The man who calls himself "New York" was ready to make a few fast moves and a few fast bucks.
Standing outside a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, he paid little heed to the travelers who whizzed past him on their way to cars, buses and taxis.
What he did pay attention to was their rented baggage carts. And it wasn't long before he broke into a sprint.
"It's a hustlin' job. You gotta run," New York said as he maneuvered his wiry body through the throng until he reached a cart that had been abandoned. He pushed it back to the terminal 15 yards away and slid it into a long metal rack with a coin box attached.
Just like a gum ball machine, out popped his reward: a shiny quarter.
New York--"They call me New York, that's all"--is a cart hustler, one of scores at LAX who earn cash by retrieving the empty carts left strewn about the terminals and parking garages.
At two bits a cart, many hustlers--the word both they and airport officials use to describe practitioners--can pocket $50 or more for several hours work, all legal and all courtesy of hurried travelers who, after paying a dollar to rent a cart, don't bother returning it for the quarter.
With the summer tourist season in full swing, so are the scores of cart hustlers, some of whom say this is their sole means of support and some of whom, police say, allow their entrepreneurial zeal to get out of hand.
"It appears to be an innocuous situation, but it really isn't," said Lt. Al Corella, who oversees the Los Angeles Police Department's operations at LAX.
Noting that some cart hustlers have been arrested for such crimes as breaking into cars or stealing luggage, he said, "All I know is that when we focus on the hustlers, the crime rate here goes down."
In May, he said, officers identified 100 cart hustlers, checked their backgrounds and learned that more than 85% had been arrested in the past for crimes including robbery and rape, although not all were convicted.
Just how many cart hustlers work the airport is unknown, although police say that between January and May, 25 to 30 "new faces" were spotted each month by officers. Some work a day or two before moving on, while others are youths who come to the airport on weekends or during school breaks to pick up spending money. Still others hold jobs at LAX and moonlight.
"There are employees who work out here on their lunch breaks hustling carts," Airport Manager Stephen Yee said.
For a good number, however, hustling carts is a way of life, and, according to Corella, they "come to work each day just like you or I do." Many take city buses to the airport to hustle carts. And many wind up at the expansive Tom Bradley International Terminal, where thousands of baggage-laden foreign travelers arrive and depart every day.
"It seems like they stand around waiting to punch a clock and go to work there," Corella said.
No Other Job
And work it is, according to 52-year-old Manuel Sebastian, who was hustling carts one day last week in front of the Bradley terminal. He said he earns $20, sometimes $40 a day for about four hours of work. He has been hustling carts for about a year and has no other job, he said.
"This is temporary. I am looking for a job," Sebastian explained as he pushed several carts into a rack.
The quarters clinked as they tumbled down the coin box. He reached down and pocketed them.
"I've applied many places for work, but they never call, so I do this," Sebastian said.
Not far away, a 36-year-old man, who identified himself only as "Lamont," was pushing nine carts that he had rounded up. Sweat dripped from his neck under the hot afternoon sun.
"One of my best days was a Sunday. I made $75 in three hours," he said as he slid one of the carts into a rack.
There was no clinking noise. The rack was temporarily out of quarters. He trudged on, 20 yards, to another rack. It too was out of quarters. When that happens, a cart hustler is out of luck. The cart stays in the rack.
"This is the only place I know where I can come to get a few dollars to get me over a couple days," said Lamont, who is otherwise unemployed and has been hustling carts for about a year.
Even when he had a job, he said, he hustled carts for extra money.
As he spoke, a teen-age girl walked up, pushing a cart.
"Is this where you return the carts?" she asked, eyeing Lamont's collection.
Lamont paused for a second, then grinned.
"Sure, if you want to," he said.
She left the cart with him.
The cart concession at LAX is operated by Minnesota-based Smarte Carte. The company has held a contract with the Department of Airports for 20 years, and gives the department 10% of its cart rental revenues.