The Hardest Working Porn Peddler in Manhattan

A night on the town for one pint-size and pugnacious saleswoman means slinging cheap cigarettes and bootleg flicks to NYC’s Downtown barflies.

The Hardest Working Porn Peddler in Manhattan

“Cigarette, DVD, porno?” Lily says, over and over, in a thick Chinese accent, as she winds from table to table in a crowded downtown Manhattan bar. In one hand she deftly displays a pack of Marlboro Menthol Lights, as well as a selection of new releases — burned disks in flimsy plastic sleeves with low-resolution renderings of movie posters. With the other hand she drags a beat-up rolling suitcase behind her, full of more discounted treasures.

Lily, wrinkled, with an obvious auburn-colored dye job, stands not quite five feet tall, even with the giant faux-fur trim on the hood of her winter coat. Five nights a week for the past twelve years, she’s spent eight hours walking around the Village, from West to East, peddling cinema, cigs and smut to bar-goers. For five dollars you can snag a grainy, shaky copy of the newest “Hunger Games” movie the day after it hits the theaters, or hear a real-life laugh track on a bootleg “Anchorman 2.” A pack of Camel filters goes for ten dollars — 2006 prices. Compared to the fourteen bucks they charge at the bodega on the corner, that’s a great deal, especially when you factor in Lily’s hand-delivery, which not only saves you a trip to the store but also includes playful encouragement to peruse her porn selection.

“You like porno,” she says to a table of young patrons, a definitive statement rather than a question. She grins and bounces her eyebrows while the potential customers laugh nervously and decide whether or not to agree that yes, in fact, they do like porno. Lily is clearly aware that people are amused by her candid proposition, and that embracing the humor of the situation might help her close the deal on a copy of “Massive Asses 7” or “This is My First…A Gangbang Movie.” Lily laughs along with them, and before they know it, the DVDs are in their hands and they’re yelling over each other about which one to get.

“Drunk people,” she tells me later, are her best customers. She rubs her thumb and forefinger together to indicate that they spend a lot of money, and rolls her eyes at an eruption of drunken laughter that punctuates our talk.

People buy less now than they used to, she says. Smoking’s going out of fashion and porn’s both abundant and free online, but she still makes a living. She takes home about $50 a night after expenses and her boss’s cut — about whom she wouldn’t tell me anything. When I asked for details about this mysterious supervisor, she waved her hand and laughed like I’d made a hilarious joke before changing the subject.

“Little money,” Lily says. “But I pay rent.” Fifty bucks a night isn’t a lot, but it’s about the same amount she’d take home after taxes if she had an on-the-books, full-time, minimum-wage job. Her two kids, a son and a daughter, are all grown up now and have their own jobs, but Lily used to support them on the income from her late-night hustle.

She spends a lot of time alone on the street late at night with lots of merchandise — though the suitcase covered in a trash bag and duct tape doesn’t look like it holds much of a score. But when I asked if she’d ever been robbed or hassled, she put up her tiny fists and giggled. She laughs off the idea of feeling in danger the same way she laughs off low-ball offers on her goods.

She almost never takes a break while she’s working, saying she’ll rest when she’s done, earning her the unofficial and loving title among some East Village bartenders and regulars as “the hardest-working woman in the Village.”

But once in a while, in a bar where she’s especially comfortable and knows the bartenders have her back, she’ll take a five-minute power nap, resting her feet on her bag of goodies and her hands in her lap. After a quick recharge, her eyes snap open, she pulls herself to her feet, and it’s on to the next table of drunks, the next bar full of smokers, the next unabashed porn-lover.

On her way out the door she stops, turning around with one foot already outside to repeat her refrain one more time, “Cigarette, DVD, porno?”

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