Confessions of a New York City Street Peddler (Part 1 of 3) – By Dr. Howard Karlitz

This is Part 1 of a 3 part posting which will be published over the next few weeks

It’s February, 1980, and David Gordon is standing in front of a class of delinquent kids in a South Brooklyn juvenile detention center trying to teach reading. While patiently guiding them through a short story called “Young Pablo Picasso,” his eye is caught by a reproduction of the artist’s flamboyant signature emblazoned across the top of the page. He puts the book down and stares at the lettering, then happens to notice a small blurb in a newspaper lying next to it on his desk announc¬ing an exhibition of Picasso’s work, a major retrospective, scheduled to soon take place at the Museum of Modern Art. It was strange, the signature and show coming together like that. His mind wanders. An idea is taking form. Suddenly it comes to him. Just in time too, because the kids are going bananas and a piece of chalk whizzes past his ear, powder shat¬tering against the green board behind him.

That evening, in the safety of his modest suburban home, he announced his plan to his wife. “Jill,” he boasts, “this is it, the big one! I’m going to sell Picasso T-shirts at the Museum of Modern Art this summer.”

Quite naturally she’s leery. In fact she thinks he’s mad. And he really can’t blame her. In the first place she’s wondering why in the world anyone would want to buy a T-shirt with Picasso’s signature on it. And secondly, they had just been through a nervous breakdown-inducing business bankruptcy after he invested their life savings in three waterbed stores, all of which sunk after only five months, leaving them in a blizzard of attorneys’ letters, injunctions, collections notices, court fees, judgments, tax liens, law suits (both of the civil and criminal variety), and every other form of lawyer-related horror one could dream of.

But he had to give this a shot and Jill understood why. She understood that he was tired of trying to make it on a teacher’s salary, tired of wheeling around suburbia in one clunker after another, tired of never even considering a vacation, tired of not being able to take his family to a decent restaurant, depressingly tired of watching the bills pile up on the kitchen table month after lousy month. They had held on to their 60’s ideals as long as possible, but like the man desperately clinging to a ledge fifty stories up, it was getting hard because the villain, Mr. 80’s, a/k/a “Greed and Excess,” was stomping on their fingertips.

He hooked up with a character named Benny who owned a T-shirt printing shop near his job. David showed him the Picasso signature from the school book. “Nice shot,” Benny says. Everything in this business is a “shot.” Said he can copy it, enlarge it, and press it onto a shirt. A “heat shot” he calls it.
“What do you think of my idea?” David asks. “Picasso, that is.”

“Great” Benny lied. Thought he was nuts. “How many ya’ wanna start with? A hundred dozen? Two?”

“No, forty-eight.”

“Dozen?”

“No, shirts. Black ones, with white lettering.”

His first day out was in April. David rushed into the city after work figuring to catch the early ticket buyers. The shirts were in a knapsack on his back. As he walked down the block, however, his confidence melted away. Suddenly he was terrified. He had no license, if there was such a thing, no permit, nothing. Here he was, a schoolteacher, with a masters degree no less, slinking around the museum entrance on 53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues like a criminal. He felt like a derelict or, worse yet, a pervert. He wanted to run back to the burbs, but something grabbed hold of him at this moment of truth and he slipped out a shirt and held it up in front of him at arms length. And like magic, a well dressed woman walked over and began to touch it. “Pretty,” she says. Pretty my ass, David thought, she’s a cop. She pulls out her wallet. Here comes the badge. “How much?” she asks, and when he tells her five dollars she hands him a ten and walks away with two. He’s rocked. Other people who have been watching now come over to buy shirts too. And this is the first critical lesson he learns about peddling, to draw a crowd and let people see money changing hands. It adds credibility to you and your action. On the streets it’s called disalienation.

Under half an hour he’s sold out, but decides right then and there to quit because it’s just too damn scary, too risky, for a schoolteacher with a masters degree that is. But that night back home, he’s throwing the cash around the kitchen, and then he’s on the phone with Benny ordering more shirts which he picks up the next day on his lunch hour which he’s selling that afternoon at the museum after work because already he’s totally addicted to the money and the action.

The Picasso Retrospective Exhibit opened to rave reviews and the crowds were enor¬mous, with lines snaking all the way down the block and curling onto 5th Avenue. Business took off, so he hired his recently unemployed father-in-law, Sid, to help him out. One of the greatest, cast aside (not-even-a-gold-watch) garment center salesmen of all times, Sid covered the 54th Street entrance while David worked on 53rd. When the end of June rolled around and the tourists poured into town, business exploded and suddenly they were moving a couple of hundred pieces a day. Then, summer vacation kicked in, thank God, and they were working nine to nine, seven days a week.

It was about this time that David’s first competition showed up; two punk types from Hoboken. They copied his idea. What could he do? Sue? Call a cop? They hurt David’s numbers because they were showing colors while he was only selling black T-shirts. So David got colors too, a whole rainbow, and now he and Sid are moving even more shirts. Then they got children’s T’s (for the grandma and grandpa set) and French cuts (for those long, tanned arms.) That was Jill’s idea.

More competition hit the street: a couple of Israelis, a one-armed Cuban with a Ph.D. in physics, two accountants, at least one lawyer, an insurance salesman from North Carolina, a keyboard player and drummer from a defunct rock band, and a host of college students on summer vacation. The place began to look like a flea market, but it was OK because there was enough for everybody.

Meanwhile the idea was feeding on itself. Soon everyone was walking around with a Picasso signature T-shirt, whether they’d been to the show or not. It’s big in the Hamptons. Fire Island also. Store owners buy them by the dozen, and David’s starting to see them in some very chic Madison Avenue shop windows marked up four to five hundred percent. He was doing serious numbers, so serious that Benny put all his other business on hold to print only Picasso shirts. David was hot, and there was nothing he couldn’t handle now…except…the…truck!!

One day a scruffy looking moose of a guy in worn jeans and sandals was looking down at David’s T-shirts and asked for a pale pink extra large. Rather strange David thought. He bends down and rummages through his suitcases and comes up with the guy’s order and suddenly he’s eyeballing a police badge. “Don’t cry,” the plain clothes cop says, “just show me some I.D.” But David’s ready, and pulls out his wallet with a fifty dollar bill taped to the inside leather flap. “Don’t even think about it,” the cop says. “Put it away. I.D.” So David hands him a valid driver’s license. “You’ll have to do something about this, Mr. David Gordon.” David has no idea what he’s talking about. The cop writes out a summons, hands David the pink portion of it, gets on his walkie-talkie, and in seconds a paddy wagon roars up. This is it, David figures, he’s screwed. The cop opens the back door and David starts to climb in when the cop growls, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get out!” and he grabs David’s suitcases full of shirts and throws them into the truck. “Pick’em up at two o’clock. Got any back-up?” the cop asks. Again David doesn’t know what’s going on. “Shit to sell, until you come in.” Our hero’s drawing blanks. “You’re not a virgin, David, are you?” he asks, somewhat surprised. David’s too petrified to speak. “You’ll learn. See you at two. Midtown North Precinct,” and he was gone.

At the appointed hour, David finds himself in the bowels of a west side station house located in the heart of the city’s sleaze district, the denizens of which would probably associate the name Pablo Picasso with some new, well-hung porno sensation. He’s huddling against the wall of a dingy basement room crowded with an assortment of motley characters, many of whom he later learns are more plainclothes cops. An air conditioner belches and death-rattles ineffectively. Everyone’s milling about until one guy, a hippie type cop, sits down behind a typewriter and yells, “OK, who’s up first?” and all hell breaks loose with peddlers rushing him, waving their pink summonses in his face in order to pay a twenty dollar “ransom” for their confiscated merchandise and get back on the street where capitalism in its purest from awaits.

David hangs around to the end, nervous, scared, like any law-abiding, middle class suburbanite when Gus Reuter, the officer who took his shirts, asks for the summons and the twenty (the “ad¬ministrative fee” the city figures it costs to grab his stuff and haul it to the station house). He types up a voucher, asks David to sign it, then hands back the summons and a receipt. As for the summons, David’s informed that end of it is handled like a parking ticket, and has to be cleared through a different city agency, Consumer Affairs. And the fines, Reuter warns, usually $100 a pop, can add up quickly. David was then told he could take back his suitcases, which were stacked up against a far wall.

When he got home that night he burst through the door scream¬ing “I quit! I quit!” waving the pink summons around like a madman. But the following day, he and Sid dug up some extra suitcases, “back-up,” which they stashed on the side in order to continue working between the time they got hit and the time they had to pick up their “shit.” (”Shit,” by the way, is the official term for the merchandise in your “joint.” Your joint consists of your “shit” and your “rig,” in his case, three or four suitcases lying open on the sidewalk. Shit + Rig = Joint.)

Their identity situation was deftly handled by the slick proprietor of a Broadway arcade, who decked them out with social security cards and some neat looking plastic employment badges from a bogus Brooklyn construction company. David proudly became Roger Mantle. What the hell, he figured, if you’re gonna do it…

The system worked perfectly. They got hit, waited a bit, re-opened with back-up, continued peddling for a couple of hours, then went to the precinct to ransom their shit, and were back in front of the museum in no time. Their tickets, like of those of every other peddler in the city, became toilet paper. Everyone’s figures were healthy. The peddler detail was vouching record numbers, while the T-shirt vendors’ bottom lines were blacker than ever.

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Howard Karlitz is a former teacher, headmaster and college professor, having earned two masters degrees and a doctorate from Columbia University. Currently he is involved with instruction and research as it pertains to autistic children.

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