Justin Green stands on the Anacostia Metro platform, ready to work. A belt stretches across his chest, holding 33 tiny bottles filled with colorful liquids. On his back hangs a leopard-print bookbag, carrying 50 additional pounds of his product.
The train is approaching. Green speaks in a gravelly voice.
“Every businessman has different style,” he says. “Some are loud people who want to be seen. Some are more subdued, you know what I mean? My style?”
The train doors open.
“People call me sophisticated.”
Green walks to the back of the last car, then begins walking forward, muttering: “Oil man. . . oil man . . . oil man.”
Spend any time in Eastern Market or Shaw or Petworth or Gallery Place or Anacostia and there will be oil men around, many of them dressed in long tunics to indicate their Muslim faith. Some residents look for them. Others simply look away.
But the oil men are the purveyors of the District’s most durable street hustles, peddling pungent fragrances strapped to their chests in half-ounce bottles. Green charges $10 a pop, all of the oils with different colors and equally colorful nicknames.
It is the old-school counterpart to the city’s nascent start-up scene. In the District, the oil men’s “office” runs along Georgia and Minnesota avenues and Good Hope Road. As the city’s older black businesses fade away amid a wave of affluent young, white newcomers, the oil men have found a way to flourish.
In fact, there might be more oil men now than ever, according to interviews with a dozen or so of them. Their reasons are similar to Green’s:
“It’s been really hard to find a job if you’re east of the river,” says Green, who started his business when he came out of jail a year ago. “And I have some felonies attached to my name. So instead of waiting for someone to hire me, I decided to go out and make an honest living for myself. Be an entrepreneur.”
Many live in parts of the city with double-digit unemployment. An estimated 1 in 10 District residents has a criminal record.
The city’s Department of Employment Services does not keep data on how many of the people they see eventually turn to street sales like the oil men, said Stephanie Reich, the department’s chief operating officer. Still, many ex-offenders express an interest in “being an entrepreneur,” Reich said.
Green started selling oil on his own about a year ago. The fragrances, which he purchases from wholesalers, bring in about $1,200 a month after expenses, he says. The best season to sell is in the winter, because there’s less competition when it’s cold. The best time is a little bit before the morning rush, when people might be going to work.
“Everyone wants to smell good,” Green says. “And I make the world smell good.”
He is a short man with a well-manicured beard and a stunningly even flat top. He’s lean, a result of walking around all day with 50 pounds of product in his backpack. He has no permit to vend, but police officers pass by and wave. He says that some of them are customers.
He said he’s had a passion for business since he was 14, when he started selling crack at Wheeler Road and Southern Avenue SE.
“I learned to sell a product that people need. And I learned how to use a three-beam scale. It’s useful when it comes to measuring out oil in the bottle.”
He then dreamed of learning how to do computer networking, taking out a $6,000 loan to attend for-profit Westwood College. But in 2012 he was arrested for his part in a business that junked cars illegally. When he got out of jail about five months later, the father of five decided he didn’t want to work for anyone else ever again.
“And I wasn’t going back to drugs,” he says. “I have a family. I want to see my kids grow up and graduate college and have their own business, and I don’t want to do that from the penal system. And gangsters get killed.”
He tries to be selective in where he sells. Green prefers Metro’s Green Line.
“You have a lot of people on that line who know about the product,” Green says as the train travels north. “Wealthy black people and working-class black people, working for the government — the people who would buy. And when they see other people buying, Caucasians who want to be a part of the city start buying, too.”
He starts to move again. “Oil man . . . oil man . . . oil man . . . ”
A middle-aged man who identified himself as Tony McKoy whispers, “Hey, man, what you got?”
Green kneels in the middle of the train and starts spouting out names: Sexual Sugar Daddy. Patti LaBelle. Amber White. Rihanna. Obama. Michelle Obama.
“Give me $20 of Amber White,” McKoy says.
“I always have more,” Green tells him. “Take my number and call me. . . . I’m trying to build my business.”
It is close to 4 p.m. when Green climbs out of the Metro system. It’s crowded, and no one buys during the evening rush. He’s walking around U Street when a young woman who had no interest in buying oils stops him.
“Excuse me. How do you get into that?” she asks.
“Take down my number. Call me and I’ll tell you all about it.”
“I mean, it’s a business, right?” the 19-year-old says. She identifies herself as Dontae Keith. “I need the money. I’ve been struggling to find a job. And I see you guys selling all the time. You must be doing well.”
“It’s a good, honest living,” the oil man says. “Why work for someone [else] when you can work for yourself?
On 11th Street, between U and V streets NW, Green pauses to smoke a cigarette. When he was growing up, this neighborhood used to be filled with a lot of people like him — black, native Washingtonians. Now he’s trying to take advantage of the demographic shift to build his white clientele.
“I’d say probably 8 to 12 percent of my customers are Caucasian, but I’ll get more,” Green says.
He opens his backpack to offer sample whiffs of the oils. Obama is fresh and soapy. Michelle Obama has a forest-like scent. Sexual Sugar Daddy is musky. No Question smells like grapefruit. And he starts pitching a new one called Pink Privacy, which also goes by a vulgar name.
As he works, a white woman with bobbed hair and glasses passes by.
“I have a scent for you, too,” he says. She turns around, grimaces, and keeps walking.
Disappointed, he coos, “Oh, don’t be like that, Snowflake.”
As he sits on the ledge of a condo building, a panhandler approaches, her words slurred.
“You got a dollar?” she asks.
“No, but one day you will,” he says before she walks away.
She returns a few minutes later.
“Do you have any White Diamonds?” she asks.
He pulls a bottle from his chest and dabs some oil on the woman’s skin. She sniffs it and smiles.
“No charge,” he says.
“No, no, no!” she replies. “I will pay anything to smell like White Diamonds.”
From her bra, she pulls out a $5 bill. The bottle sells for $10, but Green is willing to give the discount. Any transaction in the daylight feels better than his time in another shadow economy, selling drugs.
“Everyone is struggling,” he says, but his pocket is filling with dollar bills. It smells like money.