Inauguration Day is the big one for the Washington vendors who sell T-shirts, hats, pins and flags. It’s the stuff that crowds of tourists and locals alike buy in a political fervor and that later stubbornly remains in kitchen drawers and closet shelves for years, the bric-a-brac of history.
Their portable sidewalk tables are a part of downtown Washington’s landscape, and many of them are career vendors, feeding and housing their families for decades, one metal button and polyester flag at a time.
On this big day, when they should be making bank selling to crowds coming in for the presidential inauguration, they were peddling to the wind; the streets near the Capitol and the White House had more troops than customers.
But not all of the vendors were upset.
That’s because there’s a bit of a moral divide among them.
Some are the stone-cold entrepreneurs, like Gothard.
“I don’t mind Trump. He was all right — never did nothing to me,” the D.C. native said as he pulled his little cart down an empty K Street, the Trump memorabilia replaced with fluttering Biden-Harris flags. “I just sell what the customers want.”
On the corner near Black Lives Matter Plaza was another vendor — a man in his 60s with a tiny plastic megaphone, telling folks he’s the one with the best price on everything. “Half-off! Everything is half-off,” he called out. “Shirts. Gloves. Hand warmers.”
“I’ve been doing this about 40 years, and I’m a prudent businessman,” he said in his game voice, which was theatrically stern, like a businessman in a commercial. “The public decides what they want, and I listen to the public.”
Over the past four years, tourists who walked the streets around the Smithsonian and White House saw vendors hawking mostly Trump stuff — red MAGA hats and generic red-white-and-blue Trump flags.
The really hardcore Trump paraphernalia — flags with his head on top of a ripped Rambo body holding a bazooka or his face emblazoned across the Stars and Stripes — that stuff was sold by outsiders, traveling guys in big RVs.
“Hey! I saw you in Texas,” a Trump supporter said to one of them at the Jan. 6 march that turned into a riot. “Love your stuff!”
No, that’s not what you’ll find the born-and-raised Washingtonians selling in their hometown.
And it’s definitely not what you saw in Mark Thorne’s merchandise.
“I won’t sell the Trump stuff. Never did,” said Thorne, 49, who’s been selling shirts, many of his own design, for more than 25 years.
He’s one of the idealists, a vendor who considers himself part artist, part entrepreneur.
“My first one was the Million Man March,” said Thorne, who was moved, when that march happened in 1995, to design and sell a T-shirt for the occasion. And his career was born.
His newest works feature simple historical quotes.
“Nah.” — Rosa Parks, 1955.
“We Out.” — Harriet Tubman, 1849.
“Try Me.” — Malcolm X, 1963.
He also sells an array of conventional Biden-Harris shirts and some swirly, colorful ones that pay special tribute to Vice President Harris. (Okay, it was fun to write that for the first time.)
Inauguration Day is a big one for him — he usually makes between $10,000 and $20,000.
“Obama’s first? Whoa. That was big,” he said. “Made about $50,000 on that one.”
He knew the Biden-Harris inauguration, with the streets deserted from security and the pandemic, wouldn’t be anything close — only a couple hundred bucks at most. But he had to come and set up anyhow.
“This inauguration is nothing,” he told another Washington Post reporter. “But I had to come because Trump is out of office. The big bad wolf is gone.”
Trump didn’t love D.C. He didn’t take Melania out on date nights to trendy restaurants like President Barack Obama did with Michelle. He never made his Secret Service detail jog alongside him through D.C. the way President Bill Clinton did. He didn’t have a favorite restaurant — Tex-Mex for junior, Chinese for senior — the way both Presidents Bush did.
And D.C. never loved him, either. Even when it was all business.
“You know what?” the stone-cold entrepreneur who used to make bank on Trump merch told me, not in his salesman’s voice but in a loud whisper. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Democracy is back! Democracy is back in D.C. today.”
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