Metro Diary: Every Day He’s Hustlin’

The Willowbrook Station, looking South. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
The Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station, looking south. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The well-dressed and good-looking young man with enormous glasses walked toward where I was standing at the front of the packed Blue Line car, gave me a wink and a smile, then turned around and began delivering his sales pitch for headphones to the passengers.

Watching him work the car, I was reminded of how puzzling I find complaints about vendors — especially from those that claim they won’t ride the Blue Line because of them — on the trains.

Most of the vendors I have seen are friendly and savvy salespeople who understand that being presentable and personable, having a solid product, and, above all, not harassing passengers are the keys to success.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t get the occasional sad-faced vendor of incense who won’t take no for an answer or someone like the guy that likes to pop his glass eyeball out, of course. But, in my experience, they are in the minority.

The majority either are largely unobtrusive, floating by and murmuring, “DVDs,” like sweet nothings, or are more like the guy with the glasses — someone who is a regular presence, who takes his “job” seriously, and who has invested a lot of time and effort in honing his business and people skills.

If they’re as smart as the guy in the glasses, they anticipate their customers’ needs. When it has rained, he’s offered me umbrellas. When it has been cold, he has peddled hats.

And, he has always had a smile.

Now he was heading back up the aisle toward me again, this time with a different product in his hands.

“Battery chargers!” he announced.

Pointing at the young male passengers, he argued it was not cool to be caught with uncharged phones or other devices. What would the ladies think of such a man? Not very much.

This guy was good.

And, he had broken the ice for passengers that often keep to themselves. People started glancing at each other, giggling, and discussing his sales techniques.

It took guts, an older gentleman said, to keep going back and forth up and down the same train car.

“You have to have a good personality and be confident in yourself,” he explained.

He was a vendor himself, he said, gesturing at the goods sitting on his lap, but he didn’t think he had what it took to sell on the train. He preferred going to his regular spot and letting people come to him.

“It’s not easy,” agreed another man, seated off to my right.

“I don’t know about those headphones,” I said, pondering the vendor’s wares. “But I do like those glasses!”

Just then, I looked up to see the young man once again moving up the aisle, this time bearing candy and a huge grin on his face.

People started laughing out loud.

“Hold up,” said the guy to my right. “I need me some Skittles.”

“Third time’s a charm…” I said.

“He has everything!” exclaimed the older gentleman.

“Next thing you know he’ll be back here with water,” joked the guy with the sweet tooth. “It’s hot out today and I might need a little drink to go with my candy.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” I said, pointing back to the spot between the cars where the vendor had set his goods, “I bet you he has got some. His bags look full and he’s a man who knows what he’s doing…”

When the vendor made his last run through the car, icy bottles of water in hand, passengers burst out in guffaws, practically applauding him.

“You called it,” laughed the men, pointing at me.

We talked more about the vendors and about how hard many of them work just to scrape by.

While they are often seen unfavorably by Metro and transit advocates either because they are doing something that is technically illegal or because they sell candy or other things that can end up facilitating the trashing of a train car, it is clear that most are doing it because they have few other choices.

Those I’ve spoken with have been open about how they haven’t been able to get other work.

Few people are hiring young men of color with limited education or formal job experience, or who might have had a run-in with the law when they were younger. Unemployment rates in some areas of South L.A. over the past few years have actually rivaled those that helped stoke the frustrations underlying the 1992 riots.

It all serves to make vending a somewhat attractive option.

Vendors can set their own schedules and be their own bosses — how much money they make depends entirely on how much they are willing to hustle. Those already familiar with the ropes, having grown up helping their families out by selling candy at school, working with their parents at swap meets, or doing other odd jobs under the table, might even feel they have a bit of an advantage. And, the trains provide a relatively safe platform, run past places where they can replenish their supply of goods, allow vendors to simultaneously build a regular clientele and reach new customers, and are cheaper than renting a booth.

Still, it’s not the most lucrative of livings.

A vendor might walk away with $50 or $60 at the end of the day, some of which has to be plowed back into buying supplies. Some vend at additional sites when they’re not on the trains just to be able to make ends meet.

But, if you’re a good salesperson and know your market, you can make enough to support yourself, as one well-known vendor — a kind man with a big blue box filled with cellphone accessories and anything else a person might need — was once able to do.

Unfortunately, the Sheriffs confiscated his box last year, he wrote to tell me.

That blue box and all it contained had been his livelihood, he said. It had kept him off public assistance for years. Without it, he wasn’t sure he would be able to start over.

The men I was speaking with on the train nodded solemnly.

It was preferable, they agreed, to see young men unable to get a job take the initiative to work on their own terms rather than go on welfare, get involved in drugs, or turn to crime.

Suddenly, we were at the 7th St. Metro Center. By giving us all something to talk about, the vendor had helped the half hour it takes to get from Rosa Parks to downtown fly by.

I was grateful, both for the distraction and the good company.

Thanks to mechanical and other airline-related shenanigans at O’Hare airport, it had taken me two days to get back to L.A. from the midwest. I was tired of being in transit.

As people crowded in front of the door to get off, the older gentleman gathered his goods together and then looked at my suitcase.

“Are you a vendor, too?” he asked.

“Nah,” I smiled. “I just got back into town. It’s nice to be home.”

  • This story is like the stories that were written in New York as Times Square was cleaning up, romanticizing the unsavory activity that used to take place there. Illegal vending on trains is a nuisance, and sends the message that rules aren’t really meant to be followed while riding. One of the best things about moving from New York to Chicago (which I did 11 years ago) was not having to put up with this nonsense during my commute to work. I’ll eventually be resettling in Los Angeles and don’t want to put up with it there, either. People trying to sell me stolen crap on a metro train is not my idea of “good company”. Public transit is not a workforce development program. It’s public transit.

  • sahra

    I’m hardly romanticizing vending. As I allude to above, I think it is a shame that there are so few employment opportunities for young men of color from the inner city and I wish someone would hire some of these guys. They’re sharp, they’re good salesmen, and they work hard.

    They are also generally not, as you accuse, selling “stolen crap.” Candy vendors pick up cases of stuff at Smart&Final. Others buy their goods in bulk (possibly with the help of someone who can buy at wholesale, if they don’t have their own license) and sell at a profit. One said it would be silly to sell goods of questionable origin (pirated DVDs being the exception, of course) — he would be too easy a target. The sheriffs are a constant and heavy-handed presence on the trains through the poorest parts of town. If the guys were regularly peddling stolen stuff, they probably wouldn’t last very long.

    It also doesn’t make sense to say public transit is not a workforce development program. Here, things like the construction of the Crenshaw Line are being sold as just that. Transit-oriented development around transit hubs is also intended to breathe new life into struggling communities. The only problem is that TOD projects often seem to be hastening gentrification rather than investing in and boosting the existing local economy. Working with the vendors might be one way to try to bridge that gap. And it could be a win for Metro, too… the vendors might spend as many as six hours riding the same line back and forth several days a week. They see everything that goes on, they know everybody, and they can be a positive presence in the ways that the Sheriffs most definitely are not.

  • davistrain

    Maybe I’ve made this comment before: vendors on trains may be considered too “Third-Worldly” by some of the more affluent passengers. Here again we have the divide between the “transit dependent” and “choice riders”. Much as many Streetsbloggers dislike or even despise owner-operated motor vehicles, having one’s own car means control of one’s traveling environment. Not sure if this is still the case, but Singapore used to have a reputation as a place where civilized behavior in public places was rigidly enforced. Not that I have a problem with vendors who conduct themselves in a businesslike manner; but the same doors that admit the vendors also admit the hooligans and the “winos and weirdos” who can make a train or bus ride an unpleasant experience.

  • Joe Linton

    I don’t think vending on the train is either good or bad… but what this makes me think about is that Metro has (so far) missed the opportunity to activate its station spaces. Vending and busking can improve the transit experience – I’d rather see small businesses, vendors, food carts, artisans, musicians, etc. than the parking lots and other empty-of-people-activity spaces that currently surround transit stations. Ideally, it could be a win-win – good for Metro, for security (eyes on the station) and for rider experience.

  • davistrain

    Good point–I think the only Metro space that has appreciable retail activity is Union Station. I wonder if the Metro managers have the attitude that running a transit system in LA County is challenging enough without adding being a landlord for small businesses and overseeing various portable business and entertainment activities. When what we now call the Red/Purple subway lines opened, there were complaints that the stations did not include restrooms. I think this was another case of a maintenance and law enforcement headache that Metro didn’t want. “We hire bus and train operators, not latrine orderlies.”

  • MaxUtil

    Exactly this. Where else in the world are they developing large numbers of new transit spots with empty space all around and don’t include even a minimal kiosk type retail component? It would make station areas more vibrant & walkable, serve riders needs, generate revenue for Metro, create jobs, etc etc etc.

  • Alex Brideau III

    That’s an interesting point. Personally, I’d prefer to see more retail and music activity at the stations, and not necessarily on the trains per se, though I once YouTubed a pretty good Johnny Cash busker performing on the northbound Gold Line.

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