist who spends a great deal of time watching people in their everyday situations—hanging out, to be precise, as opposed to using a survey or asking questions like a journalist. I was committed to the idea that time itself made a difference. Time to see the things that people might ordinarily hide, to hear them say the things they might ordinarily be ashamed of, to give them the sense of safety they need to reveal the things they fear, to build up bonds of trust. Ten years with Chicago's crack gang became the subject of my previous book, Gang Leader for a Day.

Now the challenge was the same: I needed a way in.

That was Shine. An accomplished Harlem crack dealer when I first met him, he'd been trying to expand into new markets as the crack business slowed. That meant going to Midtown and Wall Street, the Village and the Upper East Side. As I fol­lowed his adventures across society's boundaries, I met a huge vari­ety of people making a living outside the margins of the legal world—prostitutes, pimps, madams, adult filmmakers, immigrant wranglers, and a thousand varieties of middlemen taking their little piece of the action. Sometimes this became a formal study, as when I got a grant to research street markets in Harlem or interviewed more than 150 prostitutes as part of a collaboration with the Urban Justice Center, and sometimes I came away with little more than a tantalizing sense that things connected in ways I could not yet see. But the most fascinating and moving development of all was when Shine began meeting people I knew in my normal life—when the crossing of boundaries went from "interesting subject" to painful reality.

The party was already jumping when I arrived. Inside the big white loft, lumber and scrap metal and giant wrecking balls seemed to be strewn about aimlessly. It looked like an abandoned construc­tion site, not art, although it's possible that a decade of researching crime and poverty had made me a bad audience for this sort of thing.

Across the room, I saw Shine's cousin Evalina. I had known her for a few years. In my study of illegal economies, Evalina always seemed to pop up in surprising places. Short but voluptuous and always full of zesty energy, she had worked for Shine in high school, then ran away to the West Coast to find herself. After getting ar­rested for car theft and shoplifting, she finally came back to New York, where Shine let her sell cocaine again on the condition that she go back to school. Eventually she'd found her way to photogra­phy and then sculpture. She had a piece in tonight's show. I was beginning to think it might not be a bad idea to start following her adventures too.

"Isn't this exciting?" she said, coming up to me. "Don't you love all this crazy stuff?"

"Uh, yeah, exciting," I said. "Congratulations on getting into the show."

She smiled and seemed very happy, but I couldn't help thinking that she was trying a little bit too hard. Like me, she stood out in this sea of white faces. I knew from Shine that she was smitten with the art world of Soho and Chelsea and someday hoped to own a gallery of her own. In the meantime he was letting her keep 30 percent of every sale that she could make downtown. Evalina loved being able to accommodate her fabulous new friends, but she wasn't always so smart about getting their money up front. This was, in fact, one of the principal reasons Shine was coming to the gallery tonight. If he was going to survive in this new territory, he told me, he was going to have to find a way to make these damn artists pay up.

There he was now, standing in the doorway in his jeans, hoodie, and white high-top sneakers. He paused to scan the horizon, as any salesman would. He looked confident, tall, handsome—and com­pletely out of place.

With three people of color in the room, this was now officially the most "integrated" gathering I'd ever seen in Soho.

Shine hesitated for a moment. Maybe it was a moment's doubt; I can't be sure. Then he strolled up to a clump of wrecking balls that floated in midair courtesy of invisible strings. Painted a sickly green and black, they were big enough for a large man to hide behind.

I slid up next to him. "Some strange stuff." "Really? You think so?" I rolled my eyes.

He thought for a moment, looking at the huge floating balls. "I think they're cool."

In the last five years, I had seen him nurse his bruised knuck­les after a beatdown, care for a troubled relative, convince young men to take on the risks of the crack trade, and everything in between. Few things he could do would surprise me. But this surprised me. Was he putting me on? "Really? You think that thing is cool?"...