Shopkeepers shuttered their stores, business deals were waylaid and thousands of New Yorkers were plunged into commuter chaos yesterday morning when the construction workers invaded midtown. "We'll shut down this city, avenue by avenue," vowed Robert Benesh, business agent for Local 580 of the ironworkers union.
And for about four hours, they did.
The demonstration that cost the city untold dollars in lost business kicked off just before 8 a.m., as many midtown stores were about to open.
Ralph Bonato, manager of Wright Shoes at 44th St. and Madison Ave., had pushed through the protesters who had gathered at Metropolitan Transportation Authority headquarters a half-block away and was almost at his store when police ordered him back. "It's killed our business. We couldn't even get in the store this morning," Bonato said. "The worst part is they cleared the entrance to the MTA building so they can all get to work, but none of us can function."
Storeowners able to get to their shops were forced to close them for lack of business, and the bistros that cater to a mostly white-collar clientele were no lure for this blue-collar crowd.
"These construction worker guys don't drink double espressos," said Lashanna Randers at New World Coffee on Madison Ave. near 44th St., as chanting workers clomped by the cafe.
Workers at Brooks Brothers, at 44th St. and Madison Ave., hung a "Temporarily Closed" sign in the window and kept the lights off until the last of the cops cleared out around noon. "We had to lock ourselves in," said a sales clerk, who, when asked for her name, replied, "Are you kidding? There were riot police outside!"
Guard James Carbuckle counted only one customer all morning at the Daffy's clothing store on the corner of 43rd St. and Madison Ave. He said he was more worried about the construction workers outside. "They were a little too big for my comfort, but fortunately things stayed cool," Carbuckle said.
After scuffles between police and workers broke out at 54th St. and Ninth Ave., the manager of the nearby A&P took steps to prevent more havoc. He had a worker hastily scrawl a sign in crayon that said: "NO BEER BEING SOLD HERE TODAY."
Midtown traffic moved slower than molasses, creating a jam across 25 blocks that made getting in and out of Manhattan a nightmare for car and truck drivers.
The subways were packed with straphangers trying to get to work and riders trying to find a way out of the chaos.
Briefcase-toting businessmen and women found the entrances to their offices barred by police officers and the streets blocked by workers.
Mikheal Meece, 29, who works at the Edison Project at Fifth Ave. and 42nd St., was forced to hoof it with a pal after her cab got stuck at 38th St. and Sixth Ave.
"We were flipping out about being late," Meece said. "But when we tried to cross the street, these construction guys were saying, 'What are you doing? Where are you going?' We have on business suits, we have briefcases, we're not about to pick fights with construction guys."
Emily Mullen, 76, found herself marooned at Ninth Ave. and 54th St. with several bags of groceries unable to get back to her Hell's Kitchen apartment. "This is crazy," Mullen said. "I like the working man. I can't bring my groceries home."
Deliverymen like Bobby Harper of Bee Hive Beer Distributors in Long Island City, Queens, found himself stuck with a truckload of beer and unable to make a Park Ave. delivery. "We got stuck up that way a good 45 minutes," he said. "We tried first around 6:30. We tried again at 9:30. And then at 10:45." Finally, Harper gave up. "I'll have to come back tomorrow," he said.
Hundreds of taxis sat mired in unmoving traffic, many abandoned by their passengers.
But the businesswoman who was picked up at 55th St. and Eighth Ave. by cabby Balwinder Singh, 32, was too laden with packages to make the trek on foot. At 50th St. and Ninth Ave., they hit a standstill. "We did not move," Singh said. "I picked her up at 9:59, and we didn't move until 11 a.m., when I went down Broadway."
The meter finally stopped at $30, Singh said.