The temperature had already topped 80 degrees when Tony Smith reached the weedy thicket in Northeast Washington where he and his partners hide their wares.
Smith and Daymar Gassaway swatted mosquitoes out of the heavy air while they strained to push two huge ice chests on dollies out of the bushes.
“We call it Iraq,” Smith said of their hiding spot, “because of the mosquitoes.”
The two men rolled their carts down the street with Smith’s 9-year-old daughter, Amani, out of school for the summer, in tow. They headed for the junction of Florida Avenue, New York Avenue and First Street NE, the notorious intersection known as “Dave Thomas Circle” for the Wendy’s improbably wedged among the three streets.
They wheeled their gear under a small tree on the west side of the restaurant just before 9 a.m. This is where they set up shop every day but Sunday to sell what they assure customers are the coldest drinks in town.
Before them lay a drink vendor’s gold mine. An average of 65,000 vehicles pass through the intersection per day, according to a District Department of Transportation spokesperson. Five lanes of traffic sit captive for just shy of two minutes with each red light. That means 40 or so new cars full of potential customers every couple of minutes, and on a Friday morning this hot, a lot of them could use some refreshment.
“Ice cooold! Water, Gatorade, soooda!” the vendors yell, wading into the lanes of idling cars.
On a good day, Smith & Co. sell at least 200 bottles of water, Gatorade and soda for $2 to $2.50 a piece.
But where Smith sees a business opportunity, others see an abomination of urban design. The confounding traffic pattern, created in 2010 “to improve circulation and decrease accidents,” a DDOT statement claimed at the time, has by all accounts had the opposite effect. DDOT now acknowledges the redesign “created safety and operational issues,” an assessment punctuated by a Corolla crashing through the wall of the Wendy’s a year ago.
Now Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) plans to acquire and raze the restaurant in favor of “green space” and an improved traffic pattern, according to her proposed 2020 budget. While many have hailed the move, Smith, a 28-year-old father of four, worries about the impact it will have on his livelihood.
He takes a bus and two Metro trains from Southeast Washington every morning to reach his place of business. Though he aspires to open his own convenience store someday, for now street vending pays the bills. A meme on his Instagram sums up his financial situation: “I’m not ballin’, ” the text reads, “but I’m not borrowing.”
Drinks instead of drugs
Morning rush hour was just starting to wind down when Smith spotted a gray-bearded panhandler wending his way through stopped cars. He approached the man.
“You can’t be here, bruh,” he said. “I own this block. I pay my rent right here.”
Smith has been selling drinks on Washington’s streets for half his life. At 14, he started selling water down the street outside Gallaudet University. Eventually, he worked his way up to Dave Thomas Circle.
He’s skinny, with dreadlocks that fall to his elbows and a goatee that frames his wide smile. On this day, he wore a gold chain with a lion pendant around his neck.
“I don’t usually wear bling,” he said, “because of the stereotypes . . . but I put in too much work to feel like I can’t win nothing out here.”
He grew up in foster care in the District and was briefly homeless. As a teenager, he said, he sold drugs, but when Amani was an infant, police searched her stroller looking for contraband. They found none, but Smith said he was shaken and resolved to stick to beverages.
“I didn’t want to risk my daughter growing up without her father,” he said.
After he was arrested in 2011 and 2013 for vending without a license, Smith went through a job placement program but couldn’t find steady work.
“I don’t think a job is for me,” he said. “I like working for myself because I like working at my own pace.”
When he returned to Dave Thomas Circle in 2016, he took a judge’s advice and paid for a vending license from the city, which has since lapsed. The permit applied to a sidewalk that, according to the city’s redesign plan, will soon make way for a street.
Already, a half-dozen yellow-vested contractors were surveying the intersection and marking the future path of a street that will cut straight through the Wendy’s parking lot. Smith eyed the markings warily, but he had a friendly rapport with the surveyors, who had been working for the past few weeks and were regularly in need of Gatorade.
As the sun crept higher in the sky and the little tree’s meager shade retreated, Amani headed inside the Wendy’s to escape the heat, playing on her dad’s phone while the ladies behind the counter kept an eye on her. The restaurant is an odd oasis amid the chaos of the intersection — a gathering place for longtime residents who have come for Frosties and square burgers since the franchise arrived here in the ’80s. Some fear disappearance of the Wendy’s will mark another step toward a gentrified neighborhood that doesn’t include a place for them.
Back outside, business was picking up and inventory was getting low when Smith’s older brother Doug arrived. He changed into what they joke is their uniform, the same white tank top they were all wearing, and got to work while Tony and Gassaway headed to the Harris Teeter down the street to re-up.
Doug, 30, shares his younger brother’s easy smile and wiry frame, but his close-cropped hair ensures the two won’t be mixed up. The brothers have stayed close since they were kids, despite being split up in foster care.
“We was inseparable,” Doug said. “Me and Tony were too terrible a tandem.”
At the grocery store, Tony and Gassaway loaded their cart high, taking advantage of the buy-two-get-three-free sale on Gatorade. The cashier looked at the Seussian pile of bottles and smiled. The total came to $116.99, with $70 in savings.
“It’s going to be a good weekend,” he said. “I saw you out there yesterday!”
“It’s going to be a great weekend,” Tony agreed.
As they loaded bags of ice on the way out, a security guard shouted his encouragement: “Y’all about to make that money!”
Tony and Gassaway pushed their heavy carts up First Street NE, past the bemused, mostly white lunchtime crowd outside the fast-casual restaurants that line the newly renovated block.
NoMa, as the neighborhood has been known for barely a decade, used to be a warehouse district. Now it’s home to NPR’s headquarters and an ever-increasing number of pricey condos. The former Uline Arena houses an REI and a craft brewery.
“This Wendy’s been here since I was a little kid, and then some,” Doug said, recalling all the changes he’s seen in the area. But while his brother worries about where they’ll go when the Wendy’s is demolished, Doug is more optimistic.
“We going to still be right here,” he said. “Right in the thick of it.”
'A thousand horns a day'
The weather was getting hotter, the traffic heavier and the drivers madder. A dump truck from one of the nearby construction sites spilled a pile of gravel in the middle of the five-lane street, further snarling the intersection.
“There’s a lot of angry people out here,” Tony Smith remarked as a symphony of horns blared. “It’s like a thousand horns a day.”
He put his hair up to beat the heat, prompting Amani to look up from the phone to shout, “Daddy, your bun looks a mess!”
The afternoon rush hour hadn’t hit yet, but with the temperature topping 95 degrees it was prime time for business. With each red light, the three men each grabbed an assortment of drinks and walked down the rows of cars, shouting their refrain: “Ice cooold! Water, Gatorade, soooda!”
Smith moved efficiently through the stopped traffic, stopping occasionally to chat with regulars. A man with dreads about as long as Smith’s turned down the music in his car to offer support.
“It’s just good to see my brothers out here working,” he said, though he declined to buy a beverage.
Gassaway, whom everyone calls Slim, is in his first year selling drinks. He’s a sort of apprentice, taking home a smaller cut of the earnings while the brothers coach him on technique. He’s a capable seller but occasionally stopped to dance among the cars, which Smith said limits his sales.
As the light turned red, Gassaway put on a pair of the blue latex gloves Smith recently persuaded him to wear and grabbed two handfuls of bottles before heading into the rows of cars. He had one minute and 57 seconds before the light turned green. This time, he was focused, and after a lap through the cars he came back empty-handed.
The three men clapped their hands together in unison.
“It’s magic!” Smith laughed. “That’s what we say when we sell out.”
A thunderstorm rolled in and business slowed down, but the men kept working until after 8 p.m.
Finally, with dusk descending, they called it a day and headed back to Iraq to stash their coolers amid the weeds. Then they went into the Wendy’s to count the spoils. Smith added it up on his phone: $505. A pretty good haul.
They would be back the next morning — and every day but Sunday — as long as people buy cold drinks at Dave Thomas Circle.