By Albert Samaha
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"Shoot if you must at this old gray head, but spare your country's flags," says street peddler Tommy O., glancing around 34th Street at all the fellow hawkers. I've known the wiry and wily Tommy since the late '70s, and for an old gray head who'll quote you Shakespeare at will, Barbara Frietchie has to be one of his more mundane references. Not inappropriate, though, what with Stars and Stripes blinding midtown on this gorgeous Sunday, nearly two weeks post-9-11. Since flag sellers seem to outnumber tourists, the 68-year-old Tommy has his own small bundle stashed away in his change apron, betting instead for a rush on patriotic buttons. "My wholesaler wanted 50 cents," he says, standing before rows of God Bless America badges neatly laid out across a portable, folding board. "I said, 'What? These are from the Gulf War.' She said, 'OK, will you pay 35?' and I figured, what the hell, the things have to be timeless."
The night before, Tommy had "flashed up" his timeless buttons, adding to each a multicolored strand of ribbon and a miniature flag pin. Now they're fetching $2 from most customers, $1 from chosen others. Tommy's partial to Hispanic ladies with children, minorities in general, yet suits and Europeans pay top dollar without fail"sidewalk demographics," he shrugs. "Uno peso, señora," he tells a woman, throwing in a flag for her son. "Better count those stars, dude, make sure there's 50 there. When you get home to Brooklyn and come up with 49, it'll be too late."
Over the previous week, Tommy had been "rocking" (selling out, in peddlers' parlance) with four-by-six Old Glories"the kind you see in a cup on somebody's desk." The day after the attack, he'd actually phoned medical supply houses to inquire about gross prices on surgical masks, but he let it go. "Economic terrorism," as he calls it, has its limits. So Tommy went right to flags, spending the next few days waiting hours in long lines at the wholesalers in the Twenties, before unloading his stock in a matter of minutes on street corners barely a few blocks from the suppliera routine he'd repeat with tireless enthusiasm. "Price to me, 11 cents," he says. "Price to the world, $1." Or at least until consumer demand prompted he up it to a deuce. "You can't show too much rapacity, but you gotta make a living."
To his surprise (and dismay, even), there were too few squawkers out, those vocal disapprovers he refers to as "rent"as in the price paid for the privilege of open-air hawking. "People see the flags and think that's great. I've been getting salutes and God bless you's. What is this, the dumbing-down of New York? Twenty years ago, every fifth person would have cursed me. As the bard put it in Julius Caesar, 'Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods'or something like that anyway."
Twenty years ago, Tommy O. Had already been peddling 20 years. He blew off his last steady gig (freight handling) in 1960, after pulling in a quick 50 bucks one lunch hour moving JFK pins. The next week, he was pushing Nixon hats in Brooklyn, and he never looked back. "Kennedy was the best," says Tommy, speaking in terms of his own mobile marketplace. "He was so good he even made Nixon good."
Depending on crowds, weather, trends, and, not least, his own inspiration, Tommy O. has probably unloaded a few tons of merchandise since then. These days he pushes mostly what peddlers call "garbage" ("though it's really not," he insists)generic for pennants, buttons, flags, gags, glow lights, and any number of souvenir memorabilia. He'll also work "vinyl" (blow-up toys), "plush" (stuffed animals), and "rubber" (balloons), and for the Ritalin set, he usually keeps on hand a supply of borderline items such as Silly String, poppers (firecrackers), and stink bombs.
The workplace varies with the product. Seasonally, Tommy can be spotted at sports events, parades, circuses, political rallies, rock concerts, outdoor Masses, carnivals, street fairs, ethnic festivals, holiday celebrations, or simply out on the avenue. He's scored by trailing pope tours across country, schlepping goods from World Series to Super Bowls, setting up shop on prime street corners and at subway stops. As his mock business card reads, "Illegal but not dishonest" and "We work crowds like flies work shit."
Tommy lives for the flash of creativity or the stroke of pure dumb luck that at any time might help him get over. In 1989, he was out in the parking lots at the Oakland-San Fran Series, trying his best to dodge vigilant marshals hired by Major League Baseball to confiscate non-officially logoed, bootleg goodsthe kind Tommy loves to sell. Business was slumping ("Larry," in peddlerspeak)that is, until disaster struck. "Fans weren't buying anything out there," he recalls, "but then the earth shook, and we got these T-shirts 'I survived,' blah, blah, blah. It was beautiful, and of course, there's nobody to represent an earthquakeno lawyers, no royalties. We rocked."
Nerve and guile will on occasion fuel the inspiration of the intrepid peddler. While selling pennants at a mid-'80s Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Tommy noticed fans leaving a main ramp down two separate walkways, seriously limiting his overall take. The following year, he returned with a heavy-duty padlock and snuck up in the fourth quarter to bolt shut one of the gates, ensuring an ideal "blow-off" (exit sales). "I could hear complaints from people as they had to detour," he laughs. " 'What is this?' 'Who the fuck closed this off?' What did I care? I sold out in about 15 minutes." Last summer, while working a gay pride rally, Tommy found himself up against D.C. parks police, "literally in the shadow of the Monument." He hadn't the required local peddler's license, so he chanced showing them his disabled vet card, which he confides "can't really take any close scrutiny." (He is a Korean War vet, he's not disabledhow he got the card is another story.) As the older of the two cops examined the ID, Tommy took a shot and blurted, "I'm here raising funds for the gay veterans coalition." OK then, said the cops and wished him luck. "What a great word, 'coalition,' " says Tommy, relishing the memory. "An all-nothing kind of word."