Volume 76, Number 53 | May 30 - June 5, 2007

Villager photo by Lesley Sussman

Manny Howard near his book table at Avenue A and Third St.

Vendor not ready to close book on artistic dreams

By Lesley Sussman 

Looking for some used books? How about a nice set of dishes or maybe a slightly worn T-shirt? Interested in an almost-new bicycle or some pots and pans, sunglasses, DVDs, or maybe even a wooden frame? 

If you live around Avenue A and Third St., chances are good that you can find any or all of these items at Manny’s stand, located just a few feet from the trendy Mo Pitkin’s nightclub (where there’s a painting of him on a mural of East Village “Hall of Famers”).

For more than 25 years, Emmanuel Joseph Howard — or Manny as most people in the neighborhood know him — has been selling books and stuff from his street-side stand. But the 64-year-old street vendor is more than meets the eye. He also happens to be a gifted sculptor who still dreams of someday becoming a professional artist.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, with people picking through a table of books and a second table filled with an assortment of odds and ends, the energetic, talkative street vendor, who enjoys chatting up his customers, took a little time off from business to talk about his life.

Howard recalled growing up in Brooklyn’s tough Bed-Stuy and Brownsville neighborhoods where, as a youngster, “I had a lot of problems with gangs and everything,” he recalled. “It was real rough.”

The second oldest of 12 children, he said he did his best to be a good kid, staying focused, along with his brothers, on playing basketball, baseball and other sports, rather than getting involved with the ever-present drug scene and street gangs.

Howard ruefully admitted that eventually the neighborhood got to him and he started “acting out.” As a result, at about age 11 or 12, he found himself living in a juvenile home.

“We were living in Brownsville and there was always fighting and I finally got involved in all that,” he said. “The court put me in the home and it was a good thing for me, because things started to get out of hand. My mother was kind of disappointed in me, but I got a good education there and the discipline I needed. And I was always able to go home on weekends.”

Two years later, Manny found himself attending Brooklyn’s Boys High School and working a series of after-school jobs ranging from Wall St. messenger to his favorite — a fill-in worker at a CVS pharmacy in upper Manhattan. At CVS, he sometimes got to build scenery for store exhibits, which satisfied his longtime interest in art.

“I stayed out of trouble and I worked hard, and I’ve worked hard all my life,” he said.

Howard said that as a teenager he had two dreams. One was to be an artist and the other to get away from New York City and see something of the country and the world.

One dream came easily, while the other still eludes him.

“I grew up in one place and I always wanted to see what was on the outside,” he said. “And I got to do that pretty quick when I was about 18 or 19.”

A friend helped Howard get a job with North American Van Lines, and soon he found himself a driving a van from coast to coast and having the time of his life. He smiled at that memory.

“I drove for about two-and-a-half years and I saw it all. I’ve been all through the West, back up to Canada — you name it.

“Then I had some more luck,” he continued. “I met a guy who took a liking to me and I got to working on a yacht. We traveled to all the islands. Later on, I met another guy who owned a fishing boat, so I worked on fishing boats all over, too.”

Howard said he even got to travel abroad, although he is somewhat reluctant to say how he ended up spending a year in Thailand.

“I can’t talk about how I got there or what I was doing there,” he said mysteriously. “I wasn’t in any trouble with the law or anything like that, but I was running around like a fugitive with this group. I think they had something to do with drugs but I didn’t figure that out until later. Then I got really homesick and I was just glad to come home safe to the United States.”

Throughout his travels, Howard said he never once abandoned his ambition to become a professional artist.

“I was always bringing home pieces of wood, metal, and I would sculpt, paint — anything that had to do with art,” he said.

“I would sell my art on the street along Sixth Ave. to whoever would buy it and I always tried to get into all the art shows. I had people asking me to make things for them out of wire and steel, and I would even make custom furniture out of wood — it was real nice. I enjoyed it then and I still enjoy doing it now.”

But, as he put it, time finally caught up with him.

“Things started going wrong and I couldn’t get a job,” he said. “People were saying I was too old. And I didn’t have any college degree or real profession. So I got into a little sports gambling but found that I had to hustle more and more to make a living.”

Howard decided to sell books on the street.

“I didn’t want to be selling dirty clothes and stuff like that,” he said. “And books are an art form. I liked selling them and it gave me time to read and catch up on my education.

“It wasn’t — and still isn’t — an easy thing to do,” he emphasized. “Especially in Manhattan. There’s lots of hassles. Like around here there’s really no safe place I can leave my books and stuff overnight and sometimes people steal them. Sometimes the Department of Sanitation trucks come by and take all my things. They’ve cost me thousands of dollars over the years.”

Howard said he picked Avenue A to set up shop because he used to hang out along the street and sometimes worked odd jobs as a janitor.

“I really liked the people who lived around here,” he said. “It’s changed so many times over the years, but no matter who moves in, people are always real good to me here. I don’t even have to go out looking for books to buy or anything else. People are always giving me things every day.”

The street vendor, who is divorced and goes to his mother’s house in Brooklyn to sleep, says that after all these years of selling books, there is no particular genre that he likes to read.

“I’ll read anything that attracts me,” he explained. “Anything that looks like I can learn something from it, I’ll read. I’ve developed a real love affair with books. They’ve helped me grow so much.” He paused and laughed. “I read so much, that some days I worry that all that reading will give me a brain tumor.”

No matter how down and out he may sometimes feel, Manny still feels grateful for his life.

“I think God is looking out for me,” he said. “Somebody up there certainly is.”

There is, however, one thing that he wishes God would reward him with.

“I really want to get into my artwork. That’s my dream,” he said. “I want to be able to travel around the world and discover different methods of working with different materials. I want to be like an archeologist discovering new things about my art.”

Howard hopes to someday earn enough money so that he can go live somewhere peaceful and concentrate on his art.

“I think that if I can ever make enough money to get out of the city, I’ll buy a little quiet place Upstate New York,” he said. “I’m thinking of taking my Social Security and maybe doing that — but not too far from New York City. I love the city — especially this neighborhood — so I don’t want to stay away from it for too long.” 

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