"Firpo" is a traditional American street shouter in a city that is full of street shouters and people talking to themselves. But Firpo has been singled out by the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife, which begins today, as a living folk art figure -- a SHOUTER, if you will.
This is news to Read-All-About-It! "Foy-poh," as he pronounces his nickname.
"I sell newspapers on a street corner," he says, his alert, leery eyes darting up and down the street under a bushy protective eyebrow cover. "Who are you?What do you wanta know for? Who sent cha and what's in it for me?" a
Well, he was told, you've been tapped to join a crew of street shouters at the annual folklife festival in Washington, right?
"Yeah. Sure, I shout. I been shoutin' around this neighborhood off and on for 55 years. You gotta shout to sell stuff in this city! You kiddin' me? I don't know nothin' about this thing in Washington, D.C., but I heard about the Smithsonian Institute. I am honored that they picked me, an old bootjacker. I'm gonna try and get a newspaper stand out of 'em. You think they'll give me a stand? Lookit what I got here!"
Firpo's stand in New York is at the Fulton Street subway exit on the southeast corner of William and Fulton streets. At the age of 75, he is now semi-retired, but stations himself near his windy corner from 7 to about 10 a.m., at which time he goes off to the race track. His stand is manned by his unemployed nephew, Pete Diaz, who sits behind a little sliding glass window looking imprisoned, punished and sad.
The stand, shoved up against a granite wall, is a very old jury-rigged affair converted from a garbage dumpster. It is four feet high, four feet wide, and six feet long. Firpo got it from the late Joe Sirroco, who got it from his parents. "I need a new one," says Firpo, "but I can't get no publisher to give me one. Lookit Pete in there like a sardine. Pete! Get up and show this guy how much room you got!"
Diaz rises slowly and stands up as straight as he can in a half stoop. He puts a hand above his head to show "there ain't no room heah." And then he spreads his arms out by his side and almost touches either end of the iron shack. He sits down again and drops his lower jaw into the cupped palms of his hands and stares off into the empty nothingness that Manhattan can be.
When Firpo sets up his shouting shop festival, rather than fish-market territory, he will be competing with veteran yellers from around the country. Joining him in "The American Talkers" corner are six other street criers:
ALTON MACHEN, of Elizabethton, Tenn., said to be the last living itinerant patent medicine peddler (swamp root, linaments, cough syrup, etc.) still working flea markets.
SONNY DIGGS and WALTER KELLY, Baltimore A-rabs who "a-rab," or peddle fruit and vegetables in the streets from wooden wagons pulled by ponies wearing polished brass bells.
RANDALL JOHNSON, of Greenville, S.C., is a preacher and school teacher who sells eyeglass defoggers in flea markets.
TOM WALTON, of St. Petersburg, Fla., is a seasoned huckster who sells hot dogs in the Lang Field baseball stadium in Tampa, Fla.
MARCUS JOHNSON, "The Balloon Man" of Washington, operates in Georgetown and in the Dupont Circle area, singing: "Make the children happy! Make the children happy! If the children are happy, you'll be happy!"
Firpo is not especially nervous about his brief stint in the national eye, but one hopes he does not leave his unmatched polyester clothing selection at home for a three-piece suit or something. Also, it's kind of tough to imagine him shouting headlines from Washington papers about the ayatollah and Carter instead of "SHOT IN THE MUD!" In other words, Firpo's grand voice and confidence could dry up once he hits the Mall.
Anyone looking for Firpo in New York should not ask for Vincent Ploche, which is his name. Even his neighboring newspaper peddlers don't know him as "Ploche," let alone "Vincent." Ohhhh, they say, "Ya mean Foy-poh! He's right across the street!" And the young executives who buy his papers, although they knew him as Firpo, don't know who Firpo was.
"I was bootjacking papers down on the docks," he says, recalling a story that is obviously one of his favorites judging by the way his eyes light up and his voice raises in excitement. "I got in a fight with a longshoreman. Bang! Bang! He hits me for no reason." Firpo puts down his papers and demonstrates, swinging his fists and ducking. "I get in a lucky punch [here comes a roundhouse right] and the guy goes ass over tin cups over a table fulla fish." The story finished, Firpo breaks out in a wide, toothy smile of pride. "The guys, they say, 'Hey! That kid hits like Foy-poh! Remember Foy-poh? He was the guy knocked Dempsey down. So I was Foy-poh from then on."
What first attracted a folklife field researcher looking for colorful street shouters was Firpo's beautiful bass voice and his hype: "Read all-l-l-l ABOUT IT! EXTRA! EXTRA! SHOT DOWN IN THE MUD!" The deep, melodious strains bounce off the canyon walls of stone and steel that overwhelm him, soar up to open windows, causing secretaries to look below, and swirl around corners like gusts coming from subway caverns. And people come and buy papers.
Firpo calls this "bootjacking," or the art of getting people excited. "In the old days I barked in carnival shows, selling balloons, hats and whips. But in the old days there ain't much profit in selling a 2-cent paper. So I look through the paper and find a murder or somethin' and head for that neighborhood where it happened. That's how I started that 'Extra! extra! READ ALL ABOUT IT!' stuff. I'd shout, 'Murder in the bronx! read ALL-L-L-L-L ABOUT IT!' and demand 5 cents for a paper. Later I would get 10 cents for a 5-cent paper. I had to pay for the use of my voice, didn't I? 1Anyway, that's what I call 'bootjacking.'"
His best days were the Stock Market Crash ("BIG CRASH! BIG CRASH!") and the Lindbergh flight and kidnapping. "All I had to do was shout 'LINDBERGH! LINDBERG! READ ALL ABOUT IT!' and I sold papers like crazy."
Firpo, slim, and crippled in his left leg, looks more like 65 than 75. He has an intense look in his eyes, and a full head of kinky white hair and lots of very large teeth. He came to this country in 1925. "Just down the street there," he points, "right down there to that dock I came in on a banana boat from Jamaica. The captain didn't know I was on board. I worked my way over in the galley, what you call work-a-way, and the cook gave me $3 when I got off."
He had no place to stay, no money, no food, and didn't know a soul. "So I started selling papers in order to live. And when I couldn't make no money selling papers, I drove a cab. And then I shipped out in the Merchant Marine and retired from that in 1969. Now I'm doing what I did where I did when I first came to this country 55 years ago. Funny ain't it?"
Asked if his wife has ever visited him here at his place of work, he looks incredulous at what he seems to regard as the most insane question he has ever heard. "My wife? Come here? Never! What would she wanta come here for?" hThe voice is booming, and people are looking, waiting for a headline.
Then Firpo begins barking, looking excited and sounding excited, as if some dreadful "Extra" edition had just been dropped at his feet in a wired bundle. He has a wild look in his eyes as he strides out shouting: "Shot in the mud! hSHOT IN THE MUD! EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL-L-L-L-L ABOUT IT!!!!"