Peddling as Fast as He Can

Tommy O. Does Pennants—And Everything Else—Without Apologies

The button sales sputter, yet Tommy seems unfazed. A pair of beefy neighborhood "specials," rent-a-cops, keep him on the move, allowing time for schmoozing with colleagues. ("Hola, señora, cómo negocias?"—this to a woman selling flag scarves, which Tommy ogles enviously, a "hot item.") Unlike the NYPD's peddling detail (known to hawkers as "ALPHA" for its former use of telltale rental vans of that name), specials can't confiscate goods, but they are a general pain in the ass. Tommy's plan is to work the street for a couple of hours, before heading for Yankee Stadium to hit the crowds leaving the WTC memorial prayer service—a potential bonanza, provided there's no heat.

A switch over to Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street pays off—no cops, no rival peddlers, no shortage of theatergoers. Tommy agrees with my assessment that hawking seems like fishing—find a good spot to yourself, hope they're hungry, reel 'em in. But after a busy half-hour or so, sales tail, and we head up to the Bronx. Coming out of the subway, Tommy breathes an audible sigh of relief when he sees hordes of vendors out in front of what look to be disinterested police.

Words to sell by: "Price to me, 11 cents. Price to the world, $1."
Photo: Andrew Portnoy
Words to sell by: "Price to me, 11 cents. Price to the world, $1."

"I was up here in the '60s," he says, readying an anecdote. "Pope Paul VI was giving Mass, the place was packed, and in no time, I was all out of pope paraphernalia. I remembered that I had a shitload of these plain 'I Love Paul' buttons left over from a Beatles concert. I went home and got them, came back and sold every last one."

With the stadium in full service, we kill some time at a McDonald's, Tommy discounting buttons to workers, in particular a manager who treats him with reverence and offers us Coke refills. Apropos of 9-11, Tommy recalls a brisk business in flags in front of the Trade Center construction site nearly 30 years ago: "I was working a pro-war [Vietnam] rally, and I'd worked a peace march uptown a few days before. I'd mistakenly left a dove olive-branch button on my knapsack, and a guy spots it and says to me [puts on his mook voice]: 'Hey, you for or against?' I said, 'What war were you ever in?' He moved on, but then he came back five minutes later and sucker-punched me."

Gradually, the crowds, smaller than expected, filter out onto the streets. Tommy sets up his board curbside on Walton Avenue, the flash drawing groups of customers, most of whom ignore the ubiquitous T-shirt vendors. As he makes change for an elegant Asian couple, a squad car pulls alongside. Without missing a beat, he rushes over with a handful of buttons. The cop riding shotgun thanks him, and when they drive away, Tommy beams. "I love giving money, or better yet, stock, to apples [cops]. It means you can work; it's like a half-hour license."

Stuffing wads of cash away, Tommy chats up the clientele. "Where you from?" "What do you do?" His last half-dozen buttons go for a couple of dollars to a middle-aged lady after she tells him she's from Puerto Rico, and he tells her that he bombed Vieques when he was in the navy a long time ago. "I felt guilty, when I told her about my past," he says. "But that's OK. I'm all sold out, and I made 500 bucks."

A few weeks (and several thou in flag sales) later, Tommy is working one of his annual stops, the Ragamuffin Parade, a pre-Halloween event on Third Avenue in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge section. Spilling out from a large laundry cart, his wares are a blast of color, animal balloons flying high over his head. "Your basic garbageman's flash," he says, pointing out mylar (dolphins, butterflies), vinyl (Blues Clues and Scooby-Dos), and plush (stuffed Huskies left over from a 1999 UConn NCAA champs parade).

Down below, an olio of flags, toy swords, whistles, stink bombs, fake cigarettes, plastic trumpets, and a revamped button board featuring an up-to-date Statue of Liberty/ smoking towers motif.

Taking his time, he works both sides of the street, eyeballing tots and their parents as potential spenders, while they, in turn, clock his wares. And with each transaction, the inevitable patter. "Day of the Dolphin," he mutters, tying a balloon string to a little girl's wrist. "That's the one where the fish says to George C. Scott, 'I luuuuuuv yooo,' right?" "Don't forget," he tells a lady buying car flags for her husband, "divorces are made in heaven—that's Oscar Wilde, by the way." When a father refuses his son a can of Silly String, Tommy waxes philosophical: "See now when that guy's 70, his kids are going to show up with a psychiatrist, an accountant, and a lawyer. The shrink will declare him feeble, the accountant will add up the money, and the mouthpiece will figure out how to take it away. It's payback."

The event doesn't exactly rock for Tommy—"Where is everybody?" is the quizzical refrain among peddlers. Nearing parade's end, he's plus maybe a few hundred and set to pack it in. But that's all right; Tommy's at home with this crowd, even if he bagged the borough for good halfway through high school a half-century ago. On this day, he seems to delight in every last sale, in every interaction, however brief. "Will you look at that smile," he says, singling out a last customer, a young girl wearing an Islamic shawl. "Look at the people I deal with. These are the sanest, healthiest, happiest people in the world. This job is irresistible. I can't complain. I cannot complain."

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