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.”