- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

A strong gust of air tossed the racks of potato chips hanging from Abdukarr Jalloh's hot dog stand straight into the air. Another rocked the stand and blew his back door wide open, creating a storm of aluminum foil and paper inside.

"I hate it when it gets like this," he grumbled, grabbing for his door.

Mr. Jalloh started his day at 8 a.m., washing and stocking the cart he paid $5,500 for a few years ago. The daily scrub-down is the hardest part of his job. "Only difference between cleaning this [stand] and a whole kitchen in a house or apartment is that this is on wheels," he said.

He has only a couple of hours between the end of his night security job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the start of his six- to seven-hour shift selling hot dogs outside the same building.

It's not big business Mr. Jalloh says he might clear $50 on a good day.

But for many in the nation's capital, especially immigrants like Mr. Jalloh, sidewalk vending is an unvarnished introduction to American capitalism a world where competition is tough, the hours are long and location is everything.

Sidewalk sales

Mr. Jalloh, a native of Sierra Leone who has been vending in the District of Columbia for six years, owns his stand, but most vendors rent carts some for as much as $500 a month.

All vendors, regardless of their cart size, profit margin, or even whether they choose to work or not, must pay an annual flat fee of $1,500 in lieu of sales tax in order to stay legally licensed. That's in addition to the annual fee of $130 vendors pay to renew their licenses and the monthly fees most pay to store their carts in a depot at night.

Despite the slim profit margins, the weather hassles and other frustrations, Mr. Jalloh smiled as he talked about his job. "My mother told me, if you're going to live in the water, you'd better learn to be friendly with the crocodiles," he said.

Sometimes, though, the crocodiles can get rough. Last month, Ghulam Manghal, a vending cart "puller" from Afghanistan, was convicted for assaulting a street vendor after trying to extort money from her for use of public sidewalk space.

Public sidewalks are free for use by any licensed vendor. But Manghal, who rented and towed carts for vendors to high-profile spots in the city, began "renting" sidewalk spaces for up to $1,200 per month.

Elsayeda Abdelgewad, an Egyptian-born hot dog vendor who paid Manghal to tow her cart, stopped paying the additional "rent" he charged for her strategic spot at 20th and Q streets, near Dupont Circle. He told her he would kill her unless she paid or moved from the spot.

After she reported his threats to police last March, Manghal showed up at her stand the next day. According to court testimony, the puller tried to drag her from her stand, grabbing her by the neck and injuring her chest.

Manghal was convicted in February of nine felony counts, including extortion, assault and obstruction of justice, and is awaiting sentencing in early May.

The shakedown

Extorting money from vendors is an old scam, special events vendor Brenda Sayles said in a written statement submitted to The Washington Times.

Miss Sayles is vice president of the D.C. Open Merchants Association. In an interview, she called this kind of turf competition a case of "stronger people preying on the weaker ones."

"It's very difficult to get people to come forward," she said. "Most of the people who are purchasing spaces are foreigners who are not particularly savvy about regulations in this country. The first time I heard of it, it sounded silly to me. American vendors are not going to pay anybody if it's first-come, first-served."

Open Air Merchants Association President David Williams, who sells everything from incense to T-shirts near Metro Center, agreed.

"The problem is, a lot of the immigrant vendors are willing to accept things as they are and not complain. American vendors are more apt not to be forced into such situations. I don't think that you could sell a spot on the sidewalk to an American vendor," he said.

All of the immigrant vendors interviewed for this story denied making any payments for public space. In the Manghal case, however, all four complainants against the puller were immigrant hot dog vendors whom he had charged for their spots on the sidewalk.

"They all spoke a little English, but they're not what I would call conversant," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Fitzpatrick, who prosecuted the case. Three of the complainants were Egyptian; the fourth, an Ethiopian.

Street justice

Ted Walker, president of the D.C. Vending Caucus and a 62-year-old merchandise vendor, called the Manghal case "a real tragedy" that should be a "call to action" for police. "Based on that case, you don't know how many people are being oppressed like that."

Mr. Walker criticized the city for neglecting the vending community and leaving it vulnerable to crime.

"Out there on the street, there is no one monitoring street vending," he said. "There should be an agency responsible for oversight every day, ensuring that the public is protected, that we are protected. In this city, we used to have a [police] vending unit, but when Chief Charles H. Ramsey came in, he decided to do away with it."

Sgt. Zachary Scott used to run the special vending squad, but the responsibility of keeping tabs on vending has since been parsed out to police throughout the city's seven districts. Sgt. Scott is the liaison between the District police and the D.C. Department of Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the agency that handles vendor licensing, but does not directly coordinate a vending beat anymore. "I work out of the office now," he said.

Some vendors, like Mr. Jalloh, would not welcome a return of the vending squad.

When it existed, he said, undercover police hassled him about his license. Still, he said there doesn't seem to be anyone to call about vending-related problems when they arise.

He agreed with Mr. Walker that some vending rules are not properly enforced, such as the storage of hot dog carts.

It's illegal to store carts outside, exposed to rodents, birds and temperature fluctuations, but some vendors do it anyway. On one recent night, a cluster of carts spent the evening in an outdoor parking lot at 12th and C streets in Southeast.

Not everybody uses the depots, said Mr. Jalloh, who pays $75 a month to store his cart in a depot every night. "Some people store their carts out on the street. That … makes us all look bad," he said.

Missing lottery

The Manghal case also raised questions about the city's failure to implement a lottery system to assign sites to vendors.

The Omnibus Regulatory Reform Act passed in 1998 stipulates that District police are responsible for holding a lottery that would assign sites to vendors at random for two-year periods.

"We aren't quite sure why that was never implemented," said DCRA public information officer Gina Douglas. "[DCRA Director Carlynn Fuller] is moving forward to put into place some kind of system, but there will be a survey of the vending population conducted first."

The lottery system was intended to level the playing field for vendors, but none of the sidewalk salesmen interviewed for this story wanted the help.

"I think most of us disapprove, because once you've been on the same spot for quite a while, like any other retailer, you develop a clientele," said Mr. Williams. He said the lottery would cost him sales by moving him around too much.

"We've suggested in the past that they adopt a grandfather clause, so that the longer you've been in the business, you'd have first preference," he said. "Like assigning office space in any government office building seniority rules, and it should."

Like most of their colleagues, Mr. Williams and Mr. Jalloh are skeptical when it comes to government promises of help and assistance. That skepticism makes some vendors unwilling to speak up even when a predator like Manghal is plaguing the community.

"Right now, we aren't hearing any vending complaints. If there are problems out there in the vending community, I don't feel them in here," Miss Douglas said. "If we did, I'm sure we would look into them."


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