Volume 73, Number 48 | March 31 - April 6, 2004


Vendors: It’s a hard sell outside, or as an Outsider

By Wilson

For well over a decade, before Kmart, Barnes & Noble and Starbucks took over the neighborhood, a diverse assortment of street vendors has occupied the sidewalks of Astor Place and Cooper Square.

When I used to have a normal job/life, these people constantly got in my way, forcing me to either have to walk out on the street to get hit by a bus, or to get corralled into a pack of potential thieves and pickpockets.

It’s not easy being a vendor. Though I still get annoyed when street vendors get in my way (and admit to having somewhat militaristic fantasies involving a Taser about how to remedy the situation), I myself attempted to break into this business approximately two years ago. I thought, what the hell, my taxes don’t go towards anything that has anything to do with me, the pedestrian foot traffic in my neighborhood is massive, so why not spend a day outside making money and creating more space in the apartment simultaneously? Why, I’d simply be multitasking — selling stuff, reading the paper and having coffee (from Starbucks of all godforsaken places)!

I eventually got a special permit from the city to sell artwork/printed matter, along with a thick packet of really fussy and specific rules and regulations. Like how high or low your display table has to be; its exact length, width, depth; precise measurements on sidewalk and curb distances and restrictions; areas allowed, not allowed, the corresponding times; storage rules; and so on. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any of these laws the first day I went out on the street, which was nothing compared to all the other stuff I found out about that afternoon.

After lugging my heavy, fragile and cumbersome wares down a six-floor walk-up and strategically balancing and rolling various cart-like contraptions towards the same destination that I used to hate having to walk by, I arrived on the scene to be greeted by instantaneous confrontation over location, location, location. Now, I really didn’t have a problem with this one dude’s territorial claim since he’s always there, is a vet and I have enjoyed doing business with him over the years. But I more than got the message about how competitive it is out there when I saw this guy’s other, almost scary side.

Regardless, I found the perfect spot and set everything up real nice. No sooner had I finished my “display,” than two beefy men in windbreakers with badges came up and said I was breaking the law. They were “the vendor inspectors,” and from what I heard, these guys didn’t kid around. Mess with them, they take your stuff, and you’re going to court.

Exasperated at having spent so much time and trouble setting everything up so perfectly, I begged, “But they look so nice, I didn’t know this was illegal, I live around here, can’t I keep them up just a little while longer?” Uncharacteristically according to the licensed vendors, the inspectors said I could stay for three hours (and indicated that there’d be trouble if I didn’t comply). I thanked them profusely, and got to work.

At first I received numerous compliments and inquiries, but this got on my nerves after a while. What, did I need to smile like an infomercial and break into a tap dance/jig in order to make a sale? Where were the people with time and money? I didn’t have all day...

Tons of people were outside because of the nice weather, and they began to get in the way of my exhibit. An old bag lady feeding pigeons and breaking the law slowly passed by, twice, causing feathers and disease to get on my scalp and into my over-priced coffee. Then this chic-looking girl-and-guy couple I wanted to kill posed for a photo in front of my very best piece, and threw a cigarette butt on the sidewalk when they were done.

Unlike my new line of business, the wind started to pick up, and I had to keep rearranging everything. An erratic, eccentric guy with wild frizzy hair wearing black pants, black sunglasses and a neon green shirt, who’s wife was an artist in Brazil, said “I’m not going to bite you,” when he got too close for comfort. And one of the other (immature and flirtatious) vendors kept clapping his hands together, making this really loud, booming and alarming noise sounding like a gunshot, followed by an annoying birdcall he’d whistle/blow into his cupped hands. I wanted to scream.

To make matters worse, the acquaintances of another vendor turned out to be these creepy hustlers/bums, who in turn attracted two skanky prostitutes and a drug addict. All of this was making me very uncomfortable.

Just then, the wind gusted, and one of my pieces crashed onto the sidewalk, sending glass everywhere. Everyone looked at me like I was a jerk.

Over the past decade I’ve had four art exhibits, all in restaurants. On two separate occasions, someone purchased my least-favorite pieces, one of which wasn’t even hanging correctly. Unfortunately, art critics and most listings-type publications refuse to review, promote or even acknowledge an artist’s work unless it’s in a gallery or museum. And let’s not forget that people go to restaurants to eat food and socialize.

I just didn’t think selling art on the street would be so much more difficult. Strange men were hitting on me, and my fragile, fully-framed, glass-encased shadowboxes were taking a beating. I was technically breaking the law to begin with, and by the end of my first, brief day as a street vendor, I was about to strangle the next person who wanted to engage in mindless chit chat or some lofty, philosophical discourse. And don’t get me started on all the “hands on” hyperactive and unsupervised demon children out there.…

One of the vendors, a Vietnam vet, tried to give me a pep talk and a lecture on sales, but I was too disgusted to take him seriously.

I was fed up. Outside on the street was no place for me. And I didn’t belong with the art fair people that line the streets of the Washington Square Park vicinity every spring either. Those were real artists, who owned S.U.V.’s, used credit card machines, elaborate tents and expensive display racks. It wasn’t just some hobby. Plus, you had to pay someone to be there.

Then one day I heard about the Outsider Art movement, which promoted self-taught, non-academic art. I thought, hey, this sounds cool, maybe I’d fit in with these people. I didn’t go to art school and had a completely different background; this was just a hobby that got out of hand. But unless you’re dead, crazy, missing a body part, or from the South, the door’s not open.

You had to be “seen as marginalized” one curator told me — and according to my critical and analytical market research on the subject, the consistent and depressing hype had to contain at least three of the following words or phrases:

dirt road, tuberculosis, chickens, farm, one of six children, foster home, boat accident, barn, drug abuse, plane crash, police brutality, heart broken, mother passed away, waitress, scraps from trash pile, harmonica, dramatic mood swings, only child, insanity, visionary, mobile home, follows a strict diet and avoids contact with other people, trucker, poisonous spider bite, Viennese asylum, foot amputated, cabin, partially blind, rock band, fire, Nazis, skin grafts, homeless, crisis stabilization unit, strenuous household work, arthritis, enemy of the people, unemployed and persecuted, sciatica, grinding cornmeal, 9/11, integration, sadness in marriage, road building, did not know his father, the hard life, wandering, old car, childhood habit, violent experience, immigration, delusion megalomania, near-death experience.... You get the picture, excuse me, I mean the artwork.

I decided to give the street vendor business one more shot. The “insiders” who organized the “outsiders” had their own agenda it seemed, and I had major reservations about hitting up a real gallery since I wasn’t a “real” artist and had become disgusted with the art world in general ever since “Chelsea” became a big deal — like how prefabricated, pretentious and vulgar was that?

This time, I went to a different location, closer to my apartment, all by myself. I chose a lovely triangular garden on Stuyvesant Place, it was a perfect spring day, and my “display’ looked fantastic.

An elderly blind couple came by and politely requested to know what was taking place. I described how this was an art exhibit and that most of my pieces were multi-dimensional and tactile, and that they should feel free to touch one of them. I told them I used colorful beads and jewels from the ’60s, antique maps from 1850s encyclopedias and giant vinyl rolldowns from 1950s classrooms (which have these really cool pukey greens, pinks, yellows and blue you just don’t see anymore).

Finally, some rich guy (who had a fancy red car) bought one of my miniature shadowboxes. It was my favorite one.

In the next instant, this wicked witch of the East materializes, says she’s from some stupid block association and that “they” didn’t want me there and that I had to go. I wasn’t bothering anybody. No one was being inconvenienced or even forced to go one step out of their way. I’d been to hell and back, things were finally looking up, and this busybody with nothing better to do just had to ruin my day.

Not wanting to have anything to do with any aspect of the law whatsoever, I didn’t say a word. Inadvertently damaging several pieces, I hastily threw my stuff back into my crummy carts (which is where they remain today) and left.

I don’t know what’s worse: sitting on a lawn chair around a square (or in Soho); not fitting in with the Outsiders; or trying to make it as a street vendor. Perhaps I need to chop off an ear (not that anyone would notice in this part of the East Village).

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