A Salute to the NY Busybody

By Virge Randall

A City Council member once proposed deputizing New Yorkers to rat out drivers of cars that idle more than three minutes.  In return, they’d get a cut of the fines…anywhere from $350 to $1500.

So much for the old-school New York character called, “the busybody.”

Back in the day, the streets were patrolled by air, by dozens of observers scanning the area from their stations at their windows, cushioned by a a pillow, ever on the alert for mischief, or just good gossip fodder.  If the UN had observers like Jenny at the laundromat, Mary in the dry cleaners or Sadie at the corner newsstand, Iran wouldn’t be able to operate a microwave undetected, let alone a nuclear reactor.

Do you know what your kid did!?

My mom could barely make it back from shopping without somebody eager to tell her about how I was playing handball right underneath the “No Ball Playing’ sign on Third Street.  Or that my brother Vinnie was hanging on the back of the Avenue B bus to get a free ride to 14th street.   And these people snitched for free.

Imagine if they got paid for it. My mom could have crowd-surfed to the front door, over all the people waiting to rat us out.  But – when some guy tried to interest me in a puppy in his car around the corner, Mary from the dry cleaner did the retail equivalent of throwing herself on a hand grenade.  She left the cash register unattended to fetch me and tell the guy she was going to call the cops. She sat me inside her store with a comic book till my mom came home, and she did the baby sitting for free.

Most New York busybodies were elderly ladies with drooping hose, comfortable shoes, and brassy voices tuned by years of filter-less cigarette smoking and yelling at everybody.  Their days were spent straightening out garbage cans, coaching inexperienced parkers and screaming at litterers.

My block had a particularly talented busybody named Rosie AKA Honey Girl, a sturdy Yorkville native, built like a fireplug, with the personality of a firehose at full blast.  She was the Mayor of 83rd street; she got trees on our street and policed the ‘curb your dog’ rules.  She was willing to get her hands dirty to get the job done.  That’s not a metaphor.  She would pick up the offending waste and throw it at the dog’s owner. That’s commitment.

These ladies, though, weren’t in it for the money, but for the quality of life.  They were evenhanded about it.   If your motorcycle belched enough black smoke to trigger a papal election, you’d hear about it but if somebody tried to steal your motorcycle, they’d yell blue murder.

The Changing of the Guard

So let’s take a moment to ponder the passing of the Old School New York Busybody. Nowadays most busybodies seem focused on more cosmic issues than day to day ones of picking up dog poop. They’re a lot younger and they  stand outside Shake Shack with a clipboard, asking for signatures.  It might be safer for the New Wave Busybody to act like that.  Nowadays there are far too many people out there who don’t remember much from their last anger management class.

But don’t get me started about that

 

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