Wise Cracking on Columbus Avenue

On the morning of Friday, July 13, a heavyset New York City street vendor named Ron–”I’d rather not have my

On the morning of Friday, July 13, a heavyset New York City street vendor named Ron–”I’d rather not have my last name in print, for various reasons,” he said–arrived at the corner of West 68th Street and Columbus Avenue, where he sells used paperbacks, and discovered he was suddenly famous. Or rather, his bottom was suddenly famous.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

“I’m sitting here, I have the table set up, and somebody walks by and said, ‘Did you read the Post this morning?'” Ron recalled the other afternoon, sitting at his outdoor table in front of 67 Wine & Spirits. “And I said, ‘No.’ And he goes, ‘ Here! ‘ and pulls out a clipping.”

The clipping was page 13 of that morning’s Post where, below an article about Abner Louima’s $8.75 million settlement and above a piece on truancy in New York state schools, there was a large photograph of Ron sitting on a milk crate beside his book stand and its “ROMANCE BOOKS 1.00” sign. Ron’s back was turned to the camera and he was crouched down, reading–revealing a wide, milky-white, traffic-stopping chunk of his behind.

“A CRACK SALESMAN,” the Post ‘s caption read. “Butt seriously, folks, if this doesn’t get you in the mood for love, what will? A portly peddler at 68th Street and Columbus Avenue finds himself so deeply engrossed in one of the steamy romance novels that he’s hawking yesterday that he seems to have lost track of his trousers, as well as the time …”

The photo was a little startling, even for new editor Col Allan’s increasingly Benny Hill -ish Post . And Ron, who’d ridden in on a bus from his home in West Atlantic City in the darkness of the early morning with his business partner (also named Ron), became an unlikely overnight star. One customer who stopped by that morning asked for his autograph.

“It picked business up,” Ron said. “I had one guy who drives a limousine pick up like 15 books in the last two days. He thought it was funny as hell. The cops thought it was funny, too. One cop was going, ‘You ought to sue them!’ I thought, ‘Sue ’em for what?'”

Ron took a long haul off a Marlboro and draped his free hand over his pot belly, which was covered in an olive T-shirt. It was late afternoon and still hot outside, and beads of sweat had collected in his mustache and curly black hair.

“It must have been a very slow news day,” Ron said bemusedly. “But think about it: If it was anybody but you, what would you do? You’ve got to laugh.”

The weird thing, Ron said, was that he and Ron No. 2–who is also a fairly wide-bodied gentleman–had only begun selling books at this particular Upper West Side corner the day the Post photographer came across them.

“He [Ron No. 2] was standing over there and turned around and said, ‘Hey, someone just took a picture of you,'” Ron said. “And I’m going, ‘Of what ?’ And he said, ‘Of your butt !’ And I went, ‘Why in the hell would anyone want to take a picture of my butt ?'”

“I thought it was great,” Ron No. 2 said.

“Of course you did,” Ron said. “Because it was my butt, and not yours .”

Ron was asked if he took offense at the label “Portly Peddler.”

“Well, take a look at us,” Ron said. “We do kind of resemble that remark.”

“Yeah,” said Ron No. 2. ” Buttman and Robin.”

–Jason Gay

Mr. Smith Goes to Bat for the Knitting Factory

After an autograph session on a recent Monday at Other Music, a record shop in the East Village, the Clientele–a winsome indie-pop trio from London with songs about things like Joseph Cornell’s dioramas–stopped by the Leopard Lounge. They were tired and sober, but that wasn’t such a bad combination, considering they almost hadn’t made it into the country.

“The last few times we came here, we had to pose as holiday-makers–holiday-makers with lots of musical and electronic equipment,” said Alasdair Maclean, the Clientele’s front man (first among equals,really; Mr. Maclean runs his band as a socialist collective). By “holiday-makers,” he meant vacationers.

This time, however, Mr. Maclean’s band was playing bigger venues like the Knitting Factory and their record company, Merge, wanted to keep things legitimate, so the Clientele applied for the necessary papers. “We’re perfectly entitled to get visas,” Mr. Maclean said. “But they were really dragging their heels about it.”

A week before it was time to leave, the visas hadn’t come through, and Mr. Maclean started to worry. Merge called the Traffic Control Group, a company that handles visas, who in turn called … Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire.

At first glance, Mr. Smith–a conservative who made an ill-fated bid for the Presidency in 2000–is not exactly the kind of guy to open the country to socialists. But he is idiosyncratic (he’s an advocate for circus elephants and Russian space monkeys), and he apparently sympathized with a poor indie band trying to hit it big in the United States.

“They got him to fax a letter to the American embassy in London saying, ‘Give these people visas or I’m going to seriously kick your butt,'” Mr. Maclean said. “Straightaway, we got visas …”

Mr. Smith wouldn’t comment, but his press secretary, Eryn Witcher, denied that her boss had pulled special strings. “Their visas came through the normal way,” she said.

Ms. Witcher would not say whether Mr. Smith actually liked the Clientele, but Mr. Maclean didn’t seem to care. “I don’t know if he likes our record,” he said. “But we definitely like him.”

–Ian Blecher

Slam Poetry

Almost anyone who has seen an N.B.A. game in recent years can attest that the slam-dunk has been significantly devalued. When behemoths like Shaquille O’Neal ram a ball through the rim like an apple core going into a garbage disposal, it hardly looks like a feat, and even the best current artistes–Shaq’s Laker teammate, Kobe Bryant; the Toronto Raptors’ Vince Carter–usually replicate the dunks of originators like Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. The league’s annual slam-dunk contest has become a joke; most of the best players don’t participate.

But away from the arenas and spotlights, the dunk is still being transmuted and elevated. This was clear on Wednesday, July 11, at a slam-dunk contest at the West Fourth Street court in the Village sponsored by Mistic, a fruit-drink company. There, on a muggy night, men in their late teens and 20’s playing in raggy shoes put their multimillionaired idols to shame. There were dunking leaps over friends; dunking leaps over two friends; and if that wasn’t enough, a dunking leap over three friends. Someone rubbed Vaseline upon a ball and set it afire before taking off for the rim; Air Jordan, it seemed, had met Air Jackass .

The winner of the contest was a 25-year-old Antiguan named Carl Joseph, whom everyone at West Fourth knows as Wyclef since his long dreadlocks resemble those of the hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean. The first of Wyclef’s dunks was fairly unimpressive–a slippery runner down the baseline–but he followed that effort with a Wallenda-like leaper from the baseline that made the backboard shudder.

The third dunk, however, was different. From the sidewalk on Sixth Avenue, it appeared to be pretty much the same deal– run, leap, jam –but then Wyclef landed and spun around, revealing a cell phone held to his ear. The crowd erupted, and Wyclef found himself engulfed in high-fives.

“I had done that one before,” Wyclef said later. “I was talking to my girlfriend one day on the phone and I just dunked the ball. I said, ‘O.K., bay-bee , I just dunked the ball– gotta go .'”

The last of Wyclef’s dunks was the three-person slam. He assembled three men in the paint–none taller than six feet, but not toddlers, either–and hopped over them easily. The ball swam through the net, and Wyclef took home a big check for $1,000, which he promised to give to his mother.

“When you dunk, people must respect you,” Wyclef said. “When they see you coming down the court and they’re standing underneath the basket, they’re thinking, ‘ Oh, he’s gonna dunk on me! ‘ and the whole park is gonna be like, ‘ Oh, you just got dunked on! ‘ So the best thing for you is to get outta the way .'”

–Jason Gay

Wise Cracking on Columbus Avenue