Confessions of a New York City Street Peddler (Part 2 of 3) – By Dr. Howard Karlitz

This is part 2 of the 3 part series. Part one can be found here
But it would be impossible to close this chapter of the story without some pain. There were two periods during that summer when David thought they had him. The first was during the Democratic National Convention, which happened to take place in New York that year. Word came thundering down from the mayor’s office to sweep the midtown streets clean of vermin, especially around the museum where each conventioneer’s agenda would include a trip to the Picasso exhibit. He particularly didn’t want them in contact with vendors. Little did he realize, however, that out-of-towners love peddlers, and consider them to be just one more vibrant element in the city’s personality. The peddler detail sought to temporarily suspend peddling operations and warned every street vendor in the strongest terms not to work midtown that week. The other T-shirt people stopped immediately, but David was getting greedy, and the next day opened up, business as usual. He was hit four, five, six times a day. Gus told him he was making “enemies on the force,” the ultimate threat. Sergeant Laverty, head of the detail, cornered him in the peddler room one day and said if he kept it up, he’d never work the streets again. David was scared and considered stopping, but then went back out anyway. And since the competi¬tion had dried up, he made out huge, even with the extra hassle. Towards the end of the week the detail even let him slide one or two times. In the end they earned each other’s respect.

The second time David was almost put out of business happened when Picasso’s greedy heirs decided that the shirt represented a copyright violation and that they “owned” his signature. An army of treasury agents, suit and tie guys in unmarked cars, hit the museum one day, confiscating shirts and handing out injunc¬tions ordering peddlers to cease and desist until a federal judge would hand down a ruling in two weeks. The press had been tipped off the previous night and the street was teeming with reporters, photographers and cameramen.

As David sadly walked back to his car, he passed a bear of a guy, a grizzled street vendor pulling a monstrous rack of designer tops down the middle of 54th Street toward Fifth Avenue. He was leaning into a thick rope that was slung over his shoulder, the other end of which was tied to his joint. Traffic was backed up behind him all the way to Sixth Avenue, and each time an irate motorist was able to squeeze by, he was blasted with a car horn. His response was a calm, detached, “I-don’t-give-a-shit” raised middle finger. David recog-nized him from the peddler room. His name was Spiro, a Greek, one of the few other vendors who had worked convention week.

“I saw what happened,” he said to David, dropping the rope in the middle of the street in order to stretch out his shoulder. Horns chorused.

“Yeah, they gave me this,” David answered holding up the injunction.

“The hell with it man. Go back to work.”

“And get arrested! You’re crazy. I’m quitting. For good.”

“Hey, they did you a favor. Cleaned up the competition. They ain’t coming back. It was just a big show. For the press. The Feds got better things to do than bust T-shirt peddlers. You’ll never have this chance again.” He picked up the rope and began lugging his rig toward Fifth. The line of cars started inching along behind him. “Now is the time,” he called back to David. “NOW!”

Within minutes David was on the phone with Benny screaming at him to print everything he had. And Spiro was right. For the next two weeks he was the only one out there selling the “banned” shirts. Everyone had seen them on TV and were desperate for them. Benny made two, three, sometimes four vanload deliveries a day. David and Syd dumped them on the sidewalk and watched their clientele pounce on them, grabbing ten, fifteen at a time. Spiro was right about the Feds too. They never came back. In fact, the case was lost with the court holding that the signature was clearly in the public domain. It belonged to the people.

By the time the competition came back, it was too late. They had missed the best two weeks of the season. Summer was winding down. Gus told David there would never be another two weeks like it again. And he was right.

The show was scheduled to end after Labor Day, but the museum was doing so much business that they decided to extend the show through October. Every day for the next eight weeks David rushed into the city after work, once again leading the double life of pedagogue/peddler; two seemingly incongruous pursuits, yet manageable, even to the point of benefiting his classroom technique. As a result of an injection of street wisdom which his streetwise kids instinctively picked up upon, control ceased to be a problem. They seemed to understand and respect each other more than ever before.

When the show finally did close, David decided to quit peddling for good and devote himself fully to teaching. But he was addicted to the street freedom and ended up quitting teaching for good and devoting himself to peddling. The next day he was in front of Saks Fifth Avenue pumping scarves and gloves in the crisp, exciting, autumn air.

This was the mainstream of New York City street vending, Fifth Avenue, the “Diamond Mile,” that stretch of intense commercial activity running from 59th to 47th Street. It was the time of giant rigs rolling up and down the block, each manned by four or five peddlers selling everything from lingerie to jackets, to sweaters, to pocketbooks, to dresses, hats, records, jewelry, make-up, wigs, belts, toys, pants, shoes, socks, radios, TV’s, telephones, over-the counter medicines, tools, tires, car batteries, flashlights, condoms, birth control pills, even eyeglasses. It’s true. David once saw two entrepreneurial characters with a large box filled with prescription glasses. As one partner deftly placed a pair on a costumer’s nose, the other held up an eye chart exactly 20 feet away. “Can you see the “E” lady? No? OK, here, try another pair.” They went for six bucks a throw, two for ten dollars.

And as Christmas drew nearer, more peddlers appeared, store owners from the suburbs and the outer boroughs opening weekend Manhattan “annexes.” The streets were wall-to-wall until ten, eleven o’clock at night. Of course the Fifth Avenue Merchants Association screamed bloody murder, so more beat cops were assigned to the detail and they’d hit the avenue every hour on the hour, setting off a wild stampede of flying vendors and careening dollies which bowled over everything and everybody in their paths, because nobody wanted to get vouched and lose precious time in this most precious of seasons.

David always worked small, out of a suitcase or on a garbage pail, usually with scarves and gloves in the fall and winter, and anything from wallets to T-shirts to ties in the spring and summer. But he moved with the times and never allowed himself to get locked into any one particular item. One season he did incredibly well with dollar chain, “Bro’ Gold” as it was called in the ghettos, “Phonay Monet,” or “sluummmm…,” the definition of which can be found in the Unabridged Riker’s Island Dictionary of the English Language. We’re talking cheap costume jewelry, which he always sold as cheap costume jewelry, a buck a throw, six for five, as opposed to wise guys who’d stamp it 14 karat and sidle up to tourists looking for a quick hundred. David became known as the “Slum Lord” during a chain snatching epidemic by advising his well heeled clientele to “keep the real stuff in the vault and let the snatcher have this,” holding up a nifty, one dollar, 18 inch herringbone necklace. “Laugh as the mugger hi-ho silvers it down the block.”

What a great mix of people out there too, all working together in relative peace and madness: Greeks, Turks, Israelis, Palestinians, English, Irish, Poles, Italians, Indians, Pakistanis, Swiss, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans, Salvadorians, Costa Ricans, Russians, Prussians, Hessians, Saxons, Celts, Incans, Thais, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Taiwanese, Afghans, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Albanians, Iraqis, Iranians, Transylvanians, Koreans… each representing a distinct immigrant wave that had come to New York, the greatest city in the world, to seek refuge and a degree of economic security on its golden streets, in the same way the founders of some of the city’s greatest retail establish¬ments had done generations before.

But even though Christmas was around the corner, the time for giving, not everyone was in the giving mode. Members of the Boards of Directors of the big time organizations like Saks, Bergdorf, Bonwits, Bloomies, to name but a few, cried the loudest. “Rid the streets of this peddler trash,” they chorused, “they’re killing us. How dare they sell an umbrella for three dollars when we can get fifteen!”

Were they forgetting their roots? Forgetting where the seed money came from? Forgetting how their great grandparents came to this country penniless and toughed it out with nothing but a dream and a pushcart on the cold cobblestones of Hester Street or Avenue C? And as for the greatest store of them all, the “Big M” on 34th, are they forgetting about R.H.Macy, the original “Yankee Peddler!” Evidently.

So, at the urging of these the yuppie captains of commerce, the rules of the game began to change. Under pressure from the Association, the city raised the ransom on any joint that rolled to $65. David didn’t care. His garbage pail didn’t have any wheels. The rollers didn’t care either, particularly the Izod and Polo boys. A couple of sixty-fives a day would hardly put a dent in their pre-Christmas action.

So the next move on the city’s part was to raise EVERYBODY’S confiscation fee to sixty-five. When that plan flopped, they decided to “impound” wheeled rigs under the guise that these “rolling platforms posed a hazard to pedestrian traffic.” No big deal. The big operators switched to blankets. “Forty in the store. Ten on the floor!” Meanwhile David is still working his garbage pail with a piece of cardboard on it. He’s selling leather gloves, showing only three or four pairs at a time. The rest are stashed in a bag behind him and are not subject to confiscation because they aren’t on display. If Roger Mantle happens to get popped, he loses only ten or fifteen dollars worth of merchandise, and does not go directly to jail, but passes Go and avoids the ransom by letting the city keep the goods.

The politicos finally get to the big joints with Article B23-507.0 of the Administrative Code. They call it “forfeiture of seized property.” David calls it highway robbery. No more ransoms, they’re keeping it all now. The heavy hitting Izod and Polo peddlers scream bloody murder, threaten to form an organiza¬tion in order to hire a lawyer in order to fight this latest outrage. They circulate petitions (which everyone signs with a phony name) and ask for contributions (cash…what else!), but soon the whole thing collapses because they’re really a pack of unorganizable nomads and suddenly everyone’s working small and garbage pails are at a premium.

So it’s a whole new board game, the rules of which peddlers learning to live with when a fresh group of players suddenly sits down at the table. A wave of Africans came ashore one day, Senegalese for the most part, but with Liberians and Ethiopians sprinkled in for good measure. They hit the streets just like every previous immigrant wave had done since Peter, the ‘bead vendor,’ Minuet worked his joint on Manhattan’s south forty 350 years ago. And like their predecessors, they were tired, poor, scared, humble, but determined. There was only one difference though. Quite evident too. It was right there in black and white.

There was a story going around that a big mucky-muck walked out of Bergdorf Goodman one day and was “shocked” by the bazaar that had seeming¬ly sprung up overnight in front of the store, looking like “Istan¬bul on Sunday.” His hallowed sidewalk was speckled with dashiki clad vendors hawking African flavored bracelets, neck¬laces, earrings and statuary, not to mention sunglasses and umbrellas (pronounced “sugahs” and “umbahs” by the new arrivals.) The Bergdorf guy cranked up the Merchants Association, which revved up City Hall, which shook up the Police Commissioner’s Office, which gave birth to the “Alpha Squad”, a new, heavily manned detail of plainclothes peddler-busters, so named because in the beginning they rode around in vans and light trucks rented from an outfit called Alpha Rent-A-Car. Between these new kids on the block and the regular detail, the pressure was enormous as they incessantly swept the midtown commercial districts, confiscating displayed merchandise as well as back-up if they could find it. A lot of old time peddlers packed it in. But the Africans stayed out there.

The next move was to crack down on identification. Pakistani plastic became unacceptable. They wanted valid paper: drivers licenses, rent receipts, telephone bills, green cards. And if you couldn’t produce, you were hauled into the precinct and hassled around for a couple of hours. For awhile David kept working, taking tickets under his real name and paying them, but finally quit for good when he started getting phone calls and threatening letters from some collection agency, probably the same corrupt one back then that was involved with the thieving Parking Violation Bureau. But the Africans hung in there. And why not? When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.

The crusher came with the strict enforcement of penalties under Section B32-510, which states that unlicensed general vending is “a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $1000, or by imprisonment for not more than three months or both.” This all but eliminated the few non-African vendors from the city’s midtown commercial areas. A lot of guys David knew became “moles,” working the subways where the rules were different, or “book” peddlers (protected by the First Amendment). Some began working side streets, off the avenues, or all the way downtown in lower Manhattan where there was less of a chance of getting arrested. Some, however, still chanced Fifth Avenue, usually at odd hours looking for a quick morning or night rush. And every now and then you might even have caught one doing a lunch hour, particularly toward the end of the month when the rent came do.

As for the Africans, they still hung tough in midtown because “three hots and a cot” in the Tombs or on the “Rock” was not that far removed from ten in a room at dilapidated flophouse.

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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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