“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 supplier—a 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 goods—the 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 earthquake—no 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 disabled—how 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.”
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.
“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.”