“Hey buddy,” calls a hawk standing in a doorway. “You buyin’ or sellin’? What are you lookin’ for?” These men line the street, eyeballing every passerby, trying to move gold and diamonds. The sidewalks of 47th are alive, bustling with hustlers, and everyone is watching everyone. The cops and security guards are watching. The hawks are watching. Men, and it’s almost all men, stand around drinking cheap coffees and smoking cigarettes. They take out loupes, right on the sidewalk, to inspect the rocks in their hands. They are dealers, appraisers, polishers, hustlers, talking about carats and khazeray, the Yiddish word for junk. Which is what I’m wearing on my finger, a ring left by my father, gold with a cat’s eye stone at its center. I have no intention of selling it, but I want to have the experience, to be led into an upstairs room, above the street, to be appraised. I want to know what it’s worth. But first, a shoeshine.
There’s a man who walks the street with a wooden shine box and you’ll sometimes see him sitting in a portable chair, bending over a foot propped on the box. He’s not here today, so I go into the cramped lobby marked “Barber Shop” and “We Buy Bullion.” I climb into the chair. There’s some chaos here as two men are installing a security camera while another man, who appears to be in charge of the building, looks on. This man is built like a barrel, with an unbuttoned shirt to show off his gold chain, and he is bouncing a yellow tennis ball off the floor. The shoeshine man says, “This weather makes everyone crazy.” It’s been raining and muggy for days. Each time the tennis ball bounces, the shoeshine man gives me a wry smile that says we are sharing the same joke. I ask how business is going. “The rain keeps people away,” he says, rubbing a tin of black polish. “Same like car wash.” In a vending machine, there are bags of Israeli snacks. The flavors are onion, barbecue, and falafel.
I’m hungry so I go for lunch at Taam-Tov, a glatt kosher Bukharian place on the third floor of another building. I’ve been here a few times and always get the Uzbek plov, a dish of rice, meat, and shredded carrots spiced with saffron, washed down with a bottle of Chersi tarragon soda. It’s Russian, by way of Long Island, dyed the lurid neon green of Listerine, but instead of mint it tastes sweet and earthy. On the walls of Taam-Tov are murals of palm trees, deserts, the Mausoleum of Tamerlane with its lapis lazuli and gold-encrusted cupola alongside photos of celebrity customers, the boxer Floyd Mayweather and the fire chiefs of the FDNY.
Back on the street, I search for a place to get an appraisal. On my finger, I worry the ring with my thumb, back and forth. My father would’ve loved 47th Street. He was a dress wholesaler, a shmatta salesman, and while he was not Jewish, he wore a gold chai around his neck and spoke a little Yiddish. I feel like I am among his people, the wheelers and dealers. A man yells into his phone, “You want it? Seventy-one grand!” A peddler holds up a pair of designer leather belts, like snakes streaming from his hands, “good deal, good deal.” Another man calls out, “The kingdom of God is coming!”
Forty-Seventh Street will sweep you up if you let it. You can feel the desire, the energy of want, tugging at you as you walk. When I show the ring to one of the hawks, he leads me up a set of crooked stairs. On each riser: GOLD, DIAMONDS, WE BUY, LOANS, BROKEN JEWELRY. The upstairs hallways of the block are dingy and mysterious, narrow warrens where you’ll find rooms of men and women polishing and repairing, bent over work tables behind Plexiglass. In one room, a couple of pawnbrokers in yarmulkes sit playing a game that looks like backgammon, maybe the Middle-Eastern version known as Shesh Besh, checkers clicking across a board. The staircase’s banister, like every banister in the Diamond District, is sticky to the touch.
The appraiser is young and his desk is cluttered. On the wall, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, looks on. His white-bearded face appears all over this Hasidic street, often on stickers fixed to light poles, where he waves a hand above the words, “Welcome Moshiach,” the messiah. The appraiser fixes a loupe to his eye and inspects my father’s ring. He shrugs. “It’s only good for the gold,” he says, dropping it into a Tupperware container on a scale behind the desk. “Fourteen carats. I’d have to remove the stone.” I shake my head, but the haggle isn’t over. “What’s it gonna take to make you happy?” he asks. I tell him I’m not selling. “One-fifty? One-sixty?” I shake my head again. He says, “If it’s sentimental, don’t bother. Keep it.” He returns the ring and I head back to the sidewalk.
I walk on, pacing the street, taking in its details. I know it won’t last and want to hold it all. In the windows, pretty women in heavy makeup wave to people above piles of diamonds like iceberg litter. Blue Nazar amulets ward off the evil eye. One dealer has turned his booth into a shrine against Donald Trump, tacking up printouts with Trump’s face on a Wanted poster and the words “America shame on you.”
Hawks call out as I pass, “Hey, buddy. Buddy. What are you lookin’ for? Boss, hey boss.” I hear one guy say to another, “This street is dying. It’s very sad. It used to be so vibrant. But the Internet is changing that.” There are signs of 47th Street’s coming demise. Shops are moving. Buildings are padlocked and rat-poisoned, waiting to be demolished. The developers circle like vultures, hungry to turn this untamed block into another sanitized American mall. But for now, it remains an oasis, a place that still hums with the unruly soul of the city.