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The subculture of vendors

| Monday, September 3, 2018

Society by nature is a conglomerate of segments — categorized by a myriad of descriptive attributes like gender, race, faith, beliefs, size, ethnicity, habits, hobbies, occupation, geographical location and innumerable other characteristics — most of which we routinely ignore each day. One such subculture that I befriended but did not learn to appreciate for more than three years is the assemblage of aisle-walking vendors at the Washington Nationals Park. These men and women not only own fascinating personal stories, but are a breed of survivors who work long and hard for their salaries.

As a season-ticket-holder previously located for years on the first-base side of the field, I developed an impression of the handful of vendors who regularly passed my aisle seat. Those years brought me hollow notions of the persons behind the neon green shirts through jokes and small talk. This season, I moved to the third-base side where I have yet to strike up the same types of conversations with my new servers. It was not until I returned to my old seats to watch the All Star Game — the guaranteed locations based on last year’s seating — that I realized how much I missed my old friends.

Last year, my guests heard me recite a litany of descriptions and facts about the vendors on the first-base side. During the course of the game I noted and described my best and least favorites. First, I warned anyone around who would listen not to buy from 1) Butthead John, the pain in the butt who pestered everyone he passed; 2) Daryl the Cheat, who when given a $10 bill for a $4.25 expense would try to return $2.75 as change and then expect a tip; and 3) Charlie, who would keep standing next to us while blocking our views if we bought anything. Of these three, I least liked Butthead John who would look at our drinks and ask each of us by the drink near us, “Guys, need another beer? Another Stella? How about that Lite? Your Bud good?”

On the other hand, I told everyone around me to buy from my favorites, whom I also named: 1) Mikey, the college student from Baltimore; 2) The Travelocity Gnome lookalike; 3) Bruce, the ponytailed juggler; 4) Debra, the elementary schoolteacher; 5) the Billy goat-sounding guy; 6) Young John, who is not a pain in the butt; and 7) Deb, the government worker. Of these favorites, Baltimore Mikey seemed to need the salary most since he had married his girlfriend and fathered a son while still in college. But once I moved my seats, I found myself seeking out my longtime vendor friends during batting practice early before the game to chat.

Seeking out and listening to their personal stories opened my eyes somewhat like religion does for the formerly unbelieving. My Travelocity Gnome twin is a brilliant physics and mathematics scholar. I would have never guessed that my “lemon-a-a-ade” barking, Billy goat-sounding friend was an attorney. Bruce had also been vending for nearly 30 years at Orioles, Redskins, Ravens and Wizards games. Young John is an MBA student, and both Debs just do it for the extra seasonal cash. They were not the caricatures I offhandedly created.

Sadly, before the All Star Game, Young John told me that Mikey had left vending. The beer vendors would receive a bonus from 12 percent commission to 16 percent commission if they sold $800 worth of products an evening. This season the director of concessions increased the beer offerings from 12 to 16 ounces and raised the prices to $16 a can. The commission threshold rose from $800 to $1,000 a night, but the fans did not like the larger cans that turned warm before they could drink the contents. Sales fell, and so Mikey dropped out of college to join a military service. I had missed saying goodbye to him by one day.

Life is clustered with near misses and random encounters. While students on campus may demonstrate so that the landscaping crews can earn a living wage, how many know a vendor in the stadium or under what conditions that person works? Everyday living can breeze by without a glance, or by minimally characterizing someone with a nickname. Perhaps the life after this one may simply be a keener appreciation of all around us. Better to prepare now by recognizing others who otherwise we never see while staring directly at them. I am thankful that I finally learned that life lesson.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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