Red Hook Swimming Pool, Brooklyn

2010: Everything in New York City is expensive, and with such cost, you have come to ordinarily expect obnoxious and massive crowds, which 9.9 times out of 10 result in a subpar experience that makes you question why you live here in the first place. Consequently, as a New Yorker, your mind doesn’t have to venture so far to wonder what something free and in Brooklyn would be like.  You think of the worst thing in your life and multiply it by three hundred and ninety nine.  You are then relegated to thinking that quality summer fun without having to spend fees on “memberships” could only be had in the Caribbean, California, Florida, or essentially anywhere else but in this god-forsaken City.

But don’t despair, my cynical New Yorkers.  There are pockets of good to genuine good in the City that makes you believe that not only can the City work, but that government in this damn City could work.  It’s a mind-blowing concept.  And particularly mind-blowing when what we’re talking about here are public pools.

I think even before a dentist, a public pool in New York City is the least likely place that a rational New Yorker would want to visit.  Thoughts of piss and other substances in the pool.  Teenage thugs with wild, rabid pitbulls roaming the deck.  A multitude of painful and violent crimes waiting for those not in the right gang in the locker room.  Just all around unsanitary and unsafe conditions that would even make Kurt Russell in Escape from New York uncomfortable.

Enter Red Hook Swimming Pool, located on 155 Bay Street (between Henry and Clinton Streets), in Red Hook Brooklyn (or to people who just nod but don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, a fifteen minute walk from Ikea or Fairway Supermarkets [and if you can’t walk for fifteen minutes, really, should you be swimming?]; and to people who don’t know there was either an Ikea or Fairway in Red Hook, or even where Red Hook is, stay in New Jersey, and Hoboken, New Jersey, is still New Jersey).   This is the epitome of New York City government efficiency that puts the more fearful conceivable myths you have about NYC public pools and throws it down the drain.

1)  Is there piss in the pool? No, there’s no piss in the pool.  In fact, the water is extraordinarily clean.  Surprisingly clean.  Amazingly clean.  It doesn’t smell overly like chlorine, like some pools, that are simply compensating for the lead and uranium in their water.  There’s also no crap in the pool.

2) So, the pool, what is it, ten feet by ten feet? The pool seems bigger than an olympic size pool.  No kidding.  You would need a fisheye lens just to get all of it.  I was there on one of the hottest days of the summer so far.  There were about three hundred people in and around the pool.  It did not at all seem crowded.  It took five minutes for me to walk from the locker room to the opposite side of the pool.

3) How many lifeguards? There are lifeguards everywhere.  And they’re professional lifeguards.  Not lifeguards who are just checking out the bodies.  The lifeguards here actually look like they can swim.  They all wear recognizable orange uniforms and carry those floating devices like the ones on Baywatch.

4) It must be a madhouse in and around the pool, right? Wrong.  It kind of has the vibe of a senior citizen’s pool but without the senior citizens.  It’s quiet but not deathly Long Island or Westchester quiet.  It’s respectful.  It has the sounds of summer innocence, when you could play basketball from dawn to dusk without having to worry about drug dealers, where the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was the most hardcore mainstream media that you saw, and Michael Jordan was still trying to win his first championship.  People are kept in check by the multitude of workers walking around.  There’s also security around the pool.  No music playing.  No shirt wearing in and around the pool unless it’s a white t-shirt.  No smoking.  No bags.  No food.  No drinks.  No shoes (slippers only).  No profanities.  No horseplay.  No diving.  No jumping.  No long pants.  No street clothes.  No bandanas.  No weapons.  No bums.  No crack addicts.

5) Is there a place for kids to swim? The pool doesn’t get any deeper than four feet.  That means Greg Louganis wannabees or those looking to win the next cannonball contest will be nowhere near that pool.  On one end of the pool is for lap swimming.  The other end of the pool is for general swimming.  You know, where people just wade around and bounce around and hide their pasty white and often fat bodies underneath the crystal clear water.  Then there’s a separate gated off section for toddlers.  The water is less than a foot.  There’s sprinklers and lots of colors so that your toddler or newborn can feel comfortable.  And this, too, is big.  It’s not like wading in one of those inflatable pools at a summer picnic in Bayridge or in Rego Park or in Jericho.  This is the real deal.  Most importantly,  if you don’t have a toddler or a newborn, or if you are not a toddler or a newborn, you are NOT getting into this section.

6) Okay, where can I store my stuff? You can’t get in without a lock.  You must bring a lock.  There’s a bodega a few minutes away where you can buy one if you forget to bring one.  The locker rooms are open and airy.  The lockers are square cubby holes and were probably made in the McCarthy era.  But their solid, operational, and unless you have a chainsaw or a degree in the CIA, you’re not getting into these lockers without anyone noticing.  To get to the pool, you have to walk through the locker room.  There are continuous wooden benches that are wide enough to sit or to change your toddler’s diaper without worrying about him or her falling off.  There are locker attendants.  They are not there to offer you towels, because you had to bring your own towel.  They are there to answer your questions, and they do so politely and in English.  The locker room is well lit and well ventilated.  It’s never crowded but never completely empty.  You will feel safe.  The first time you go, you will not believe that you can actually feel safe at a public pool in New York City.

7) Where do I take a shower? There are showers.  After you walk through the locker, you walk through the shower area.  And because nothing is closed off, the showers are open.  Thus, there’s not going to be a lot of privacy in the shower if you decide to take a shower, but then again, you won’t have that trapped feeling like Jason is watching you from a hidden corner ready to slice your throat or well, you saw Oz, right?

8. But the bathrooms.  They must be a disaster, right? If these were the bathrooms at the Hyatt, I’d ask for a refund, but this isn’t the Hyatt.  Then again, it’s miles above the bathroom at Penn Station, and isn’t that bathroom how men’s bathrooms in the City are compared to?  Bottom line is that, like the bathrooms, everything is open (well, the toilet stalls have doors).  This means you will never have that trapped, I’m in a shithole and I can’t escape from that psycho/rapist/voyeur/robber hiding in the shadows.  If you do have that feeling when you walk by the bathrooms, the moment is a fleeting one.  Bottom line is that it’s clean and doesn’t smell.  There’s not much else you can ask for.

9) So how the hell do I get to this place, by helicopter? It’s not as easy as going from your sofa to your kitchen sink, but it’s not difficult like going to City Island or something.

10) How much does it cost to get in? Nothing.  No shit.  Nothing.  You don’t even have to give your name or show your I.D. like you would if you got a library card.

By bus, take the B77 to Lorraine and Clinton.    Walk down Clinton (it’s a big and populated street for Red Hook), and make a right.  A few minutes later and, voila, you’re at the pool.  If you are not near the B77 bus, you can take the B61, which drops you in front of Ikea.  See the instructions below on how to walk to the pool from Ikea.

By subway, take the F or G train to Smith/Ninth Street.  The exit for that station is on Ninth.  Look to your right and go there, because that’s where Smith Street is.  Cross that street, walk to Court Street.  Take a left on Court and keep walking until you reach Bay Street.

By car:  Follow the directions on ‘how to get to Ikea.’  It’s a stone’s throw from there and takes the same route.  You must pass the pool to get to Ikea.  Also, if you don’t drive in Brooklyn, NY-27W or NY-28E is the Prospect Expressway.

By water taxi:  Get it from Pier 11 to Ikea.  Monday through Friday, it’s five bucks each way.  But Saturday and Sunday . . . it’s free.  And that’s probably when you’re going to go to the pool, right?  When you get to Ikea, it takes about a fifteen minute walk to get to the pool.  Or if for whatever reason you don’t like walking (and the walk is a nice and safe walk), there’s a multitude of respectable taxis at Ikea that will take you to the pool for a few bucks).

By Ikea shuttle bus:  Take the F, D, M, or R train to the 4th Ave/Ninth Street station.  Or  take the 2, 3, 4, 5, M, or R train to Court Street/Borough Hall.   There’s a free shuttle bus at these stations (including the one at Smith/Ninth Station) that will take you to IKEA.  Follow the instructions above once you hit Ikea.

Questions:  Call (718) 722-3211 (718) 722-7105.  Believe it or not, someone answers.

Making a getaway in a three-piece suit

You may have read the article in the New York times today about the man who escaped his holding cell by simply walking out of the 100 Centre Street criminal courthouse wearing a three-piece suit.  robert tackman, image taken from: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/01/nyregion/01escape.html?_r=1&ref=nyregionRonald Tackman, who has been in and out of prison most of his life and has had numerous brushes with the law, was in New York Supreme Court from Riker’s Island on a felony robbery charge.  He was dressed in a three-piece suit while in his holding cell and a correction officer mistakenly let him out of his cell, believing that Ronald Tackman was an attorney.  More specifically, the corrections officer saw Tackman, assumed he was an attorney, and asked Taskman, in sum and substance, “What are you doing in the cell, counselor?”

Interestingly, according to the above-described New York Times article, “[t]he escape [ ] left correction officials scratching their heads for answers as to how a man who had been listed in the department’s files as an escape risk was essentially able to walk out the door to freedom.”

The answer is pretty simple:  Ronald Tackman was white. 

If Mr. Tackman was anything other than white, the likelihood of this event happening would certainly be next to nil.

For anyone who hasn’t been to 100 Centre Street in New York City, I suggest you go and see the dynamic going on.  Go to AR-3, which is the felony arraignment part, Part N or Part F, which are Criminal Court parts before a case heads to Supreme Court, or any of the Supreme Court Parts, like Part 22 or Part 23.  You’ll immediately notice that the majority, if not all, of the defendants are minorities.  Further, you will also immediately notice that the majority, if not all, of the attorneys representing these defendants are white.  And, add to that, the majority, if not all of the Corrections Officers, are white as well.  And, one final thing if it already isn’t obvious:  the majority if not all of the judges are white.

Is it any wonder, then, that a hapless Department of Corrections Officer “mistakenly” believed that an older white gentleman in a three-piece suit standing alone in a holding cell was actually an attorney?

The Department of Corrections will undoubtedly claim, after a “thorough investigation,” that the Officer actions were outside of “protocol” — suggesting that the error by the officer was merely an aberrant act, as opposed to the product of a deep rooted institutional racism.

Bloomberg Gets His Wish: 29 to 22 to extend term limits

Just when you thought that the world was coming back to order again, there is this.  The New York City council voted to extend term limits from two to three.  Forget that New York City voters voted on this very issue, not once, but twice . . . flatly, expressly, and unequivocally rejecting proposals to extend term limits from two to three.  Forget that the main man behind this, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is an uber-billionaire who clearly held sway with the Council — all of whom, of course, now can run for another term. 

Bloomberg’s justification for extending his term limit from two to three had to do solely with the financial crisis.  Of course, let’s forget that Giuliani asked for the same thing after September 11, 2001, via a three month extension, but that was resolutely rejected.  If anything, it shows Giuliani wasn’t the brilliant politician as Bloomberg and his team of hacks are.

Christine C. Quinn, the Speaker and Bloomberg’s lap dog, commented about the extension of term limits in the most Orwellian of ways.  She said, “They should have the right to vote for the current mayor, or a new one, for their current City Council member, or a new one. That is exactly what is at stake today.”

Huh?  That seems to be putting the cart before the horse.  Yeah, sure, with an extension of term limits, voters can now choose to vote for Bloomberg, Person A, or Person B.  But that is not what’s at stake here, Ms. Quinn. 

First, what is at stake here is how an already inept council can destroy the will of the people.  Twice, and I will repeat this, twice, have the voters explicitly rejected by way of referendum any extension of term limits.  But no, apparently that doesn’t matter.  Nonetheless, the council, with the support of Bloomberg and two other billionaires, was able to get this horrific bill on the floor for a vote. . . a vote that everyone knew what the results would be, despite all the speeches by the politicians.

To be sure, as Ms. Quinn and others have pointed out, the people could vote out Bloomberg in the next election, as well as other people on the council who are enjoying the fruits of a third term that the people of the City of New York had previously took from them.  But that completely misses the point.  The point here is an abuse of the democratic process.  Plain and simple.  Just because an inept city council decided to conduct a vote doesn’t somehow bypass the abuse of the process.  There’s no “cancel out” here. 

It is also an abuse of something else that is not talked about as much:  the power of incumbency.  Incumbents, by the very fact of their office, have extraordinary power to get reelected.  Part of their job, by its very nature, includes running for reelection.  Need stats to back that up?  Just look to Congress.   For the House of Representatives, incumbents are winning more than 80 percent of the time.  For the Senate, incumbents are winning more than 75 percent of the time.  I mean, let’s look at Senator Chuck Schumer.  How many times do you see him on tv?  Sure, he’s “reporting” to the public about what’s going on but he’s also telling people, “Hey, I’m your Senator and vote for me.”  It’s free ad time. 

Term limits recognize how the power of incumbency destroys democracy, i.e., the ability of challengers to lodge a solid and credible campaign.  That’s why it’s not surprising that the voters — twice — rejected an extension of term limts.  Here, Bloomberg’s third term has essentially wiped out the chances of numerous candidates to run for election, not to mention the other “seats” in the other districts.  So, while the voters will have a choice this upcoming election, one must ask what kind of choice is it really.

And, what is particularly bothering is the apparent “emergency” that Bloomberg and by extension, the other assembly persons who are benefitting from this extra term, are using to support their term limit extension.  Yes, Bloomberg is a popular Mayor.  And yes, the financial crisis is, in fact, a crisis.  But to believe that it is such a crisis that Bloomberg and the council have the right to violate the will of the people is just ridiculous and simply overstates Bloomberg’s ability over anyone and everyone to get the job done.  Years from now, what will be the next justification?  There will always be something.  And, frankly, Bloomberg is no FDR.

What happened today was an affront to democracy.  Shame on the council.  Vote them all out.

Tatum O’Neal Busted For Cocaine Possession (And The Inequalities of Drug Treatment Programs)

Famed actress Tatum O’Neal was busted Sunday night for purchasing a couple bags of cocaine in the Lower East Side.  O’Neal was nabbed in what narcotics police call an “observation sale.”  In an “observation sale” operation, as opposed to a “buy and bust” operation, police do not use undercover police officers to purchase drugs but instead, observe drug sales taking place on the street between a seller and a buyer.  And for those who live in a cave, drug sales take place in open view, on the street, at all times of the day.  

The fact that O’Neal was caught buying drugs on the street is rather interesting for a celebrity like her.  Most celebrities have a “connect,” which means that a celebrity will generally purchase drugs inside in the comfort of their apartment or a friend’s apartment, not on the street, in open view of narcotics police.  Purchasing drugs on the street in the quantities that O’Neal purchased (likely two dime or two twenty bags), puts her in the same boat as the “usual” addicts that run through Manhattan’s criminal court on 100 Centre Street.  There is a certain level of desperation to a street purchase.  Given O’Neal’s history with drugs and the circumstances surrounding this arrest, highly suggests that O’Neal has a narcotics addiction.

She was charged with Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Seventh Degree.  This is a misdemeanor in New York, punishable by up to one year.  Of course, it is the rare defendant who actually is sentenced to this.  This will generally happen if a defendant goes to trial on a felony and is convicted of a lesser-included misdemeanor offense.  However, most defendants who are charged with CPCS 7 are either sentenced to community service or a very short jail period — depending on their criminal history.

But herein lies the problem with New York’s drug treatment programs.  When a defendant is charged with a felony, such as Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Fifth Degree (500 milligrams or more of pure cocaine) or Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the Third Degree (any amount of narcotics), a defendant is offered a much larger menu of comprehensive drug treatment.  The issue is that most of the hardcore addicts are not charged with felonies, because they do not have the resources to either sell drugs or buy enough drugs to get them up to a felony.  Thus, if you walk into a Manhattan Criminal Court Arraignment, the worst looking cocaine or heroin addicts — the street buyers — are charged with the misdemeanor of simple possession.

What happens when a defendant is charged with a misdemeanor?  Either the defendant is given a slap on the wrist or the drug treatment offered is not comprehensive enough.  The resources are saved for defendants charged with felonies.  On paper and in politics, this makes a lot of sense.  But in practice, there are definite inequities that only perpetuate drug addiction. 

The defendants with some of the biggest drug problems (imagine someone like Bubbles from The Wire) are not given the opportunity for real life-changing and comprehensive drug treatment, because they are given the fortune of a misdemeanor charge.

But is society really doing anyone a favor?  I am not saying that defendants charged with misdemeanors should be charged with felonies.  What I am saying is that the opportunities for drug treatment that defendants charged with felonies receive should be given to those defendants charged with misdemeanors. 

Felony defendants are given the opportunity for long-term residential drug treatment — the kind of drug treatment that can work.  These defendants take part in multi-step programs, from removing the narcotics addition to living independently.  Some of these defendants are in these programs for five plus years. 

But when you are charged with a misdemeanor, you’ll be lucky if you can get a spot in a residential drug treatment program.  You’ll likely get assigned a once a week outpatient program.  Is it any wonder that many of these defendants do not succeed?

Although you will read that Tatum O’Neal will likely receive a drug treatment program, it will not do much for fixing her problem.  Of course, a person with an addiction has to want to improve.  There is no question that a level of individual will is involved.  But a person with an addiction must be given the opportunities to make that choice, in a supportive environment.  Drug treatment programs for those charged with felonies attempt to equip people with the wherewithal to make that choice.  The same cannot be said for those charged with misdemeanors.  

O’Neal’s best bet will not be through the state but through private, long-term residential drug treatment.  Tatum O’Neal has the resources to fix her life. 

But the same cannot be said for the majority of drug addicts, who will cycle through the criminal justice system — untreated — just below the “felony radar.”

MTA to No. 7 Train: No Soup For You!

It comes as no surprise when New York City’s MTA announced there will be no weekday express service on the No. 7 line for more than a month.  With a daily ridership of about 400,000 passengers, the delays will be felt by many.

For anyone who has visited New York City for more than 2 weeks knows there are some issues with the New York City Subway System. http://imagecache2.allposters.com/images/pic/APPOD/personaluse_9137761~The-Number-7-Train-Runs-Through-the-Queens-Borough-of-New-York-Posters.jpg For those who live in New York City, you know damn well there are some serious issues with the New York City Subway System.  Unfriendly and unhelpful MTA workers.  Delays on the train for unknown reasons.  Dirty cars.  Strange passengers.  Mean passengers.  Smelly passengers.  Air-conditioning during the winter.  Heat during the summer.  The list goes on. 

Of course, you may think, this is New York City — it’s supposed to be like this.  Right?

Sure, there’s no denying the strange and inane that is New York City.  And there’s certainly no denying the fatalism that many living in the City have.  But you often have to ask yourself why the No. 7 Train gets the worst of it.

Would the complete extermination of weekday express service for over a month happen on any Manhattan-bound train other than the No. 7?  Chances are . . . no. 

Could you imagine no express service on weekdays for over a month happening to the Number 2 or Number 3 trains on the Upper West Side?  Or the Number 4 or Number 5 on the Upper East Side?  Of course not.  There would be a revolution.  You’d see front page articles nonstop in the New York Times.

There’s more to the MTA’s decision to terminate No. 7 weekday express service for over a month than the purported need for “track work.”  The fact is that unlike the Number 2, Number 3, Number 4, or Number 5 trains, the No. 7 train is distinctly known as the train for immigrants.  The No. 7 has been renamed the “International Train,” but everyone who doesn’t believe everything coming from the MTA and the Mayor’s Office knows that it has always been known as the “Orient Express.”  

Each and every day, nearly 400,000 riders, most of them minority and recent immigrants whose first language is not English, rely on that No. 7 train to take them from their cheap rents in Queens to their blue collar jobs in Manhattan.  The majority of these riders don’t live in fancy apartments, have a retirement plan, have nannies to take care of their children, or a dog walker named Manny to walk little Fido to Central Park.  The majority of these riders don’t have a loud political voice.  This is the train for workers — the non-unionized kind.  

So what kind of message is the MTA sending with its perfunctory message that express service will be cut for over a month — not on the weekends — but on the weekdays for heaven’s sake, when most people in the civilized world try to earn a living? 

In no uncertain terms, the MTA, along with Governor Elliot Spitzer, are saying:  you don’t matter.

Ridiculous.  But it’s not so surprising.  The MTA decision reflects a systematic attempt by those in society to stress to immigrants in no uncertain terms that they are irrelevant.  Shine my shoes.  Clean my car.  Stock my groceries.  Wash my dishes.  You don’t matter.

To be sure, the MTA has offered shuttle buses to stops that have been shut down for the “track work,” express buses to the City and rides on the Long Island Rail Road.  Sounds passable on paper but the MTA has yet — during its entire existence as an organization — to provide reliable and efficient “alternative” service when the main service is suspended.  It’s like nuclear fusion from cold water.  It doesn’t exist except in someone’s imagination.

Practically, there are other problems, too.  First, the MTA consistently provides too few buses and does nothing to increase their frequency.  So all you end up having — if you can find the buses in the first place . . . the signs are put up by MTA workers who think that having a normal person find the sign for the bus should be a twisted game of hide and seek — is a serious log jam.  I can’t even fathom the pandemonium that will occur during weekday rush hour.  Second, the rides on the Long Island Rail Road will primarily help those living in Flushing.  It won’t help those who live between Flushing and Queensboro Plaza (in fact, there will be no service at all between Woodside and Flushing . . . so to those people, the MTA says, “sorry, you’re just out of luck”).

In the end, the MTA’s decision to cut weekday express service for over a month is not only irresponsible, but is a slap in the face to the immigrant community for which the No. 7 train serves. 

The subway system in New York City is unlike any other.  It’s a subway system in which people’s livelihoods depend on — rich and poor.  The subway was built for everyone, not simply for the rich folks living on the Upper West Side or the Upper East Side that have to get to their important jobs in midtown and downtown. 

FreshDirect, Low Wages, and Illegal Immigration (Or: Como Se Dice, “You’re Busted In So Many Ways FreshDirect”)

I don’t know how many of you out there used the services of FreshDirect. It started in Manhattan about six or seven years ago as a food delivery service. You go to the freshdirect website, click on the pictures of fresh food that you like, and a few days later, voila, a nice gentleman drops off the food in these nice cardboard boxes. A very nice service, particularly when you consider that most people who go grocery shopping in Manhattan only purchase what they can carry by hand, as most do not have a car or want to hire the services of a taxi. Add to that a competitive price with your local grocery chain and there’s really no reason why you wouldn’t get your food from FreshDirect. I wondered how they were able to keep their costs down so well and grow into a $200 million plus business in the rather tight grocery market.

freshdirect.gif

Well, FreshDirect did what seemingly most American corporations have done to improve their bottom line: hire illegal immigrants. That’s usually a good way to beat those pesky minimum wage laws. So much for FreshDirect’s characterization of themselves as a progressive and chic grocery company. Last week, about 100 of the 900 employees who worked at their Queens distribution center left after it became known that there would be an immigration check.

And what do most American corporations do when they find out that they have hired illegal immigrants? Yup, you guessed it. They employ the I-didn’t-know defense. Give me a break. At some point, you would have thought that excuse would have lost its luster and credibility. Apparently not. The world quickly goes on and sweeps it under the rug, wanting to ignore the reality that certain parts of our economy depend on illegal immigration to pump up the bottom line. That brings up larger issues of our incomprehensible immigration policy and a corporation’s willingness to shirk any sense of responsibility to pay a livable wage. Standards of living? Hah, to corporations, that’s not their problem.

To be sure, FreshDirect certainly is not the only grocery store in New York that uses illegal immigrants. There are many more that do so deliberately. But FreshDirect is in the spotlight because of the way it has portrayed itself in the media. The best way to imagine the portrayal is this. You know those Microsoft vs. Mac commercials? It’s the same thing. To FreshDirect, all the “normal” grocery stores are like Microsoft; FreshDirect is like the Mac. The whole thing with FreshDirect becomes ridiculous when you realize they are really no different than the “normal” grocery stores that feed on the weakest in society to pad the profits of some jerk off that lives in the Hamptons and has a summer house in Connecticut.

But to top that off, FreshDirect is rehiring “legal” individuals at ridiculous wages for Manhattan. FreshDirect, who is your PR Firm, Asshole & Associates? First you hire illegal immigrants and say you didn’t know you did. You pay them a ridiculous wage that is probably just a little more than what you would give a hamster. Then, when you do the “right” thing and hire “legals,” you offer them an hourly rate that is already below the market rate of the “normal” grocery stores. What’s next, FreshDirect?

No more FreshDirect for me. I suggest you do the same.

For New Yorkers who crave onion-rosemary marmalade with their crostini, loathe the narrow aisles of the nearest supermarket or simply have no time to shop, Fresh Direct has been like a high-tech fantasy come true. With the touch of a computer mouse, it conjures up fresh, sophisticated groceries at the customer’s doorstep.

The company has grown in five years from a dot-com dream to a $200 million business, and its Web site features “celebrity shopping lists” from quintessentially New York figures like Spike Lee, Edward I. Koch and Cynthia Nixon, a star of “Sex and the City.” But now an eruption of low-tech troubles is drawing a spotlight to what lies behind the computer screen. Last week, the company abruptly lost more than 100 of the roughly 900 employees at its huge plant in Long Island City, Queens, including many of its most experienced workers, when they learned that federal officials planned to check their immigration status.

It is battling not one, but two unions that want to represent the workers, with the election to be held this weekend. City labor leaders and several elected officials rallied at City Hall on Friday to accuse the company and immigration authorities of trying to block the union drive. And when Fresh Direct held a job fair this week, though hundreds of applicants lined up in the cold, many lost interest as soon as they learned about the low starting pay and low-temperature workplace: $7.85 an hour to pick and pack groceries at night, in 38-degree chill, often for more than eight hours at a stretch. “They said, ‘Dress as warm as you can,’” reported one disenchanted applicant, Joy Brewster, 22, as she emerged from a group job interview with a toss of her head. “I don’t think so. I’d be stiff as a board.” Another applicant, Eibar Amaya, 47, an immigrant from Colombia who is now a United States citizen, gave his verdict in succinct, if imperfect English: “Pay too little, no good.” He now makes $12 an hour cleaning office bathrooms at night, he added in Spanish, and considering his legal status and valid driver’s license, he expected something better.

Such comments underscore what may not be evident to the online shopper: that Fresh Direct’s great successes — Internet efficiency, competitive prices, an array of locally grown produce and a loyal, well-heeled customer base — were built on a low-wage, transient work force that was anchored by illegal immigrants. And for all that, by its own account, the privately held company has yet to turn a profit for its investors.“

It’s definitely a very competitive business,” said Michael Garry, technology and logistics editor for Supermarket News, which covers the industry. “They’re just one of many employers that are taking advantage of these people. But that certainly is going to clash with their P.R. image.” Jim Moore, the company’s senior vice president for business affairs, defended its record as an employer as well as its financial health. Fresh Direct has participated in a government Social Security verification system since 2004, he said, and had no idea that some employees’ documents were false.

Those who have left for fear of deportation now number about 100, he maintained, not 300, as organizers with Local 348S of the United Food and Commercial Workers insist. He estimated the plant’s normal turnover at 45 to 50 percent each year, which he called “not particularly high.” And he said the job fair had produced more applicants than the company could possibly hire. But among two dozen applicants who spoke with a reporter, only those with very limited options seemed undaunted by the job description — plying frigid miles of conveyor belts carrying tubs of products from far-flung departments to a central packing area.

One applicant hoping to be called back was Abdul Hakim, 33, who said he recently served four years in prison. Another, Nathaniel Griffins, 60, said he was living in a nearby veterans’ shelter and spent his mornings handing out free newspapers for $8.50 an hour. Like many other American-born and legal residents applying for work, they expressed sympathy for the illegal immigrants. “Legal or not,” Mr. Griffins said, “people got to find a way to feed their families.”Mr. Moore, the company vice president, acknowledged that many of the immigrant employees who fled, including butchers, kitchen workers and packers, had been with the company for three or four years and were among its most longstanding employees. Some had opposed unionization.“They are very loyal folks who have been instrumental in helping us build the company,” he said. “It’s been incredibly hard for them and very, very sad for us.” To union organizers, however, his expression of regret rang false. Both the food workers’ local and Teamsters Local 805, the unions vying to represent plant workers, called the timing of the immigration audit highly suspect, and contended that under the immigration agency’s own guidelines, it should have been delayed until after the vote on a union. Both accused the company of using the audit as its latest tactic in an aggressive campaign against the union drive, suggesting that management had called in the immigration authorities, in an effort to intimidate or drive away union supporters.

Mr. Moore denied that accusation, and turned it around by saying that some unions unable to win over workers had been known to try to improve their odds by summoning immigration officials. But there was no lack of other theories for why Fresh Direct might have appeared on the radar of immigration officials: a call by a disgruntled native-born employee; retaliation by an angry competitor; or Fresh Direct’s high profile in the nation’s media capital, which might make it an appetizing target for the Bush administration, intent on publicizing more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws.The accusations and confusion partly reflect the relative rarity of immigration enforcement in New York’s food industry. Illegal immigrant employees abound in New York City’s 11,662 registered food stores — not to mention on the farms increasingly tapped as local suppliers of the tenderest arugula and tangiest goat cheese.

“On any given day, if immigration chose to, they could sweep into stores in any one of these five boroughs and literally take thousands and thousands of workers out,” said Pat Purcell, the director of special projects for the Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has 23,000 members in the New York area, including the employees at Fairway markets, which emphasize freshness and selection to please the most finicky shoppers.Full-time employees at Fairway, a family-run company with a long union history, earn at least $14.75 an hour, with generous benefits and time-and-a-half for overtime, Mr. Purcell said. But in contrast, dozens of upscale or specialty food stores are more obvious offenders than Fresh Direct, he added, because they pay their lowest-rung employees, often Mexicans, in cash, below minimum wage, without asking for any documents.

Older supermarkets in the city, too, have had their share of scandals. Several years ago, Gristedes and Food Emporium agreed to $3 million settlements after the state attorney general accused them and their delivery companies of paying some deliverymen, many of them Africans, just over a dollar an hour. As for Fresh Direct’s future, forecasts are contradictory. Nationally, only 1 percent of groceries are bought online, and such transactions are expected to nearly double by 2011, to $10.5 billion. But Fresh Direct keeps losing money, said Lawrence Sarf, the president of F & D Reports, a retail consulting company in Great Neck, N.Y.

Source: New York Times, article can be found here