Third in a series of occasional articles chronicling the people, and the world, of Bus 19.
The parking lots were half empty. A few shoppers languidly poked among the stalls and stores at the Roxbury Mall but mostly didn’t buy. Merchants stood idly in empty shops, using their cellphones or watching the clock. In Dudley Square, a man named Sunny perched on a stack of plastic crates in front of the cash register of his dusty little shop on Washington Street.
“Down, down, down,’’ he lamented about the state of business. But then he said: “Things will pick up. Come back tomorrow.’’
The next day, customers poured into his shop to buy lottery tickets, soda, and trinkets. Lines snaked from ATMs in Dudley Square, out the door of a cable TV pay center down the road. On the sidewalk outside the Roxbury Mall, cheerleaders performed for donations as hawkers selling cigarettes, watches, or bottles of cheap perfume weaved among the crowds disgorged by buses at the curb. The commercial corridor of Roxbury that Bus 19 traverses buzzed, a neighborhood come to life.
The difference between the two days is as simple as the turn of a calendar page: One was the last day of the month. The next the first, when $8 million in public assistance began to flow in a neighborhood where poverty and unemployment are among the city’s highest and every other person receives some form of government assistance.
It is a moment of relative prosperity that comes once a month - and it’s not a lot, divided by so many. Bills are paid, groceries bought, children brought to the doctor. Sales of just about everything rise - books, furniture, food, the colorful church hats that hang from wire racks. Also, of course, here as anywhere, drugs and alcohol.
The tide of money washes in at the first of the month and just as quickly recedes. The food stamp rush, some call it. Or Mother’s Day, because of the large number of women with children who suddenly have cash to spend. People live by it, businesses plan for it, a small industry of hawkers arrives with it and disappears when it’s gone.
“We know the people get their checks every month, and we get ready for them,’’ said Julio Dasilveira, manager of a McDonald’s at the Roxbury Mall, where business jumps by 20 percent in the first week of the month.
Most of all, most everyone in the neighborhood comes out, like Latiesha Medina and her grandmother did, boarding a No. 19 bus after weeks of carefully rationing the meals still in the cupboard and the few dollars she had left to spend.
At the bank before it opens
Morning arrived in Dudley Square with a brilliant sun and people already waiting at a corner bank branch. Benefits had come in the form of paper checks, electronic benefits cards newly charged with money, or bank accounts that had received deposits overnight. Welfare. Social Security. SSI disability money. Cash assistance. Many people here work hard for a living, but many more receive state and federal benefits that also include food stamps and rent subsidies.
As it always does when the calendar turns, the bank filled with people in long, winding lines, anxious to withdraw. For many, it is the first stop of a busy day. They had bills to pay, landlords to appease, food to buy.
Mary Dunn was one of the first to arrive. A 70-year-old grandmother who takes care of a 46-year-old mentally disabled son, her money ran out more than a week before, like it often does. That morning, $1,001 from Social Security was waiting in her account. So she woke early, dressed quickly, and rushed to beat the throngs.
She got there even before the bank opened. A bank employee arriving for work recognized her and said: “Did you sleep here?’’
When Dunn and others were allowed in, she filled out a withdrawal slip and handed it to a teller, who counted out $900 in cash.
She quietly put the cash in her handbag and slipped past people in line behind her, hurried outside and walked quickly. Having so much money in her purse made her nervous. Predators target people like her at the first of the month, she said. But she had one of her sons with her. He weighs 240 pounds, and he makes her feel safe.
By then, the morning crowds had grown thick. People stood in line at check-cashing stores and banks. Jahira Cirino waited at a sidewalk ATM, where she could get $704 in SSI money. She recited a list of things she would do once she got the money: A third would go toward rent at the shelter where she lives. Another $175 would be set aside by the shelter in a kind of savings account to help her some day get her own apartment. She would buy lotion and shampoo and take her two children to the clinic.
“I set up all my doctors’ appointments for this day,’’ she said.
Before the week was out, the money would be gone.
“I try to make it last,’’ she said. But it usually doesn’t.
“All of us around here are on limited income, and we know we’re not going to get any more money until the first,’’ said 72-year-old Gladys Stewart.
It’s true for Dunn, too. She hopes each month to save a little. She dreams of setting aside enough for a cheap old car, to set her free from the bus and the need to beg for a ride. Lately, she has been wishing for winter boots that don’t leak. But no matter how hard she tries, she never seems to have much left over.
She hurried down the block to the Western Union, as she does every month, to buy money orders for rent and other bills. It’s a common practice in the neighborhood. Many have checking accounts, but a box full of checks costs more than they want to pay all at once. So they prefer to buy money orders for about a dollar as they need them. People were already in a long, slow line. Men fanned themselves. People with tired faces leaned on walkers. Dunn took her place at the end and waited.
When she was finally through, she made her way to a counter, sorted her bills, and slipped each of the money orders she had just bought into the envelopes. All but a few dollars of the $900 she withdrew was spoken for. That and the $101 that remained in her bank account needed to last the next four weeks until another payment arrived. She can’t remember a time when small expenses and emergencies didn’t eat up most of that money. Still, she thought she might find a way to save some this time, maybe get to Marshall’s and see how much a pair of new boots would cost.
Finding new ways to hustle
A mile away, at the Roxbury Mall, a woman with an orange hat sold curried goat and stewed chicken from insulated lunch totes she had set in a grocery cart. Smooth talkers revealed watches from inside their jacket pockets. A man sold single cigarettes for $1 each.
On the sidewalk, three cheerleaders trying to raise money for new uniforms were leaping and clapping. People dropped dollars and quarters in collection cans set out on the walk as the girls kicked and sang out.
“Hustle it!’’ they shouted. “Hustle boys, hustle!’’
The cheer seemed almost an exhortation to the crowd. A gray economy of peddlers, freelancers, and opportunists appears on the day benefits arrive. And they do a thriving business.
One of them was a man who identified himself only as “the DVD man,’’ who hawked bootleg movies and music CDs from a black duffel bag.
“It’s like the government check is for me,’’ he said. “I’ll come out with not a dollar in my pocket and go home with 200.’’
It’s not the finest job in the world, but it’s better than what he did when he was younger, he said. He used to deal drugs and steal. He did time for that. Now, he’s 48, with two young children. At night after the kids go to bed, he burns CDs and DVDs on his laptop. Sometimes he goes to a warehouse in New York to buy knock-off Timberland, North Face, and Adidas gear, which he sells on the side. He comes around with movies and music at the first of the month.
Today, he’s staked out a spot against a wall outside the Save-A-Lot grocery store. “Movies! CDs! DVDs!’’ he shouted, pacing and moving his hands. He kept moving, even while slipping photocopies of DVD covers into their plastic casings. An older man approached. “What DVDs you got?’’
“Killer Elite,’’ the DVD man responded. “Robert DeNiro’s new flick. Everybody’s been asking me for that one.’’
The man took it and handed over $5.
“Obama said be creative,’’ the DVD man said. “I’m being creative. I’m not sticking up and robbing people like I used to do. I’m making an honest living.’’
On that Saturday morning, he was surrounded by other men who long ago were small-time dealers, including one called Tex and another called Microwave, because he “used to heat it up on the ball court.’’
A woman walked by, talking angrily into her cellphone, complaining that her boyfriend had already emptied her newly refreshed EBT card.
“Shame,’’ Tex said. “You see that all the time. She probably got embarrassed when she tried to get her groceries.’’
The men shook their heads. Then one of them said the biggest hustle is not in the neighborhood but outside it, run by big companies that target poor blacks with slick ad campaigns, enticing them to buy expensive things they don’t need.
“We make everybody else rich,’’ The DVD man said. “Look at MetroPCS, Timberland, Adidas. They wouldn’t be anywhere without black people’s money.’’
The men nodded and grew quiet, watching the cars circling the packed parking lot and the gypsy drivers making their fares.
A man with flowing, shoulder-length hair walked by and gave a chins-up to the group. Some time back, he had come around with his own bag of bootleg DVDs. But the DVD man’s crew gave him a warning, and he left.
“I’m the only one who sells DVDS around here,’’ the DVD man said.
Lingering in the Square
Bus 19 rolled into Dudley Square and released a crowd. A young man with a package under his arm got off and jogged through the square. He had new shoes on, Cadillacs. The sneakers were black, shiny, and bore the automaker’s logo. He strutted a little. They cost less than $30.
The man, Hakim Best, breezed to a cluster of street vendors and surveyed their wooden carts. He was going to see a friend, bringing a gift he bought in Fields Corner - another pair of Cadillacs. The friend was going to love this because he repairs old Cadillac cars for a living.
“I’m going to surprise him,’’ he said.
He paused at Amadu Pah’s booth and eyed the sunglasses on display, quickly selecting a pair.
“How much do I owe you, man?’’ Hakim asked.
At Frugal Bookstore, Takeyda Allen went in with a friend. She shouldn’t be here, she said.
Books are for people who have money. And Takeyda, polish chipping from her fingernails, doesn’t. The welfare and child support in her bank account had to buy baby food and rent and everything else that would come up in the month ahead. She carried no cash in her purse.
But reading is her passion. On the shelves were fresh copies of “The Help,’’ and long rows of books on black history. Allen lingered in a section of urban fiction. She loves stories of people whose struggles she recognizes, of happiness in small victories, of beating the odds.
The owner of the store, Leonard Egerton, came by and pointed to a book in front of her that’s been a good seller. “That’s by Ashley and JaQuavis,’’ he said, disrupting the silence. “I call them the Beyonce and Jay-Z of the book world.’’
Takeyda nodded but kept looking. After awhile, she took “A Hood Chick’s Story’’ to the counter and signaled to Egerton that she’d be right back. When she returned a few minutes later, she had cash.
Outside the welfare office in Dudley Square, Sheila Mullins was feeling down and unpretty.
Her boyfriend had left town. All she could think about was her hair. She was tired of looking at it, tired of fighting with it, tired of covering it up.
“It’s just nap-ti-fied,’’ she said.
She’s 22 and has a 1-year-old son, Zachariah. She makes a little money from a part-time job at a movie theater and gets welfare and food stamps. There’s not enough money to go to a salon, which would cost more than $100. Even hair weaves would be at least $60.
Leaving the welfare office today, she walked past beauty supply stores and imagined herself with straightened hair cascading down her shoulders. She paused by Dudley Department Store, where packs of hair weaves were on display, and went inside.
She didn’t plan to buy anything, or told herself that. But then she saw the wigs - long ones, brown ones, curly ones, kinky ones. Many were under $30. She tried on a black one, then a dark brown one with tresses that flowed around her face.
“Yeah, that’s nice,’’ she said, nodding approvingly at her image in the mirror. “I’m going to get this.’’
At shelter, some quiet time
On another day, the day shelter for women who are addicts and prostitutes near Grove Hall would be crowded by now.
Women would be lounging on a sofa in the living area, taking sandwiches set out for them, perhaps getting counseling from one of the shelter staff members. But today, with the arrival of benefits, the shelter is all but empty.
“We’re lucky if we get three or four people all day,’’ said Yolani Dolmo, a 46-year-old program manager at the shelter.
With the money, some simply go off to live for a few days as though they are not destitute, buying their own food or clothes. Sometimes they rent a room somewhere. Most certainly, staff members say, some buy drugs.
A day before, a 50-year-old woman named Panda sat on a couch, hugging a pillow to her chest and staring at the TV. She used to be a streetwalker to feed a crack habit, she said. Hitting bottom several years ago, homeless and hungry, she sought help at the shelter. Now she doesn’t crave the drugs like she used to, she says, but sometimes when she gets her $704 SSI allotment, she finds a way to buy a hit.
“Every now and then I use my money to buy drugs,’’ she said, eyes red and glazed. “I don’t have to have it like I used to - but once in a while.’’
The staff has learned to use the once-a-month break when the women leave. They stock food, catch up on paperwork.
They’ll be busy again when the women inevitably return.
“It’s over in a couple of days,’’ says Malkia Kendricks, who runs the shelter, Women Connecting Affecting Change. “And they are back to square one. That’s when we see them. And usually when they come back they are angry.’’
Stretching food for a month
Latiesha Medina’s bus arrived at the Roxbury Mall in the afternoon. She and her grandmother stepped into the clamor. They made their way through the crowd and pulled shopping carts from the row of carts outside the Save-A-Lot grocery store.
The Save-A-Lot, perhaps more than any business, sees the wax and wane of the benefits cycle. It can be nearly empty at the end of the month, but on the first, crowds stream in. The store doubles the food on its shelves, opens extra checkout lanes, gives employees more work hours, and restocks the shelves every half-hour to keep pace with food flowing out the door.
For Medina, the day is a relief. A can or two of corn and ketchup and mustard are the only things left in her cupboard and fridge. She is used to the daily calculus of making food and money for her three young children last. Much of the time, she’s not even aware of the silent stress that presses on her until money comes and she feels like she can breathe again.
“Being poor is stressful,’’ she says. Because the food stamp money she counts on comes a week later than other benefits, she asked her grandmother, who receives Social Security on the first, for help.
She would rather be working. She has held jobs off and on, and earlier this year she worked at a gas station. But the welfare office, she says, mistakenly thought she was making $500 a week instead of every two weeks and cut her benefits. Raising three young boys on her own was too expensive, and Medina quit to get full government benefits again.
Shopping today, Medina took her time, passing up and down the aisles three times to make sure she had everything. Chicken. Juice. Cereal. Frozen dinners. She paused at the baby food section, checking the expiration dates on jars of pureed apples and pears
When she and her grandmother at last headed for the checkout line, Medina’s cart was brimming with groceries, and after a long wait in line, they left laden with bags. A bus would be coming soon. But the bags were heavy. At the curb, Gypsy cab drivers shouted to the people emerging from the store, “Taxi! Taxi!’’ After a moment of hesitation, they hailed one. There was a little extra money today.