Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Conflict on the sidewalk

Two years ago this month, I made someone angry. And that was the part of the story I left out when I blogged about it.

For some reason, I feel now is the time to tell the rest of the story.

Bryant Park in New York City was culminating its summer outdoor screenings with Superman: The Movie. I learned that a week before the show.

I contacted the Bryant Park Corporation to ask if I and an established bookstore could sell Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman before the screening. The book had come out only a month earlier, was (and still is) the only standalone biography of writer Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and seemed like perfect synergy with the crowd that would be coming to the movie that night: young parents with young children. And the book was not a chintzy souvenir that wouldn't survive to the next yard sale. It was something of educational and entertainment value, a behind-the-scenes story of the very passion that drew people to the movie that night.

But Bryant Park said no. Had I contacted them earlier, they said, we might have been able to work something out. And they said they did try to find a way to make it work even with the short notice. But they usually didn't allow vendors during the films so attendees would not feel bombarded. Besides, the park would be too crowded.

I tried to convince them that attendees would not be offended by such an innocuous (and thematically apropos) product. In fact, I suggested the venture only because I felt those particular attendees would actually be appreciative to learn about the book. I said we wouldn't be barking at passersby; we'd simply give them the option of drifting over if they wanted to. I explained that all we needed was a table (which we'd provide) and the footprint to place it on. We would not be in the way.

Bryant Park said they own even the sidewalks surrounding the park so I was forbidden from setting up a table there. However, I learned from a list maintained by the Department of Consumer Affairs that Bryant Park doesn't own all of that sidewalk. The city approves part of it for vendors. So I contacted a bookstore friend and they were keen and kind to partner with me. I told them Bryant Park had declined me but they said they'd done this before and, essentially, the list is the law. However, I did also e-mail my Bryant Park contact to tell him about the list. He wrote that I still could not sell there. When I clarified what the list said, he didn't respond.

The afternoon of the screening, with that list in hand, we asked a Bryant Park police officer if we could set up our table in a spot that was both authorized and unobtrusive. He looked at the list and said yes. So we did. The bookstore was wonderfully supportive.

Maybe it's self-serving salesperson delusion, but somehow it seemed heartfelt to promote that book just before that movie screened. The book had come about because I love Superman and I love Superman because I read many Superman comics as a kid and I read those comics because I became fascinated with the character in Superman: The Movie. It felt like I had to have the book there, at that event in the city in which the film was shot and the character was first published. And the gracious crowd bore that out.

We started at about 5 p.m. and sold for two hours. It was not the kind of synergy people expected to see. That is part of what made it special. And not a single person complained to or questioned us.

Until a bit before the movie began. That's when a woman and man I didn't recognize came up to me. The man introduced himself and it was the Bryant Park staff member whom I'd contacted by e-mail. He and his colleague were steamed—pretty close to livid, actuallythat I'd set up there even though they told me not to.

And even though I agreed to their request. Yes, when he told me by email that they owned the sidewalk, I did agree not to set up there. But when I found out that they actually did not own that portion of the sidewalk, I was no longer beholden to him—objectively, anyway.

He told me that the sidewalk technicality didn't matter—I still broke what he had taken as a promise (though I as a rule don't use or agree to that word). And he was right. I did go back on my word to him, but I wasn't betraying him legally. I felt badly that I ended up doing what he asked me not to, but it was within my right. I apologized for upsetting him but not for selling.

It's a moral question that Superman would've answered differently. If Superman gave his word, he would not go back on it even if he was lied to (or unintentionally misinformed). The bookstore continued to try to assure me that I acted appropriately and the park staff was out of line to speak to me the way they did.

What do you think?


  1. I think you nailed the dilemma, Marc, of the letter of the law versus your statement to the park guy, which superseded the law. My take: Sorry to say, your word that you would not sell was a promise to the Bryant Park official. It could easily have been fixed by informing him ahead of time; in that case, regardless of his response you had a legal right.

    You are a very honorable person even to bring this public!

  2. it wasn't a promise, it was an agreement based on a misrepresentation, and created no moral obligation whatsoever.

    If I say to you "this is my property, stay off it" and you say "OK," your agreement is predicated on the presumption that I was telling the truth.

  3. Interesting.

    The only thing you could have done differently was to announce to them via email that you WOULD in fact be selling books in an area where they did not have jurisdiction. And I would have gotten a little snarky and finished my email with something like "...and I don't appreciate being misinformed, sir. GOOD DAY!"

    Whatever the case, you were right to sell those books.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Re: Peter, I forgot to clarify the timeline. The Dept. of Consumer Affairs would not email me the list of approved selling spots, nor would they give me any info from it over the phone; I had to physically go there to get it. (Why they didn't simply post it online is beyond me.) And I lived in CT, which means I wasn't going to make a special trip in just for that. So I went to the DCA office the DAY OF the movie, gambling I'd find a spot on that list that would work and could proceed directly to the park.

    This was before I had a smartphone, so all I could've done once I found that I COULD sell near the park would've been to call the Bryant Park people. But whether by email or phone, I was fairly sure they would've still pushed me not to sell, as proven when they showed up and berated me even though I was not on private property.

    BTW, I don't know if they deliberately lied or simply didn't know. Either way, it wasn't fair.

  5. I agree with Jonathan Kantrowitz's comment:
    "It wasn't a promise, it was an agreement based on a misrepresentation, and created no moral obligation whatsoever. If I say to you "this is my property, stay off it" and you say "OK," your agreement is predicated on the presumption that I was telling the truth."
    The issue is not one of morals, but of manners — which are the lubrication in the machinery of society, and make the world a better place for all. It would have been polite of you to revoke your supposed "promise" before "breaking" it. That you had no opportunity to contact the man is simply the result of the messiness of life. Life is messy, we do our best and move forward. And to move forward at that point, you could have politely apologized for being the subject — not the cause — of his upset. (This is an extra bit of poiliteness I'd classify along with little-white-lies-of-ommission.) But you were not morally obligated to do so, IMHO.

  6. Bryant Park misrepresented what was their property and and city property.

    If you could have let them know before hand,they would still have complained but they couldn't stop you. The City of New York allowed you a place to set up. (Who'd guess for once the NYC would do something right.

    Did you ever make peace with the Bryant Park organization?

  7. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.

    That night, after the screening, I emailed him:

    "Thank you for introducing yourself, though of course I am sorry it was under those circumstances. Between the list of restricted streets from the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Bryant Park officer who cleared us upon arriving, and the assurance of my partner bookstore (another NYC institution) that has apparently done this before, I was assured it was within my legal right to set up the table where we did.

    However, before that, I had told you I would not be on a sidewalk touching the park, and as I said in person, I apologize that I went back on my word. Please know that I fully respect you, understand your position, and appreciate that you did try to find a way to accommodate me inside the park. I hope you understand my position as well.

    Mostly, I hope we can we shake hands again on good terms at some point in the future."

    I did not hear back.

  8. Let me add that I admire that after two years this ethical question still bothers you,
    it shows you are of a good moral fiber.

    Again, you didn't do anything wrong - especially since they ignored you after you pointed out the list of approved non BP owned sites near the park.

    If anything, their problem is with THE CITY and not you in this regard - they tried to stop you in your legal right to vend where they had no jurisiction. Heck, the park officer saw the list and he's the law. :)

  9. I bet that they just don't like not having control of the venders in thr area around BP they don't own - and I can't believe they didn't know they didn't control all the sidewalks.

    You called them on it twice,and then when confronted and your follow up and they still wouldn't admit the wrong.

    You shoulda wrote letters to the Times,News and Post when this happend - I'm sure you wern't the first,or last to have "headaches".

  10. I got my own timeline wrong. I just checked the emails I saved and turns out I DID email Bryant Park in advance (August 14, four days ahead of the screening) that I would be selling in a city-approved spot.

  11. You stood up to a bully. Good for you.