ADONIS WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’m 6’4, 248 pounds. My employees use the word “brolic” a lot when they see me pick up stuff. Like, I literally would just pick a sofa up over my head while two of them are struggling with it and I'll just say, “I got it.” And I'll just pick up the sofa bed over my head and start walking with it and they go, “Oh my god, he's so brolic!” [laughs]
[Death, Sex & Money theme music starts]
ANNA SALE: This is Death, Sex & Money, the show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more. I’m Anna Sale.
[Death, Sex & Money theme music ends]
ANNA SALE: Adonis Williams is a mover in New York City, a job he started more than 20 years ago when he saw a woman crying on the subway. She had two kids with her and all their stuff in trash bags.
ADONIS: I asked her what was wrong. She explained that she had to make a choice between leaving the bags of clothes and carrying the kids.
ANNA SALE: Adonis had a van and he offered to move her for free.
ADONIS: I'm that way. Even on the way here, I stopped to get me a cup of coffee and it was a mother with her daughter in Dunkin Donuts— true story. And the little girl was crying because she wanted the strawberry sprinkled donut. And her mother was just going in to get a coffee, and I said, “Ma'am, I'm gonna pay for your coffee. I'm gonna pay for her donut.” And that's just the way I am. If I see people sad or crying— but I do have one rule. I don't take care of the homeless in other states. I travel too much, but if somebody comes up to me in a window in Texas or Tennessee, I don't give any money. I know it's sad, but I just can't take care of the world. But in New York City, if you come up to my window, I'll give you $2, $5, and that’s everyday all day, anybody.
ANNA SALE: Adonis is often in other states because a lot of his moves are long distance…but they mostly start in New York City.
[The sound of a group of men moving something. One of them says, “1, 2, 3, lift!”]
ANNA SALE: On a Saturday afternoon a few months ago, Adonis was moving the belongings of Ms. Dixon. She had just retired from her job as a home health aide and was leaving the Bronx after many years. Producer Zoe Azulay met them at a storage unit where they were packing up her stuff.
ZOE: What’s the moving plan today? Where are we going?
MS. DIXON: We’re going down South. North Carolina.
ZOE: What’s there?
MS. DIXON: Family.
ZOE: And are you— What are you going to miss about New York?
MS. DIXON: Not much.
[The sound of Zoe and Ms. Dixon getting into Adonis’ truck. Zoe says, “Want me to sit in the middle?”]
ANNA SALE: From the storage unit, they drove in Adonis’ truck, Ms Dixon riding shotgun, Zoe squeezed in the middle, to pick up the rest of Ms. Dixon’s things at her apartment.
MS. DIXON: 1322.
ADONIS: 1322. Gotcha.
ANNA SALE: Adonis has lived in New York City his whole life. He knows each neighborhood, how to maneuver through them in a big truck.
ADONIS: Ms. Dixon, have you ever ate at that Spanish restaurant right there?
MS. DIXON: Which one?
ADONIS: Right here. No, never? I guess you never ate there. I used to eat there a while back.
ANNA SALE: When they got to the apartment, there was not much left to pack up.
MS DIXON: I have seven boxes.
ADONIS: Only seven boxes over there?
MS. DIXON: Yes. A fan and a tv.
MS. DIXON: They already packed up anyway.
ADONIS: Okay. Makes me feel guilty about taking your money with such a small job over on the other end. I may have to give you some money. I have to pay you for the exercise today.
[Music: Blue Dot - Kid Kodi Alt]
ANNA SALE: Over his twenty years in the moving business, Adonis has seen people in all sorts of transitional moments— retiring, getting married, being priced out— sometimes a person is ready with their stuff in boxes, eager. Other times Adonis and his team have to help a person pack. It’s a movers job to make this moment manageable, to compartmentalize, and help a person move on. This is not a service Adonis had growing up.
ADONIS: Well, I remember moving as a child between Harlem and the Bronx, and we never hired movers. I didn't even know— I would just come from school and we'd be in a new place. My dad took care of everything. And we just did it with pickup trucks, cars, whatever we could, you know, whatever relative could come by. We never, ever hired a moving truck.
ANNA SALE: I talked to Adonis after he’d gotten Ms. Dixon’s things to North Carolina. He came into our New York studio the morning before another move. It was still summer, Adonis’s peak season, when he does about a move a day. He used to pack in 3 moves a day. That’s a lot of flights of stairs, tight corners, and long drives.
ADONIS: I've been to every state except for Seattle, Washington and Oregon.
ANNA: And when you are driving these long haul moves, do you go by yourself?
ADONIS: Sometimes I do. Or sometimes I pick up my dad and he comes and he does the driving. You know, even at 70 years old, he's still a hell of a driver and still moves furniture and picks up boxes and stuff. He loves to go.
ANNA: And are they still living in New York City?
ADONIS: No, no, no. My parents eight years ago moved to North Carolina, and I moved them, and they said it's because I gave them the cheapest price.
ANNA: Not because they wanted to patronize you. You had the best price.
ADONIS: [Laughing] Moved them for free.
ANNA: You won the bid. With free! [Laughs] Okay, got it.
ADONIS: I moved my parents out to North Carolina and I visit them anytime I do a move. I'm doing New York to Florida, New York to Georgia, or New York to South Carolina, I always stop in and use my parents' places, the hotel, but my dad still goes when I go up 95. He’s always happy to put on his fatigues. Because that’s what he wears when he goes. He likes the fact that when he’s wearing his Vietnam hat and his fatigues, a lot of people will say, “Thank you for your service.”
ANNA: Yeah. And it’s nice you get to watch those interactions. That’s cool. You get to see that.
ANNA: I imagine when you enter into a home where someone is moving out, it means something in their life is changing. Can you tell the difference between a happy move and a sad move?
ADONIS: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. As a matter of fact, now I get the email, “Adonis, you moved me and, let's use the name Josh, into the apartment five years ago. We're now getting divorced, and I just want to know if you are able to help me move.” So they'll know the kind of atmosphere I'm entering. I won't be like, “Hey, how, how's everything going!” and it's a sad occasion for them because they're getting a divorce, you know what I mean?
ANNA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
ADONIS: And so I go in there neutral, not taking any sides.
ANNA: Uhhuh. And how often do you find that you need to offer some reassurance or some comfort for somebody who's having a sad move?
ADONIS: Usually every time. Every time you do the move, they wanna talk to you about it. You become the bartender or the taxi driver that they need to vent to. Or at least tell their side because everybody feels, “Oh, I'm not the bad person.” And I get some people, both guys and girls, that say, “Adonis, I really messed up. I cheated on him and got busted.”
ANNA: [Laughs] Do you ever find yourself sharing any of your ups and downs with someone who's having a hard time?
ADONIS: Absolutely. You can't go in and just hear about their life and not have to share a part of your life with them. And that happens all the time. I tell 'em about my mistakes— because at 54, I'm always older than the person that I'm moving.
[Music: Blue Dot - Greycase D&B]
ANNA: When you come into someone's home and they are packing up all of their possessions, I imagine you see a lot of private items. You see the way people actually live instead of how they present on the street. Does anything surprise you now, having done this for 20 years? What you come across when you're packing up a bedroom, for example?
ADONIS: No. Now I have on my questionnaire, when I send them a list of moving tips, please check under the beds for anything personal. Because a lot of times the apartments are so small, the rooms are so small, that the bed takes up most of them. And you can't move the bed left or right or nothing. It’s just up against the wall.
So I asked them to check under the bed because usually whatever falls on the side of the bed or under the bed, they can't get it until the movers come and move the bed.
So I moved an Indian couple that had moved before and I was familiar with them and everything. But this time they were having a baby, and they needed a bigger space.
So when we move the bed— oh, and a lot of the Indians and Asians parents come, on both sides, when they're doing the move.
ADONIS: Yes. They both come, like it's an event. They come help do the packing and maybe mind the baby, the small children, so the parents can do whatever they have to do.
So I got ready to take apart the bed, took the mattress off, lifted it up, and they're all talking to me, you know.
And I moved the bed and some used condoms fell on the side of the bed.
ANNA: Ah! Used!
ADONIS: Yeah! Used, used, used! And the girl was pregnant, which was the reason they were moving. And so the husband had no reason to use condoms.
And so everybody standing in the room looking at each other except me, I just put the bed on this side and take it out. But there was a big argument in their language, and it didn't end well. She ended up staying at the place, and he ended up leaving, and it was a big old argument. I said, oh man.
ANNA: Oh, wow. Oh my goodness. And I'm imagining for your clients who find you and reach out... Like you also have this very up close view of how New York City neighborhoods are changing, because you're noticing who's coming in and who's coming out.
What are you noticing right now in New York? Is there anything different or is it the same kind of march of expensive neighborhoods getting bigger and affordable neighborhoods getting smaller, and the racial makeup of neighborhoods changing as that flips?
ADONIS: What I'm noticing is nobody, and I mean nobody, in New York City can live alone. It's very rare for me to move a place, even if it's a one bedroom where there's just one person living there just paying the rent— everybody has to have help. Yeah, the rent is so expensive, and I don't care what kind of job, you know, I've moved lawyers and doctors and people in advertisement.
I once moved a group of girls on Wall Street in a very, very expensive building. And it was seven of them! They had so many walls put up splitting this place up, like going through a maze to get the stuff out.
ANNA: Oh wow.
ADONIS: So they could afford the rent! Yeah! We had gotten there early, and so there was still a few of the people sleeping. There was actually a girl who slept by the door. The little hallway that leads to the door was a bedroom, so she had to fold up her bed and move it so we could start coming in and out.
I was like, “Yeah, that's real. Really trying to pay the rent with the seven girls in here.”
ANNA: Mm-hmm. Does it ever get you down, seeing how hard it is for people to find a comfortable place to live and to be able to afford to stay there?
ADONIS: Uh, no. It never gets me down or nothing like that, but it makes me realize that I'm not the only one in that boat.
Because growing up, we were very, very, very, very, very, and if I could throw two more verys on there, very poor. Yeah, very poor. We always thought white people lived better than us. We lived in the projects and they lived in Tribeca and Gramercy Park and all those places. But now that I move people, you say to yourself, “Wow, people in New York City really suffer in their own way.”
You know what I mean? They just put up a good facade.
[Music: Blue Dot - Cigar Singles]
ANNA SALE: Coming up, how Adonis got into the moving business and why, for the first five years, he didn’t charge for it.
ADONIS: The frequency of the phone calls where I was trying to do Friday, Saturdays, and Sundays— people that are being abused can't wait for the weekend. So then I found myself trying to take care of it in the morning before I went to work.
ANNA SALE: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
By the time Adonis Williams was thirty, he’d gone through lots of jobs. Supermarket clerk, security guard, summer youth counselor, and dental assistant, but money was tight. He had two sons, one who lived with him. That’s why he bought his first van in 2000. He needed a car, and a Dodge Caravan from the mid-90s was what he could afford.
ADONIS: I had that van because that’s the only thing that they would give me on my credit.
ANNA: I see. I’m picturing a minivan, which is when you’ve got a couple kids in the back, but for you, it was the car loan you could get.
ADONIS: Yeah it was what I could get. I started off in the front with the Dodge Charger and then I saw the Dodge pickups, and I started thinking to myself… I had my son with me at the time. But they walked me way, way, way past all that stuff to the back of the yard with this van with the leaves on it. Opened it up and they said, “This is what we got for you!”
[Laughing] I took it. I took it.
ANNA SALE: Then, September 11th happened.
ADONIS: The government was looking for people to look at the x-rays and stuff, and so I was able to identify a lot of small stuff, and they were impressed with that, and the government hired me to train people at the TSA to read x-rays.
ANNA SALE: He worked long hours at LaGuardia. One night after work, he was taking the subway home and noticed the woman with her two kids, carrying trash bags with their belongings. She told him she had been staying in a shelter because her partner was abusive. Now she’d have to leave the shelter, and that night she had nowhere to go.
ADONIS: And so I came back with the van, and I got her and the two kids. And I got them pizza and Hawaiian punch. And took them to my house, and I gave them the bedroom, and I used my living room sofa bed, and that's when I realized that in the shelter system they don't really help you get in or out.
ANNA SALE: The next morning, he moved her and her kids and their things back into the shelter system after they’d reapplied for a slot, and Adonis decided he wanted to help more victims of domestic violence move out of unsafe situations— a service he still provides today. He placed an ad on craigslist and put the word out.
ADONIS: I got some cards, and then I went around and put them to the shelters. The shelters aren't easy to find— they meant that way, so the abusers don't find the shelters. And for the first five years, I didn’t make any money, I didn’t get any money and I didn’t accept any money for the first five years of moving.
ANNA: Oh! So it wasn’t like a job? It was a service.
ANNA: Wow. Free help for New Yorkers in need.
ADONIS: And I also have a Facebook page, still called that, the Facebook page.
ANNA: How much were you helping people move?
ADONIS: I was only doing the job on the weekends. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. At the Department of Homeland Security, I had 10 hour shift, so I finished my 40 hours in four days. So I had Friday, Saturdays and Sundays off, and I would just— I had the ad, if I got the phone call, I would just move people.
Now, the type of move I was doing was a person with bags of clothes. They even put dishes and forks and spoons in bags of clothes— I mean, in garbage bags. And they were taking a mattress and maybe a tv— maybe a tv. But those were desperate people trying to get out of a situation where either the abuser was locked up or at work or something like that. I rushed in, just me and my son. At the time my son was only nine years old! It was just me and him.
ANNA: I want to make sure I’m understanding. The families who were trying to get away from violence in the home: do you encounter them when they’re trying to get to a shelter, or moving between shelters, or sometimes are you coming in when the abuser’s away, sneaking in, trying to get them out safely?
ADONIS: It varies. Even sometimes the abuser’s still there. But now we’re talking, twenty years later, and I have a crew now. Not just me and my nine year old son. So now when they see four or five big guys come through the door, the guy’s sitting there quiet and he doesn’t say anything. We don’t give him the mean face or nothing like that.
ANNA: Is there anyone in your life, Adonis, before you were moving survivors of domestic violence, was anyone in your life somebody who'd been through a dangerous relationship?
ADONIS: Well, my parents. My mom and my dad used to go through that. The weird thing is, when my mom and dad were fighting and my mom would be bruised up, it was no name for it! We got a beating from my dad, my mom got a beating from dad, you know what I mean? It was just the way it was.
And when the police came, nobody got arrested. They would say, “Take a walk around the block.” Or, “You gotta cool off.” They were veterans also and they understood what he was going through, so they gave him a break.
But once we got older, I would say between 17 and 20, me and my older brother could challenge my father. Because by that time we lived in Harlem and the Bronx and we were kinda street hardened— even though I sound like an easygoing, mellow guy, I have never lost the fight on the streets of Harlem, or the Bronx, and I dare anybody to say so! Because I’ll come see them.
But yes, when I put up my dukes, there was no walking away from that. The person always ended up on the ground and people had to pull me off of them. So when me and my brother… My dad, he went in after my mom, and then me and my brother got my mom out of there and closed the door.
When we came back out that day in 1992, Dad never did it again.
And he gave up the drinking and smoking and stuff like that over the years. He's a great guy now. But yeah. Yeah. He was military trained. It wasn't an easy fight, I tell you that. The military, I learned that day, trained them soldiers very, very well. But we had youth and stamina on our side, and we prevailed.
ANNA: 92... So you were in your early twenties when that happened.
ADONIS: Yeah I’m born in ‘69, so… like, 22.
ANNA: It's interesting, you remember the year. You remember when that happened.
ADONIS: Yeah, you remember the day you have to go up against the most powerful man on the planet! Because there's no kid who doesn't think his dad is not the most powerful person on the planet. There's not one kid out here. I seen my pop beat up grown men in the street. Just beat them up! Because that's the way it was in Harlem, in the Bronx. You had a problem with somebody and you step out of the bar and, you know, I seen him take on two and three guys, like, what am I gonna do? I'm 10 years old! If my pop told me to do something, I did it. I saw what the other guys got.
ANNA: Have you and your dad talked about that recently?
ADONIS: No, I've never talked to my dad about that, but during a drive once my dad had asked me about why I never cursed. He wanted to know why I never cursed, and he wanted to know why I never used drugs or smoked or anything. We had a conversation about that, and I explained to him, and he wanted to know what did I do when my mom kicked me out.
Because when I was 24, 25 my mom made me leave.
ANNA: And what did you do?
ADONIS: I lived sometimes in the same building where she put me out of, but on the roof area. And I still went to work from there until a friend of mine had a studio apartment. He was getting married and he gave me the studio apartment, and that was my first apartment in Harlem.
ANNA: Hmm. And why'd your mom ask you to leave?
ADONIS: She found that I had a kid that I didn't tell her about. Yeah, my first son. She was upset, she put me out.
ANNA: And what did you say when your dad asked you about why you don't curse and why you didn't do drugs?
ADONIS: Well, I told my dad I didn't do drugs because I saw what it did to him. You know, the cigarette smoking, the drinking, how it made him, and I was afraid to become that person. And I don't spank— to this day, I do not hit women, I do not hit children, and I do not hit animals. I never once gave my kids a spanking and I never had an argument with a girl in a relationship, and I never hit her. And I don't hit animals. They can't defend themselves.
ANNA: Mm-hmm. That makes me understand, Adonis, when you describe being on the subway and seeing a mom with her kids struggling, it makes me understand, maybe a little bit, about the depth of feeling you might have to want to help look out and help a mom who needed help.
[Music: Blue Dot - Greycase]
ANNA SALE: A few years in, Adonis realized he could make more money moving than working airport security, and he started his business.
ADONIS: In New York City you can get 950 bucks to 1200, just for the one move! That money started to look way better than waiting two weeks for a $1,200 check, when I can get that in one day. The math was pretty easy for me.
ANNA: Uhhuh, uhhuh. You mentioned your son, who's now an adult. Are you a single man now, Adonis?
ADONIS: Yeah, I have two boys. One is 29 and one is 33. And I'm not married, but I'm not single.
ADONIS: It is not like I don't have a girlfriend.
ANNA: You're in a relationship.
ADONIS: Yeah, I'm in a relationship. Yeah. I'm in a relationship.
ANNA: Uhhuh, where did you meet your current partner?
ADONIS: I was doing a move and she just walked up to me on the street looking for a job, and I taught her to wrap furniture. She was terrible at the job, but a pretty girl. And I was like, yeah, you don't have to work anymore. [Laughs] So that's the way that happened.
I don't think I envisioned— technically, even though we've been together like five years, I think technically I could still get out of it because I had never officially said, “I'm your boyfriend.” It just, she just happened to be around me when I'm going to the movies and dinner.
ANNA: She just happens to be there! [Laughs] So you don't live together?
ADONIS: No, no, no. I don't live together. I don't wanna live with anybody anymore. I have two separate moms, so I've been through that before and it's not good. The breakup isn't good. They know too much about you when it's time to end, you know? [Laughs]
ANNA: Uhhuh. Uhhuh. I wonder, Adonis, when you come home to your place and you look around at the things that you have, when your work is to see all the stuff that people have. Do you find that the objects that you keep in your house… Are there a few things that you really treasure? Or do you find that you're less attached to stuff?
ADONIS: I am very less attached to stuff. I don't think I have anything in my house that I paid for, not even my own bed, and I got a nice comfy bed that costs a lot of money that I didn't pay for. I got a big screen TV, one of those nice curved TVs. I don't know what they cost, maybe 2,500 these days. Well, I got it for free.
ANNA: How'd you get that nice TV for free?
ADONIS: One of the clients! They were upgrading or they're moving, like they consolidate, they’re moving, or they get married or into a relationship and they’re moving, and they don’t need two beds. They don’t need two TVs. So I get a lot of stuff all the time.
ANNA: Oh, that makes sense. Because for people who are just trying to be done with moving stuff, you take that off their hands.
ADONIS: Yeah. I used to try and sell it, but it's just too much hassle to sell it. So I donate all of the furniture to victims of domestic violence. I still have my ad up. I will take a picture of it and, if it can move out, I'll deliver it for free.
ANNA: When you think about the next five, ten years, how long do you think you’ll be working on moving sites and doing the moving yourself?
ADONIS: I think I could go, based on my father, at least to seventy-five. [Laughs]
ANNA: [Laughing] So another twenty years?
ADONIS: Yeah. I’m going to be the person to point the finger to lift that up probably in the next five years, if not sooner. As opposed to actually doing the work myself. I actually just— it was a four flight walk-up, I take a flight myself, to this day. And when those guys complain about what they’re lifting and how heavy something is, I’ll always go, “Come on, I’m double your age and I’m still doing it. I’m not even sweating yet.” But when I sit, and I hope they never hear this podcast, when I sit in that truck… I’m going, “Why the hell did I do that? Oh my god, why am I still doing it!” But then when I open that truck door I’m like, “Let’s get back to work!”
[Death, Sex & Money theme music begins]
ANNA SALE: That’s Adonis Williams, a mover in New York City who now lives in Queens.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Zoe Azulay. The rest of the team is Liliana Maria Percy Ruiz, Amy Pearl, Lindsay Foster Thomas, and Andrew Dunn.
Thank you to Jason Isaac for engineering help.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
We’re @deathsexmoney on Instagram, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter at deathsexmoney.org/newsletter.
Thank you to Lori McCaskill in Brooklyn, New York for being a member of Death, Sex & Money and supporting us with a monthly donation. Join Christine and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
ANNA SALE: When Adonis does retire, he plans to move out of New York City to the country to live close to his parents.
ADONIS: There’s nothing like looking at the sky and listening to the crickets and having your dog. They have two dogs, but the dogs love me! When I come by, they recognize me right away, they jump up and down like little kids, you wouldn’t believe these two dogs! They jump up and down, they get to wagging. And they love me. So I might get me a dog and live out my days in a rocking chair like my dad.
ANNA SALE: I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.