Want to be your own boss, work whenever you feel like it and make up to $500-a-week?
For about $300, anyone can acquire a D.C. vendor's license, the necessary bonding, a second-hand card table, a cheap inventory and join the nearly 2,000 Washington area residents who are - for the most part - enjoying profitable careers as street vendors.
Street vending has come of age in Washington. Government employees, teachers, technicians and a surprising number of the unemployed, ex-convicts and out-patients from mental institutions have taken to the streets of the city in one of the last vestiges of grass roots capitalism.
The streets have come alive with both these Americans and merchants from various other countries - India, Pakistan, England, the Philippines, Italy, Trinidad and Jamaica, - many of whom are illegal aliens. Altogether, they are bartering for bucks on virtually every major throughfare in downtown Washington, Capitol Hill, Southeast and Georgetown.
As a vendor, not only do you get to see some of the city's more exciting personalities ("Working around Connecticut Avenue," says Jimmy Boarman, an M Street vendor, "you get to see lot of bank robbers.") but you also get to meet scores of what may be Washington's most populous species: the compulsive spender.
They are willing to fork out an estimated $1 million annually in cash - hand to hand - for such items as flowers, fruits, jewelry and novelty clothing, and the vendors keep them smiling because they sell cheap. Having cleaned up at a close-out sale in New York's garment district, or bargained a Florida Avenue fruit wholesaler for a "righteous" batch of cheap peaches, the vendor can afford to.
Vendors privately admit that on a good day the money-making potential for a table top salesman can reach $500 a week.
"But you ain't gonna find one vendor who'll tell you straight how much he takes in. The fact is the only way you can really make good is fudge on the income tax," one vendor said.
"Oh, I really don't make much," said James Steele, a K Street vendor. "Maybe $25, $30 a day." Table spots along K Street are considered by many vendors to be the most profitable in the city - next to Georgetown.
The competition among vendors is keen, and not always healthy. Tales of overturned tables, stolen flower containers, and smashed fruit abount in this unique world where there is so much more than meets the eye.
"You got crazy people out here, that's why I had to leave," said Wilson Staple, who quit vending after five years. He says he was forced from his corner at 13th and Pennsylvania one day by an irate out-patient from St. Elizabeths Hospital who carried a gun.
"It wasn't a real gun . . . I found out later. I just knew this dude had been acting questionable for a long time."
Friends of the accused said he had a right to the disputed corner under the old "rules of the street," which gave squatters rights to any vendor who'd been working an area regularly. The new rule, however, is first come, first served, and has resulted in numerous battles among the record number of vendors who received licenses during the Bicentennial year.
"It's gotten real tough out here over the last year," said Frank Abdow, reputed to be one of several vending czars in Washington because he hires people daily to run what he says are about 15 tables set up around town.
Abdow is the son of George Abdow, owner of Abdow Florist on 13th Street NW. He buys roses, carnations, daisies and other flowers, wraps them in funnel shaped white paper, and assigns prices to each batch.
Each morning, about 7 a.m. former secretaries, former horse racing jockeys, out-patients, ex-cons, Army reservists and an array of other characters come to Abdow's shop, receive a batch of goods and are driven to a preassigned spot, dropped off to do business and picked up that night.
Many of his employees work irregularly, and, at times, earn as little as $3 a day, "Just enough for my favorite whiskey," said one of his employees.
At the same time, Hank and Frank Abraham - another of the so-called czars - do the same thing, trying to beat the Abdows to the best spots in the city. Some of their employees camp out overnight to guard choice locations in Georgetown, fending off the competition.
"You see, he was getting bigger and bigger," Abdow said of Abrham, "and there's only so many spots in Washington, and so it turns out that he's got people on the same corner that I've got people on - and that's not good for business."
In time, some of Abdows employees said, other vendors began stealing buckets of flowers and overturning tables.
"We got back at him (Abraham)," said one of Abdows employees. "We sent a gang of kids over to one of his tables. Told 'em the stuff was free. When he tried to argue with the kids, they just cleaned him out."
Abdow denies that the situation was that bad. "I don't want no more trouble. I don't want things to start up again," he said.
Frank Abraham, who has reportedly turned the business over to his brother Frank, and is beginning a new venture, was not available for comment.
Such antics, however, affect a relatively small number of the vendors. What affects nearly all of them, though, is a group of men irreverently referred to as "The Rollers."
The D.C. Police Department is responsible for enforcing vending regulations that prohibit tables from exceeding 4 feet by 7. Tables cannot be taller than three feet and nothing can extend from beneath them. Tables in Georgetown must be 20 feet apart.
"They hassle me so bad," complained Susan Truesdale, who has had a running battle with police and Marshall Coyne, owner of the building in front of which Truesdale's table is situated, for more than a year. Truesdale is located at the corner of 15th and M Street NW.
Arrested last year for allegedly not meeting specifications, she says she is questioned at least five times a day by law enforcement officials. At the time of her arrest, Coyne said he did not want her working in front of his building.
"Hey, just doing my job," said Officer J.R. Eisel, after checking Truesdale's table, and instructing her that a plant stem was poking out from underneath.
"Someone in the neighborhood called to complain, so here we are," he said.
The rapid proliferation of vendors in Washington has made police aware of their potential to fence stolen goods, especially pirated eight-track tapes, but agents have not arrested any vendors.
"We're going after the big fish, (who produce the illegal copies of music tapes)" one FBI spokesman said. Agents recently arrested five people in connection with an alleged tape piracy scheme here that involved about $15,000 worth of tapes a week according to affidavits.
"I'd say about 1,000 pirated eight tracks are still out on the streets," Boarman said. "The FBI came by my table a few months ago and said, 'Hey, you better stop selling that stuff. The artists are complaining, the tape manufactures are complaining.' I say, hey, I just sell 'em. Or I used to. I don't any more."
"It's always something to worry about," said Aaron Farr, a Capitol Hill vendor. "If I don't sell all of my flowers before 3 p.m., they wilt. A loss.
"The same with the fruit. It's touch and go. If you don't get a good spot, you can ruin a whole day's worth of goods."
However, given the extra three to four days that the average vendor has off, the relatively short working day, and the nearly 100 per cent mark up on goods sold, the work is not so bad for most.
Despite her problems with police, Truesdale has managed to earn enough for college tuition. She says her 13-year-old daughter has learned how to vend and has made enough money to pay for tuition at the St. Paul Augustus private school in Washington, for trips to Atlantic City and tennis lessons.
"I used to teach in Fairfax County," said Arnold Dix. "It was a drag. So I got together with a couple of guys who were tired of work and we chipped in, bought some fruit out of Philadelphia. Hell, we make almost as much now and I only work three days."
Says A.P. Updike, 74, a former Safeway employee who vends at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, "It's something to do. What else am I to do?"
"Actually, it's good work. You meet just all kinds of people. You learn to be tolerant. For instance, the kids from Southeast come over and huddle around my table and I know what they're gonna do. One accidently knocks an orange over and the next thing I know I'm three short," said Updike.
"What makes the work OK is you can be flexible. Start when you want. Run the whole thing - like being the boss. It's good work."