Every driver who ever plied the streets of Manhattan in the eighties remembers daily encounters with “squeegee men,” characters of questionable character who ambushed stopped cars with squeegees (or rags or wads of newspaper) to clean their windshields in return for a handout, purportedly for food, whether the windshields needed cleaning or not. Seinfeld even alluded to the practice in the episode “The Gymnast,” where George was suspected of being a bum for wiping down the windshield of a limo. I experienced my share of ambushes, and it got to where I knew exactly where the next one lay, as prime ambush real estate was as prized and staked out by those urban entrepreneurs as viewing spots for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
I eventually made my peace with the ubiquitous panhandlers, budgeting an extra two or four bits for every commute home from work. Some battles just aren’t worth fighting, although making a traffic light and zipping past an outstretched hand was a small victory to be had now and again. I figured that these guys were better off begging for their meals than stealing for them like their less inspired brethren were inclined to do.
And so it was with particular amusement and enjoyment that I witnessed a couple of incidents on such commutes. At the New York City entrance to the Holland Tunnel one day, I was approached by a very happy, very animated little sort with very few teeth who waved and said, “Hey man, I’m not gonna bullshit you—I just want some money for a beer!” I laughed, out loud. His fresh sincerity won me over and I gave him a couple of quarters. Honesty shoots and scores.
Another time I was inching along a traffic-clogged street where I knew a particular squeegee-wielder plied his trade. It was a dreary day, heavy with drizzle. Sure enough, at the appointed spot my man stepped out from between parked cars, but something was different. He was wearing a large hand-scrawled cardboard sign that read, “Due to inclement weather window washing has been suspended, but your donations are sincerely appreciated.” I laughed, rolled down my window to call him over and gave him a buck. Again, sincerity and creativity from the most menial of “services” impressed me.
Rudy Giuliani made good on his promise to eradicate the practice of squeegeeing windows for loose change during his tenure as mayor, vowing to rid the city of the human detritus that gave the Big Apple a rotten image. Where all those independent contractors went I do not know, and a fond New York City tradition was erased forever like the passing of the last Horn & Hardart sandwich vending machines.
But a wise lesson in corporate marketing remains. The takeaway here is be honest. Be creative. Be persistent. Build your brand. Don’t take your customers for granted, earn their appreciation. If you do that, you can sell just about anything. Just ask the creators of Pet Rocks and soy milk.