PETER O. ZIERLEIN
Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.
For a delivery worker, perched on a bicycle with plastic bags of food dangling from each handlebar, Manhattan’s East Side offers many opportunities for a trip to the emergency room. I learn this one May afternoon as I trail 26-year-old Apolinar Perez, a chubby-faced Mexican immigrant who skillfully steers his black mountain bike through the chaos. A taxi switches lanes without warning, nearly clipping my front wheel. Suit-clad men and women stride purposefully into the street, too wrapped up in their phone conversations to notice they’re crossing against the light. A black Suburban with tinted windows screeches to a halt in front of us, directly in the path of the bike lane.
Perez arrived in New York City five years ago, after crossing the Texas border in the back of a truck while hidden beneath a pile of children’s toys. Since then, he’s delivered food for the same Italian restaurant, working eleven hours a day, six days a week. Pay couldn’t be simpler: before heading home each night, one of the managers hands him a $20 bill. That’s an hourly wage of $1.82–well below the state’s $4.85 minimum wage for delivery workers. The rest of his earnings come through tips, which average $60 a shift. There’s no overtime or healthcare, no sick days or workers’ comp. I inquire about any benefits I might be forgetting. “For Christmas they give me $50,” he says. “Sometimes.”
I first encounter Perez as he is locking up his bike in front of 500 Park Avenue, a large, glassy building that serves as the headquarters for the hedge fund Caxton Associates, which manages more than $11 billion. Caxton was founded in 1983 by Bruce Kovner, a broad-shouldered 63-year-old with bushy eyebrows and a ruddy face who was among the top-ten highest-paid hedge-fund managers in 2006, with an income of $715 million. Though he has never shied away from public involvement–Kovner is chair of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)–he does shy away from the press (an assistant told me he never speaks to the media). Perez wraps a chain around his bike’s frame and attaches it to a post, then grabs two orders of pasta and heads through the revolving doors. Every lunch hour in Manhattan, the very poor meet the very rich. Today, wealth will be distributed downward, slightly: Perez emerges with a $2 tip. “I usually don’t get very good tips from the fancy buildings,” he will later tell me.
Four blocks away from the offices of Caxton Associates is 590 Madison Avenue, a forty-three-story building made of steel and granite, boasting a backup generator that can service its corporate tenants for four days without refueling. Behind a desk on the first floor stands security guard Timothy Williams. Williams, who has been an employee of TNM Protection for a year, is a 24-year-old African-American who, like Perez, lives in the Bronx, the borough with the lowest rents in New York City. After graduating from high school in 2002 he joined the Army, partly in the hope that it would help pay for college. He served in Iraq from August 2004 to July 2005, fighting the war that Kovner’s AEI so aggressively pushed. AEI “Freedom Scholar” Michael Ledeen hoped the United States would turn the Middle East “into a caldron,” and AEI fellow Richard Perle promised that Iraq’s oil would pay for the reconstruction. “Maybe it won’t work perfectly,” admitted AEI vice president Danielle Pletka on the eve of the invasion, “but does that mean we shouldn’t try?”