The secret is to stay on your feet with a bottle of water in your hand and get it gone.
Published: June 8, 2011
Mr. Whitfield walks quickly up the brick sidewalk of West Pratt Street where it meets Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. With his shorts and colorful short-sleeve shirt, he looks like he could be a middle-aged man on vacation. But there’s a purposeful look in Mr. Whitfield’s eye as he scans the four lanes of idling cars backed up at the red light. He is about business. And as he walks, his shaved scalp shining with perspiration, he lets the people in the cars with their windows rolled up against the rain-forest humidity know exactly what he’s about in a booming voice.
“Cold, ya’ll, one dollar. Cold, how ’bout it? Cold, cold, one dollar. Cold. Ice cold.”
In his hands he grips the necks of three sweating bottles of Aquafina water. And before the light turns, he will have made another sale.
Behind him, under the shade of a low tree, three younger men have stopped to talk. At their feet, a few stray bottles of iced tea and Pepsi lie on the bricks next to a cooler. There’s another cooler maybe 10 yards away, sitting in the sun near the sidewalk on the MLK side of the intersection. That cooler belongs to Mr. Whitfield too.
“You can come catch us right here, or over there,” Ricardo Burrell, 26, says pointing toward MLK and raising his voice above the traffic noise. A white wifebeater hugs his wiry frame, and a patch of curly beard decorates his jutting chin. “We catch this way and that way so we don’t miss no sale.”
It’s just a couple of coolers and a handful of guys pacing the curb and darting out into stopped traffic to deliver a dripping bottle and retrieve a bill. It looks like any number of other ad hoc water-vending operations that pop up at busy intersections throughout Baltimore when the mercury crests the mid-80s. But this is no impromptu operation.
“We come out here like 9 or 10 and get off at like 6:30, 7 o’clock at night,” Mr. Whitfield’s 25-year-old son Greg Whitfield says, his voice a soft mumble, his hair worn in sandy braids.
“We work it like a job,” Burrell adds. “We’ve been doing it for about eight years, but his father’s been doing it for 15.”
Mr. Whitfield does not want to answer any questions from any reporters. He’s firm about it, but not rude; in fact, he comes off the brick steps where he’s been sitting in the shade to sell waters in the hot sun while his son, Burrell, and their friend Kwmaine Chase, 20, talk. Soon Mr. Whitfield’s 34-year-old son Jay Wallace shows up, a burlier version of his brother sporting a wispy goatee and three teardrops tattooed by his left eye, and joins the conversation.
People selling cold bottled water on Baltimore streets have become a familiar sight during the summer, so common as to escape notice much of the time. They each have different reasons for being out there, but from talking to a few of these seasonal peddlers, they catch a side of the city perhaps only witnessed from setting up shop on its corners.
To answer the most obvious question, they buy bottled water in bulk. “Wherever there’s a sale going on at,” Burrell says. “The mall, the dollar store, wherever we can get it the cheapest.” In addition to water, today they’ve also got bottled iced tea and some Pepsi products. A young man in designer jeans and a white shirt that’s impossibly crisp for such a sweltering day strolls by on Pratt and asks for a cold Dr. Pepper as if he expects there to be one. There is.
“Sometimes we’ve got Gatorade, diet. . . .” Chase adds.
On a hot day, like this scorching late-May afternoon, they say they can go through hundreds of bottles a day, and four or more cases of water alone. Everything’s a dollar.
“A case cost 12 dollars and we making 24 dollars,” Wallace says. “You double your money. I make 50 cents for each one I sell.”
MLK and Pratt isn’t some random corner, either. Wallace says they hold a mobile food-vendor license from the city to sell water from this particular corner. Not surprisingly, many people selling water to passersby don’t. Inquiries about such licenses are directed to Ryan O’Doherty, spokesperson for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office, who says that as far as anyone on the board that oversees such licenses can recall, it has granted only two in the last two years.
“Dad made sure of [getting one],” Wallace says. “It cost $375 to be close to the Inner Harbor, and $25 for the application fee. You gotta renew that every year.”
Close to the harbor? Here, more than half a mile from the water, on the edge of West Baltimore?
“They consider this ‘close to the harbor,’” he says with the faintest hint of a grin. “They consider it [that way] ’cause of the traffic. If we was up there two blocks”—he points west, up Pratt—“it’d be 75 dollars.” (O’Doherty confirms that vendor licenses in the “downtown” area command a premium price.)
Standing where Wallace and the others are standing, you can look out through the heat shimmering over the intersection and spy a shirtless man in the median south of the intersection, digging through a cooler. A stroll out to the median later reveals him to be a young man but sunburned and bleary-eyed, standing in shorts and boots amid loose bottles, a backpack, and other random belongings. He declines to give his name or answer questions other than allowing that he’s there selling water. But as the afternoon wears on, cars stop beside his spot, moving on when the light turns, and are replaced by a new batch, over and over, all without him even turning around.
Mr. Whitfield and his workers, meanwhile, stalk the curb up and down the line of stopped cars, bottles in hand, making their pitch and making sales.
Wallace seems philosophical about less organized competition like the man in the median. “Some people can’t afford [a license],” he says. “As long as they’re not bothering nobody. . . .” That said, he adds, “There have been times I come down there and somebody’s on our spot, and I will call the police.” Asked if there’s anyone from the city assigned to monitor and check for such licenses regularly, O’Doherty pauses and says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if enforcement wasn’t complaint-driven.”
Burrell points to a nearby heap of boxes and other trash that he and the others stacked up earlier, trying to keep their corner clean. “We carry it like it’s a store,” he says. So what’s the secret to being a successful water seller?
“The secret is to stay on your feet with a bottle of water in your hand and get it gone,” Burrell says. “That’s the secret to selling. If you sit there on your cooler with your waters in there, who gonna know what you got in there? It’s basically like anything else you selling—you gotta get out there and promote it.”
Burrell, Greg Whitfield, and Chase acknowledge that they’ve had previous street sales experience.
“All of us, we already sold drugs and all that, so we just trying to not sell drugs no more,” Chase says, his hair tucked up under a skull cap even in this heat. “Not saying we didn’t see no money off the drugs, but we just tired of getting locked up or whatever, you know? We don’t wanna get locked up no more.” (Greg Whitfield received a four-year prison sentence for possession and dealing in 2006.)
“We tryna do the legit thing,” Burrell says. “If the police see me selling waters, they not gonna say nothin’. They might even need a water.”
Asked what they do for work the rest of the year, Burrell says, “Construction, landscaping, cleaning out houses, stuff like that—if they’ll pay us under the table.” When it’s pointed out that summer is prime landscaping season, Burrell counters that “people in the landscaping business these days be trying to scam you. They ain’t paying you what they supposed to pay you. They’ll try to pay you 50, 60 dollars a day. You can come down here and sell waters and make 100, 150, 200 dollars on a good day.”
Otherwise, their employment options are limited. “Ain’t no job gonna hire us cause we got felonies,” Greg Whitfield says resignedly. “And every job you get, you gotta have your high school diploma.” He never finished high school. Chase says he’s enrolled at Douglass with hopes of graduating next year.
In the meantime, “any type of way for us to make money, we there,” Chase says.
“Any type of way that’s legal,” Burrell corrects.
Chase notes that Whitfield and Burrell are good workers, handy with landscaping tools and sheet rock. “Lot of talent out here,” he says. “I dance, sing. I’m good with kids. All that. I just like to be happy and see other people happy.”
Greg Whitfield spots a woman in a burgundy car in a far lane with her door open, signaling, and he darts out between the cars.
“If it’s a female [customer],” Chase offers, “you might throw a li’l flirt in there, know what I mean?” He allows that “you don’t flirt with just anybody, cause you don’t know how some folks are gonna take it . . . but just put a smile on the female’s face, make ’em happy, man, cause some of ’em be all down, the heat making ’em all have an attitude. Throw a smile in there, make ’em happy. Everybody deserve a happy day.”
There’s another young man on the corner this afternoon, tall and skinny with long, matted blond hair and a beard. It’s impossible to tell what color his shorts and T-shirt might have been originally thanks to an encrustation of brown filth. He doesn’t speak and doesn’t meet anyone’s eye. At one point Burrell offers him his own belt to hold up his shorts.
Chase mentions that he and Burrell know each other because Burrell used to date his sister and they remained friends.
“My man going through something right now,” Chase says, “and I’m standing by his side.”
“Yeah, I’m sleeping out here on the streets too,” Burrell says, cigarette in hand. Not really “on the streets,” he hastens to add—he’s been crashing here and there—“but yeah, I’m homeless right now.”
They go on to talk about being out on this corner on weekdays during the warmer months, many of them for years. They have familiar regulars. “Even the neighbors know us,” Chase says. Sometimes customers will hand them a five instead of a one and tell them to keep it. Other times, they might give a free drink to someone in a bad way.
After all, Burrell says, glancing over his shoulder at the blond man, “That could be one-a us one day.”
It would be a mistake to assume that everyone selling water at a stop light in Baltimore has a hard-luck story. At 70, Al Canty is retired from Baltimore City Public Schools, where he worked in maintenance. Now he spends sunny afternoons on the corner of MLK and Baltimore Street, cool under both a shady tree and an elegant umbrella, doling out water and other drinks from a spacious white cooler (city vendor license taped neatly to the front) as well as bags of chips kept in neat rows on a folding table.
“I had the feeling that I was being shoved out the door to do something,” he says, shouting over the traffic noise. “Don’t ever get to the point where your wife gonna tell you, ‘Go do something.’” When cars stop at the light, he calls out “Ice cold!” from the curb, but he also has his share of walkups, including a woman in a pink blouse carrying a clipboard who nods at his cooler and quips, “You don’t have any chardonnay in there, do ya?”
Canty, a slight man in a baseball cap who greets all his customers with “How’s your day goin’?”, says he’s only been out selling water for a year and is still “learning the routine, I’m learning the flow.” Asked about the biggest lesson he’s learned, he says, “People are so lonely. People are so lonely. I learned that since I been out here. People come that don’t need a water. They come for conversation.”
Down the street at busy MLK and Pratt, the Baltimore summer stretches out into the foreseeable future, and the days are mapped out: buying drinks, hauling them out to the corner, hustling up and down the line of cars, calling out, “Ice cold!”
There is no lunch break. “We out here in the heat, so we got people runnin’ to the store buying bags of ice,” Burrell says. “In the midst of buying bags of ice, if somebody hungry they might grab a piece of chicken or whatever on the run.”
Is there a day of the week that’s better than others?
“Yeah, payday,” Burrell shoots back. “When people get paid, that’s when money flows.”
Wallace adds that, as a rule, Fridays and Mondays are better. “It’s easy—200, 250 dollars. The rest of the days, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, it’ll pay about 80 or 90 bucks.” And, of course, hotter days move more water. And, of course, hotter days are hotter, sweatier, and longer, especially if you’re running around in the sun for eight hours. But, as Chase says, a bad day out here “is when you don’t have money in your pocket.”
Mr. Whitfield spots a half-dozen construction workers in hard hats crossing MLK from the downtown side toward the corner and walks toward them with open arms and a fistful of bottles as they arrive on this side of the crosswalk.
“If you’re out here, you’re out here for a reason,” Wallace says. “I’m not out here panhandling or bumming. A lot of other people out here are taking stuff from people. Some of us are really out here trying.”
The light turns again, sending another group of potentials on its way up MLK, through downtown, or onto one of the highways out of town. In less than a minute, there’ll be another crop.
“The only hard problem,” Wallace says, “is keeping ice.”
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