By James Maher
Name: Jamie (he declined to have his photo taken)
Occupation: Check Cashing Guy
Location: 5th Street between 1st and 2nd
Date: 4:30 pm on Monday, Aug. 25
I’m from Brooklyn, East New York. I grew up in the projects. I had a great time. Projects back then were a little bit different than they are now. I thought they were great.
When we were growing up the playground consisted of monkey bars, one round cement thing and a seesaw. Concrete everywhere. There was no rubber or nothing like that. Everybody who has ever played on that would tell you that they either busted their shoulder or something like that. Everybody got hurt on one of those things.
The thing that I loved about the projects was that you had to negotiate within your building, then this building across from you might not have liked your building, so you had to negotiate with them, and not only that, but your development might not have liked the development across the street.
But the best thing was that it was a community. Everybody knew you. If you did something wrong you were in trouble before you even got home. When they said that the night has a thousand eyes, believe me, they knew. It was a good time, plus we had an imagination. We had nothing indoors, so everything was outdoors. A stick was everything in the world to us. Now if you give a stick to a kid he’s just going to hit you with it.
My grandparents opened this store in 1946, so for 67 years this place has been around. It used to be on East 2nd Street and when they closed that they moved here. My grandparents used to take me into the store when I was 8 years old. They had four stores. All the brothers and my grandfather had a store. There was another store on Broadway and Bleecker. I was always taken to that store. That was where my grandmother would take me, away from my grandfather and uncle. I was always the guy running up the bills, when everything was pen and paper. On the weekends if I didn’t run out fast enough it was, ‘You’re helping grandma today.’ That was how I got started.
Back then there were not many check cashers. Now there’s a whole flood. You had this check casher here, then you had one on Essex, Broadway and Bleecker, 14th Street, and 23rd Street. That was it. So if you’ve lived in this neighborhood, or you know anybody who was ever on the fringe, they went in, whether they paid a bill or cashed a check. We had celebrities from here to there. It’s amazing when I look at the old card file. In every walk of life there are a lot of interesting people and I won’t talk about them, but they made a lot of colorful nights that made your day go quick. It was always a warm feeling when people came in and they didn’t hate the store.
A lot of people misunderstand check cashing stores. You can’t just look at something now. You’ve got to take history into account. Back in the old days there were no banks around here. There was nothing here, and if there was a bank you needed $5,000 or $1,500 and they really didn’t want to deal with that type of population. They didn’t want the mother coming in with the two kids filling out all the forms. So check cashers arose to fill that need. We were the first ATM machines. Banks were 9 am-3 pm Monday through Friday, then say goodnight. There was no 24 hours. We filled the void that we would be open earlier and closed later. At the same time, there are a lot of people, whether they want to say it or not, living week to week with their paycheck. The majority of United States people owe a lot of money on credit. I think [all the banks around now] are a major write-off for them because you can’t have that many customers.
My father was killed during a holdup, working in his own store. That was 1972. So life changed at that point. I was 13. I don’t think my father wanted me to go into his line of work. He wanted me to be my own person. He used to say to me, ‘Jamie, I want to be known as Jamie’s father, versus you being known as Sidney’s son.‘ That was his biggest wish. School was very important. To get into a city school back then you needed an 85 average. There was no deviation from it. So I made sure I was in the 90s. It wasn’t a suggestion; it was a fact of life. You’re going to college.
Who knows, life would have been a little bit different. My mother suffered very badly from asthma and we were going to be going to Arizona at the time. That’s where the doctors recommended to go. We were ready to pick up and go. She was the one that stopped us. So that was it, we stayed around. Then my uncle passed away in 1988 and he offered the store to everybody else and nobody wanted it so I bought it from the rest of the family. I’ve been running it ever since then. The major thing is that when I walk in there it’s not a job. When I walk in there I see my grandmother, I see my grandfather. Cleaning out things, I come across handwriting. It’s a whole life in there and when I walk out and look at the neighborhood, it’s completely changed.
A job is one thing, but this is history. I cannot tell you how many people come in and say, ‘I was here when I was this big.’ They leave the neighborhood and come back and say, ‘You’re still here?’ I joke and say that they never gave me the key to get out. You see, there’s happiness. There’s a conversation. I know everybody, I know your name, I know your kids, I know if you’ve had an operation. There were a lot of colorful people, people that only wanted the money from their left hand. I couldn’t give it to you with my right hand.
We always charged less than other check cashers. I made a living, my kids were taken of and my wife was taken care of. I knew that there was a lot of hardship and if I could have helped, if I could put a dollar, or two or three or four in your pocket… so we always charged less. That was my way of giving back to the neighborhood. Unless you had been to another place, you didn’t know. So what happened was when I was closed for that one week people would come back and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m so glad you’re back!’ They would be shocked.
There’s a lot of hurt; you see it. When you work the window it’s worse. You hear the pain; you hear things; you see the aging. You’ve got kids just starting off and parents with two kids… if I can give you a happy meal. My accountant hates my guts. A lot of check cashers hate my guts because I make them look bad. They wouldn’t give me certain services unless I raise my rates. I tried to explain to people that they’re not charging you more, they’re not stealing from you, they’re charging you the legit rate that I could charge you, but I’m not. It put a smile on me.
So far nothing has been happening [getting back into the store]. I’m trying to get in. That’s the most important thing. I’m trying not to make waves, just trying to get inside. I just don’t understand why it’s taking so long. What happened was there was some construction being done [in the building] and a person put their foot through the ceiling. The person below them had enough and finally called the fire department and police department. Because of the condition of the place, the fire department looked, didn’t like what they saw, didn’t see any permits, and they went around the whole building. By the end of the day, it was everybody out — full vacate.
There’s hope because we know that there are people in the building [on the 4th floor]. So I don’t understand why they don’t let us back there. We were hoping for a resolution a little bit faster than it has. It was supposed to be a lot faster. It was a, ‘Ra ra, we’re going to get you guys in.’ I thought it was going to be one or two days, but then I saw that wasn’t happening. But I’m learning a little history. This is one building but it used to be two buildings. In the 1950s these were two separate buildings and they combined the two. So that’s why the other side is back in. They’re in a different structure.
A lot of people don’t see me now [in an armored truck across from the store]. I had to rent the truck. This was supposed to be a stopgap and next thing you know it’s becoming a way of life.
What’s upsetting is that no matter what happened, we were always open. If there was a blackout, we were open. During Hurricane Sandy and the blackout, we were open. People knew. They would come around the corner. People would come from the Bronx and Brooklyn. They had check cashers right underneath them, but they’d say, ‘You know what, you treated me like a person. I walked in, I was just going on recovery or something like that, you didn’t talk down to me, I’m your customer for life.’ They knew no matter what happened, there’s a light on. That’s what’s hurting me the most is that I’m not in there.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.