Saturday, May 30, 2009
Breakfast Under Tiffany's
Freddy Lopez was walking in Manhattan, probably with his eyes looking just past his toes, while two police cars followed in pursuit. The chase didn't last long. Two officers jumped out of the first car arrived and threw Freddy onto the hood. A woman sitting in the back of the car was screaming, letting the officers know this was the guy who stole her Sidekick mobile phone.
The second cop car arrived. An officer stepped out and told the cops to let him go. Let him go? This woman saw him steal her flip-phone. On what grounds should they let him go? While the confrontation became heated between the cops, Freddy was bent over the hood in handcuffs.
Officer, if you want to keep your badge, you will let this man go and get this woman out of here.
As it turns out, the officer speaking on behalf of Mr. Lopez was standing next to him when the whole thing went down. The accuser dropped her Sidekick in the sewer grate when Freddy Lopez showed up. He offered to get it out for her using a long string wrapped around a pocket knife, a gold die (as in, rolling die) tied to the end of the string, a super adhesive glue used to trap rats, and a cone shaped device he made to divert water, which he calls "Moses." Oh, and he'd do it for $20. She said yes, and just seconds later the Sidekick was in his hand, pulled up from a distance Freddy called "deep." When she said she wouldn't pay him, he told her he was keeping it and walked away. That's when she called the cops.
You see, Freddy Lopez is an urban treasure hunter. He walks the streets, sometimes from 59th to Chinatown, searching the depths below his feet for everything that's accidentally slipped or dropped off 8 million people.
* * * * * *
Eleven years ago, Freddy came across an Italian guy who was dipping string through the grates with peanut butter smeared at the end (of what, I didn't ask). Mr. Lopez asked the Italian what the hell he was doing, probably having the same conversation I had with Freddy this morning when I met him searching for treasure outside my weekend bagel shop in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He pulled the string up, wiped the mud off his find, and showed his soon-to-be protégé a silver ring. Freddy was impressed, but when the Italian opened up his briefcase, he was nothing short of stunned. A whole case filled with rubies, black & white diamonds, every karat of gold, rings, bracelets, everything. You should pawn it all, Freddy suggested. The Italian said no, he only pawns when he is hungry, and even then he only sells one piece at a time. Mr. Lopez started fishing the streets then, and he claims has been doing it everyday since.
In those eleven years, Mr. Lopez once found a partner to join him in their sewer heists. These were great times, he told me. "He would take one side of Manhattan and I would take the other." Like any great alliance - Simon & Garfunkel, Lucy & Desi - their partnership couldn't last. While Freddy and his friend were being interviewed by a woman reporter of "Manhattan Magazine," his partner's wife became uncomfortable with the reporter hanging around her husband, so she decided to join them during the interview. The details are fuzzy, but Freddy told me the jealousy and insecurity his partner's wife led her to pull out a butcher knife on the reporter. The partnership ended, and Freddy has been searching the sewers solo ever since.
Freddy calls what he does "a good hustle." He has found iPods, gold anklets, engagement rings, Tiffany rings - one just outside a Tiffany's store - and every other type of jewelry, his favorites he keeps on a chain around his neck (see picture). The rest he sells to his friend on 47th, "a Jew," he tells me, who taught him all about diamonds. His "good hustle" also affects his karma. He once rescued a police officer's car keys, and then was rescued by this same police officer during another altercation with the police months later.
But most importantly, he occasionally provides a service to people that, otherwise, would have no other option but to say goodbye to their belongings, no matter how sacred their losses are. The woman who lost her Sidekick, who refused to pay Freddy for his deed, was blinded by her considerable luck for dropping it right when the man with the right tools and skills walked by - if she had dropped her engagement ring instead, she might have believed she had witnessed divine intervention.
Before Freddy continued walking east down Lafayette Street in Brooklyn, our conversation ended with Freddy picking up pennies from below a bench next to me. I asked him if he picks up pennies from the sewers. He told me yes. "Everybody puts all their change in the same pocket. That's wrong. You gotta put your pennies in your left pocket and the rest in your right. That's the only way you get lucky."
* * * * * *
Freddy Lopez has no phone number, but he gave me his address if I ever need him. He lives in Red Hook.