Frontlines

Cashing in on a fast-talking street hustle

Rita Christopher July 30 1979
Frontlines

Cashing in on a fast-talking street hustle

Rita Christopher July 30 1979

Cashing in on a fast-talking street hustle

They are the ultimate urban survivors.

They flourish at the centre of elbowing crowds and inhale choking exhaust as though it were the purest mountain air. In summer, their invitations to "Check it out... why pay more?” buzz in city folks’ ears like the chirping of crickets on a warm country night. They are New York’s street pedlars, a veritable army of fast-talking hucksters who turn Manhattan’s elite shopping areas into an Occidental version of a Levantine bazaar. Although Toronto, Vancouver, and other Canadian cities boast similarly gaudy sidewalks, the Canadian pedlars are not as strident, colorful or ubiquitous as their New Yorker counterparts.

At lunch hour, prime shopping time, the sidewalk in front of Manhattan’s new Citicorp Center at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue features everything from "genuine Austrian crystal” jewelry to boxes full of pistachio nuts and dried fruit. A block farther up, crock pots and cutlery sets are being hawked from the back of a station wagon. For hungry shoppers, the sidewalks offer a multi-ethnic feast from New York’s traditional acid-indigestion special, a frankfurter with sauerkraut, to Chinese egg rolls and Greek souvlaki. To wash it down, umbrella carts sell the drink that

means mother to generations of New Yorkers—a chocolate egg cream. (To most non-natives, this concoction of syrup and soda water means heartburn.)

Visitors who used to flock to the city's world-famed department stores have discovered that some of the hottest new fashions emerge from cardboard cartons on the street. For status at a price, $5 terrycloth pullovers are impressively hawked as “getcher deesigner T-shirts.”

The best operators tailor their merchandise almost instantly to customer demand. A dark grey cloud signals a switch from blouses to umbrellas. Even bad fortune can be sidewalk gold; working the city’s fuel lines, hawkers sold five-gallon carrying cans and locks for gas caps. Skylab survival kits offered cardboard helmets for $2, and Skylab insurance policies sold for $3—valid only with the signatures of three American presidents.

"A lot of these vendors try to give the impression that their merchanise is ‘hot’ [stolen] or at least still warm,” says Police Chief Daniel Courtenay of Manhattan’s Midtown South, the area most heavily worked by the street vendors. “Actually most of it is just purchased from jobbers. There’s too much stuff out there for it to be illegal.” Although city statutes forbid general merchandise pedlars to operate in the midtown area, they are so numerous that police can do very little to keep them from their profitable turf. Moreover, arresting pedlars hardly wins the police thanks from the general public. "Lots of time when we’re writing up a summons, people will be standing around cheering the pedlars. There’s no doubt they’re very popular with a lot of shoppers,” says Deputy Chief Gerard Kerins.

He estimates a good pedlar can earn an average of $15,000 a year and he delights in telling the story of one Murray Lipkin, who has worked the sidewalks for over a quarter of a century. "Murray peddles, his wife peddles, and their son—he is a physician. They put him through medical school on their earnings.” Rita Christopher