“The Bushwick Santa”
Produced by Michayla Savitt
Voices (in order of appearance)
Michayla Savitt, host
Trinidad Rafael, manager, Bushwick Free Store
Alicia Fox, founder, Bushwick Mutual Aid
Sinida (chose to have her last name withheld), volunteer & beneficiary, Bushwick Free Store
[sound of fold out tables being set up]
Michayla Savitt (narration) 0:05
The sidewalk where Knickerbocker Avenue and Suydam Street meet in Bushwick is not usually a place where people hang out. It’s more of a transient space where locals pass through on the way to the L train, or walk around the block.
But on Tuesday afternoons, the corner transforms with the arrival of Bushwick Free Store volunteers.
[sound of people saying ‘hola’ and ‘hello’ as they’re setting up]
Michayla Savitt (narration) 0:30
It’s about 2:15. The crew has just about 45 minutes to lay out the donated clothing, toys, and other household items for residents to pick from. Meanwhile, more people are still showing up with bags of donations. The Free Store is kind of like going to a garage sale, only everything there is free.
Trinidad Rafael 0:49
Before I got involved, nobody was dropping off. So there wasn’t much to offer. Week after week there was almost nothing.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 0:58
That’s Trinidad Rafael, the Bushwick Free Store’s ringleader. He’s 25 years old, and also lives in the neighborhood. He’s been with the project since Spring 2020 and was recruited to volunteer during a Bushwick Mutual Aid food giveaway.
Trinidad Rafael 1:12
The Free Store was also part of it, but it wasn’t really big. So we are part of different groups on Facebook that give out free stuff. And here in Bushwick, especially, we have so much stuff outside for free. So I started to just pick up stuff on the streets, and claiming stuff from the groups and bringing them over here offering to people.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 1:38
Now, dozens of donation bags fill Trinidad’s store shopping cart. There’s a mountain so high that it’s twice as tall as the cart’s capacity. Alicia Fox, the founder of Bushwick Mutual Aid, says the store has grown substantially.
Alicia Fox 1:53
People now routinely drop things off, or have somebody pick them up. And people are still here shopping.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 2:00
The Free Store serves people from all walks of life. But it especially strives to help Bushwick’s residents in need. 2020 census data shows the poverty level in Bushwick is 23 percent – double the rate of New York City overall.
Trinidad Rafael 2:16
So they also benefit because they can get clothes, we also give out food, um, anything that they can get and they don’t have to spend money on, and they can use the money to pay either rent or bills or something else is great for them.
Michayla Savitt (scene) 2:32
I saw a lot of moms and young kids. Can you talk a little bit about how the free store serves parents.
Trinidad Rafael 2:41
Every week after week moms are always coming looking for clothes, their babies, especially the babies, you know, they grow so fast from the three to six months and they move on to 12 and so on, and so on. So they’re always needing new sizes. They come looking for a new size, but they’ll bring all the sizes that no longer fits their child and they donate it and then another mom can use it.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 3:08
The Free Store has grown with Trinidad’s efforts to reach out and connect with the community both in person and online. If there’s an object people are looking for, Trinidad will find it.
Sinida [sin-AI-duh], a Bushwick resident, is one of the regulars at the Free Store.
I’ve known Trinidad for a while just because I used to donate things. it’s so much easier when you have bulk items to just give it to Trinidad, and have the faith that it’s all going back to the community. I personally dubbed him ‘Bushwick Santa’ quite some time ago. ‘Cause it doesn’t matter. Like if it’s rain or shine. This guy’s out here gathering stuff selflessly.
[sounds of the store fade out]
[contemplative music fades up]
Michayla Savitt (narration) 3:51
Before Trinidad joined the Free Store, he had a full time job. Like so many others, he was laid off soon after the pandemic set in. Now the free store takes up his attention full-time. And he’s kind of a one man band.
[music fades up for a few seconds then fade down under dialogue]
[sound of free store fades in]
Michayla Savitt (narration) 4:14
Before 3, there’s a dozen people lined up waiting for the Free Store to officially open. The handful of volunteers present have set up three fold-out tables they brought, parallel with the sidewalk’s edge. The tables are lined with shirts, skirts, dresses, you name it. And volunteers have draped sweaters, jackets, and jeans over posts of the fence lining Maria Hernandez Park.
To a passerby this might look like some art installation. Regulars know it’s really just another Tuesday at the Bushwick Free Store.
Trinidad oversees the Store through its whole operation. Seeing people get an object they really need is rewarding. But he has mixed feelings about the work. Some of the territory includes tension with “customers”.
Trinidad Rafael 5:01
It just gets to me when they say, oh, “you guys are always taking the best.”
Michayla Savitt (narration) 5:06
A number of donation bags remain behind a table where Trinidad directs the operation. He says some people will think he’s saving those items for himself. In reality, he’s actually set them aside for requesting customers.
Trinidad Rafael 5:19
So they feel like it’s all going to me. A lot of times, they’re not there from the beginning. They’re not there when I get there. So they don’t see the stuff that I bring, like all the donations I bring.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 5:31
And that public disconnect can be grating.
Trinidad Rafael 5:34
You always have those bad days at the free store where you just feel like, do I really want to continue doing this? It’s just a couple of bad people that come to the free store, like customers who just don’t understand the work that’s put into the free store.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 5:53
Trinidad thinks a lot of them believe a well-established organization or church is running the Free Store and that he’s getting paid for it, when he’s not. He’s able to sustain this work because he lives with his family, and gets food from pantries.
Home is also where Trinidad stores donations.
Michayla Savitt (scene) 6:12
Really curious to know what your family thinks of all of the objects from the Free Store being in the house. What’s their take on it?
Trinidad Rafael 6:21
It can definitely get overwhelming and there’s certain times that they do say, ‘this is enough.’ like it’s too much. They’re very supportive and it doesn’t really bother them, but there’s certain times that yes, that’s way too many things here and they will say something, but it’s never gotten to the point where we got into an argument about it.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 6:48
In the apartment, there are Fresh Direct bags piled one on top of another, with the occasional bin if he can find one on the street.
Trinidad Rafael 6:56
But yeah, the apartment is not that big. My room is actually full cause i actually bring it to my room so it doesn’t bother no one else, you know?
Michayla Savitt (narration) 7:05
Bushwick Mutual Aid has been trying to fund a space of its own to store the donations and run a storefront. Their GoFundMe has a 10-thousand dollar goal, and as of May 2022 it’s reached just over 4-thousand dollars.
But as a volunteer-run organization, they don’t have the resources or marketing expertise of many bigger nonprofits.
Alicia Fox 7:27
I would love it if somebody better qualified than me would step up and help with ideas in that direction.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 7:39
Again, Alicia Fox, Bushwick Mutual Aid founder.
Alicia Fox 7:42
It’s not my area of expertise, and of the core volunteers, it’s nobody’s area of expertise for how you do the fundraiser and, you know, who do you reach out to?
Michayla Savitt (scene) 7:54
So perhaps, like more volunteers with a different skill set, like people who have digital strategy.
Alicia Fox 8:02
See you even know the word “digital strategy” – I didn’t even know that was a term. But yeah, you know, we could use a volunteer who doesn’t have to come out here, you know, on the regular, and worry about pulling clothes from a bag and shouting out, you know, “boy, size six!”, you know, to help things move quickly. But who could do it from home? You know, like, I don’t have time, I work nine to five.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 8:30
What’s missing is a lack of time.
Alicia Fox 8:32
I’m not mad at myself about it. Because I, you know, I’m doing what I can, and it’s like, anybody else wants to step up, they can. But you can see why a lot of organizations like the mutual aid group, they’ve fallen apart there don’t really exist following the pandemic, because you just had so many people with so much free time, and energy.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 8:55
Trinidad is also facing lower volunteer numbers.
Trinidad Rafael 8:59
Just bringing all the items to the park, it’s a struggle. It’s multiple trips in my shopping cart, and I don’t always have the help, especially now that the pandemic is kind of like fading away and people are going back to work. The help that I used to have, it’s not the same, a lot of the volunteers are back to work. So I’m left with less.
Sinida says Trinidad’s volunteer work is not lost on people who donate to, and benefit from the store.
We all believe he should have some sort of compensation. You know, just to get around just to, on a hot day, like have a sandwich or have a drink, or, you know, if he has more than he can carry, he deserves to throw that stuff in an Uber. He would be truly using the money for his energy, and it would just go directly back out into the community.
Michayla Savitt (narration) 10:00
Trinidad notes that people do occasionally send an Uber for him to do a donation pick-up. While Bushwick Mutual Aid doesn’t have the means to pay anyone right now, he’s looking towards a future of getting a storage option – or even another job.
Trinidad Rafael 10:14
But now that things are starting to get back to normal. I, .. I just, I just want to get it out and I want to get my life back together
Michayla Savitt (scene) 10:26
And so you feel like you can’t do that right now?
Trinidad Rafael 10:30
No, I don’t feel like I can do that now because I’m always picking up, picking up, picking up.
Michayla Savitt (scene) 10:38
and what would happen if you decided that you wanted to go back to that? Like the before times? Like, do you think you could do that? Do you think, like, you know, you would be able to put the store to the side and like put you first again?
Trinidad Rafael 10:52
Um, yeah, I mean, I thought about it. I thought, where am I going. I mean, Maybe not sure. I mean, I definitely love the free store and it’s just all about making people happy.
[fade up reflective music]
Trinidad Rafael 11:09
It really brings joy to me. Anytime that I can help someone out or see the smile on their faces. It’s great. But I feel like I would miss this.
[fade up music for a few seconds]
[fade in sound of free store closing down]
[fade out music under dialogue]
Michayla Savitt (narration) 11:29
Even when night falls, the Bushwick Free Store is still running. Trinidad will wrap up as late as 10pm. By then, he’s seen many cycles of people come by. It’s May, and the evening air is less chilly. It’s been just a month since Trinidad and I really have a chance to catch up. And he has some news to share.
Trinidad Rafael 11:49
Through a connection, I actually got a meeting with Bushwick Starr, which is a theater, and they offered me storage and a location for a pop up.
(run soft continued dialogue under narration)
Michayla Savitt (narration) 12:00
The new location is about a mile deeper into Bushwick, off the Halsey L train.
Trinidad Rafael 12:05
so I’ve been moving a lot of my store from my house, into that new location. And I don’t have to, like, let’s say, I do the pop up, I do the free store. Everything stays there for the next week. So I don’t have to bring it home.
Michayla Savitt (scene) 12:22
I feel like it’s a game changer that you have storage now. You know what, what are you thinking about the future?
Trinidad Rafael 12:29
The future is more storage, better storage.
[fade in reflective music]
Michayla Savitt (scene) 12:33
I mean, your future?
Trinidad Rafael 12:35
my future? I’m hoping that I get some type of offer to work doing what I love, which is this.
[music increases to full volume for a few seconds, then fades down]
Michayla Savitt (narration) 12:55
This piece was produced by me, Michayla Savitt. Music is Bodytonic from BlueDotSessions.