George Horatio (Cowboy) Smith, who lost his job during the Great Auto Layoffs, has survived another winter with flying colors, selling firewood, pumpkins and Christmas trees from the parking lot of a Holly Farms chicken carryout in Northeast Washington. His is an American dream of self-employment snatched from a nightmare of joblessness.
His vending stand, "Cowboy's Place" at North Capitol Street and Riggs Road NE, now features red, white and blue balloons and star-spangled kites. The leg warmers that lined his vending table have been replaced with pantyhose. Leftover firewood is called "barbeque logs." Watermelons and tropical plants are due next month. His Redskins T-shirts and caps are expected to stay hot through July.
The way Smith sees it, winter is over. But his forecast calls for more Reaganomics.
"The man has great ideas and great policies," Smith, 31, said. "What's happening today is very exciting, like sky diving. The only problem is that some people haven't been able to get their parachutes open in time."
Everybody knows only rich people talk like that. Or, in the case of Cowboy Smith, those who are trying to be. But why knock it? Once you're down, there is no place to go but up.
"I'm gonna be the Watermelon King of D.C.," Cowboy said.
Well, get back buckwheat and watch out Aunt Jemima. Here come' the Watermelon Man. Of course, Cowboy will laugh with you and at you all the way to the bank. That's the beauty of capitalism.
"The number one reason why I survive is my choice of product," Cowboy said. "Wood--loose wood in the city, a woodpile in the nation's capital--and watermelons. But if I had to worry about complying with a whole lot of regulations, I couldn't make it."
Add customer satisfaction, and you have the makings of a successful small business that stays open 24 hours a day, has never been robbed and, after four years, is growing by leaps and bounds.
"When you come to me for a watermelon you don't get just a watermelon--you get the romance of the watermelon," Cowboy said. "It's already washed up, and you don't have to worry about loadin' it. I'll stick it any where you want it--on the seat, on the flo', under the hood. If you want, I'll even tie it down so it don't break."
He wears cowboy clothes and has a "howdy, ma'am" wave that people in this middle-class but mostly rural-rooted neighborhood obviously like. About 20,000 cars pass by his place each day. Last year, he sold 30,000 watermelons, according to Delaware Dave, his Eastern Shore supplier. Cowboy carries a beeper so when Delaware Dave wants to reach him there will be no delay. He also carries a hunting knife, which he said he used on Halloween night to cut a man who falsely accused him of selling "Tylenol melons." That got him arrested, but the charges were later dropped.
Cowboy tips his hat to show his hair, which is matted. His beard is rough and dusty, too, giving him an ornery look. He doesn't care for the city slicker image. "See, I ain't got to get up and go buy a 'Kurly Kit' in the morning," Cowboy said.
Cowboy arrived on the corner, which he rents from Holly Farms, in l979 after he was laid off from the Ford Motor Co. assembly line in Cleveland. He says experience made him appreciate working with people instead of parts. "The work was easy, but working the line was hard. I realized after 18 months that nobody knows nobody's name," he said.
Out of work and nearly broke, Cowboy said he was fed up with America and planned to seek his fortune in Saudia Arabia as a "consultant to the sheiks." On his way, he stopped off in a rural Ohio town to say goodbye to his daddy, a watermelon farmer, who persuaded him there was money to be made on American soil.
"He told me you need two things to be a self-employed melon man," Cowboy recalled. "First, you need to grow a long arm with a big hand so you can pat yourself on the back. Then you need to grow a long leg with a big foot so you can kick yourself in the ass. The rest will take care of itself."