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Car-to-Car Salesman

It's dangerous and cold, but street entrepreneurs like Willie Barnes can't afford to let the Christmas season pass them by.



There were 21 shopping days until Christmas. On State Street, Marshall Field's was offering crocheted suede jackets for 30 percent off. In Niles, Streamwood, and a dozen other Chicagoland locations, Value City was having a sale on tree skirts. On the corner of Roosevelt Road and Union Street, sock vendor Willie Barnes was hawking his holiday line.

"Hey, Therm-All!" he cried, cradling bundles of socks in his arms like a father holding newborn twins. "Therm-All! I got long ones, short ones. Therm-All! Black ones, white ones. Therm-All!"

The moment the light turned red, Barnes would bound into traffic, his black stocking cap bobbing above the tops of the trapped cars. He had 70 seconds to make a sale before they shot away down the ramp and onto the Dan Ryan. Most of the drivers stared ahead, square jawed, ignoring Barnes the way they do the squeegee men and the beggars holding cardboard PLEASE HELP placards. But a man in a BMW rolled down his window. Barnes rushed to serve him. Thrusting four bundles of white tube socks through the window--a dozen pairs in all--Barnes made his pitch.

"Sir, I'll give you all these for ten dollars," said Barnes.

The man squeezed the bundles.

"All Hanes," Barnes stressed. He turned to check the stoplight.

The driver pulled out a fin. Barnes snatched it and tossed two bundles through the window. Then he ran back to the sidewalk to avoid the undammed traffic. "He took six pairs," Barnes reported. "You don't always get what you want to get, but I'm hustling. It beats standing here not making any money."

The sock salesmen scurry around near this corner almost every day of the year. Usually you'll see three or four standing in the street. It's a good location, and a good product.

"You gotta think just about everybody wears socks," Barnes said. "And the expressway is good. You get a lot of people from out of town. A lot of people buy from me and say, 'I needed socks and I didn't have time to get 'em.'"

But December is their big money-making month. The drivers are shopping for Christmas gifts, and they're generous with tips for men who sell socks on 20-degree afternoons. Barnes once got $50. Another salesman got a C-note.

"Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that's the best time," Barnes said. "It's like any other business. Last two weeks of the month are really good. Some people got it. They know we're not gonna get rich out here. This isn't Enron."

To ensure he profits from this holiday generosity, Barnes tailors his stock to the season. He just started carrying insulated Therm-All socks--"those wouldn't have sold three weeks ago"--and he offers a beard-clipping set, which makes a nice stocking stuffer. He also tries to keep abreast of fads in the toy world.

"Christmas coming up, I may sell racetracks, train sets," he said. "Pokemon was big two years ago. I think this Christmas it's gonna be Harry Potter. It's gotta be something people buy for their two-year-old."

Across the street, a hard-looking woman with a mouth like a scar was squatting on the curb. She saw Barnes talking to a man writing in a little notebook and stood up to shout at him. "Hey, what are you doing?"

"That's my wife," Barnes explained. "She's yelling at me 'cause I'm not making any money."

He picked up his black plastic bag and ran back into the street brandishing socks. His work can be treacherous. Last year he was clipped by a semi. It broke both his legs, and he spent a month in the hospital. He also has nearly a dozen arrests for peddling without a license. The cops aren't so harsh on the west side of the Dan Ryan. But on the east side is the First District, which peddlers call the Danger Zone. They once held Barnes in lockup for 29 hours, but on the day before Thanksgiving he was in and out in two hours--"They were in the holiday spirit." As soon as the cops released him, he went back to work.

The fine for peddling ranges from $50 to $200, but Barnes never pays. He can't afford it, and unlicensed peddling is a municipal violation, not a crime, so the city can't send him to jail. "When they don't have anything else to do, and they want to make an arrest, the peddler's always convenient, so they can look like they're working," he said. "We don't have any drugs, we don't run, so it's an easy arrest. They told us that."

When Barnes's Santa-sized bag was nearly empty, he motioned to his wife, Betty. It's her job to trek across the overpass to the discount stores on Roosevelt, where she can buy 100 pairs of socks for 50 bucks.

While he waited for fresh stock, Barnes pointed at another peddler working the same corner, hawking gloves and socks. Peddlers never fight over a corner. They try to outhustle each other. In Barnes's opinion, he was winning.

"He's just burnin' up concrete. He was ahead of me for a while, but I passed him, 'cause my wife was yelling at me for not making enough money. I like that. She drives me."

The working day ended at dusk, when another peddler shouted that UIC security was cruising the area. Barnes stuffed his socks into a bag and headed across the overpass with Betty. He figured he'd earned $50 in two hours. An average day. I offered to buy Barnes and his wife a cup of coffee at Bake for Me!, a nearby peddler's hangout. He accepted. Then he started hustling me.

"You look like you need a hat," he said, pointing at my bare head. "I'll get you a deal. You meet me at the coffee shop, and I'll bring you a hat."

Barnes ducked into Queen Bee Fashions. A few minutes later he and Betty showed up at Bake for Me! Barnes sat down with a cup of coffee and a doughnut and greeted the janitor in Polish. "Dzien dobry," he said.

Barnes sipped his coffee and unbuttoned his corduroy jacket. He was wearing three shirts. "I've been hustling for 20 years. When Jewtown was going, we sold a little bit of everything--lamps and things like that, whatnots. I started selling on the street before they kicked everyone off Maxwell Street. When I was hustling six or seven years ago, you'd only see one or two guys. Now you see people hustling on the bus. That's because the Republicans came in and they kicked everybody off welfare. They had to do something."

Their bus was due in a few minutes. Barnes pushed a stocking cap across the table.

"That's four dollars," he said.

I paid, stretched it over my head, and walked out into the cold. On a whim, I stopped at Queen Bee Fashions. Stocking caps were on sale for $1.99. Willie Barnes is a real businessman.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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