The New York Times In America

October 11, 2003

Vending Rules Put Sidewalks in a Muddle


RETIRED Marine Sgt. William O'Conner, a veteran of combat in Korea and Vietnam, sits most every day in his motorized cart in Times Square, selling handbags in summer and heavy-duty gloves in winter. He also has a stash of umbrellas stored in the milk crate that fits snugly between his weakened legs, just in case it rains.

Some might mutter that Mr. O'Conner is creating congestion on the sidewalk; that he is siphoning business from merchants; that despite the rumpled appearance and the gaps between his teeth, he is probably richer than Croesus. Some might ask: Why's he there anyway?

If only life were simple enough to affirm our mutterings. Mr. O'Conner has diabetes, a condition that ended his 35-year military career. He sometimes commutes from Queens on his Pride Celebrity cart, a blue model with turn signals, a head lamp and all-rubber wheels that he paid for by shouting "Handbag!" and "Umbrellas!" His salesroom is an urban whirl of sly winks and wide eyes, a place where the rules bend and harden depending on the knowledge and mood of the officers on the beat.

As for why Mr. O'Conner is there at all, the answer dates to the post-Civil War years, when New York State compensated veterans for their physical and psychological wounds by allowing them to peddle on city streets. That modest expression of gratitude continues today, as manifested by the man in the Pride Celebrity, hawking handbags into the Times Square roar.

But over the last generation, the city has decided that, with all due respect to veterans, it can no longer provide such broad expressions of gratitude. Buildings have risen, sidewalks have narrowed, merchants have complained. Vendors of every type have taken to the streets, with and without licenses, selling legal and illegal goods, all expressing the belief that the streets belong to the people.

With New York sidewalks turning into congested bazaars, city and state government responded with laws and guidelines so complex that people have a better chance at three-card monte than they do of comprehending them. Somehow, Mr. O'Conner and his comrades say, disabled veterans became symbols of inconvenience rather than of sacrifice.

The city also lost count of its vendors; illegal vendors don't apply for licenses, and so-called First Amendment vendors those selling artwork, photographs and free-expression kitsch don't need them. The best guess is about 10,000, including 1,200 veterans and 300 disabled veterans.

The State Legislature then nudged the matter into a complete farce by allowing the vending law to lapse in March. It meant that disabled veterans, under the post-Civil War law, could set up shop along major avenues from which they had once been banned. And wherever any vending is allowed, those First Amendment vendors are also allowed. As a result, Seventh Avenue in Times Square is a study in strange street etiquette. If Mr. O'Conner sets up, then four or five First Amendment vendors set up; if he takes a day off, then they are forced to take a day off. If he arrives later than usual, say 9 a.m., then they sit beside barren tables, their wares in boxes, until he wheels into view. "I could be here without them, but they can't be here without me," he said. "I pay them no mind."

THE other day, the First Amendment vendors essentially attached to Mr. O'Conner were three friends from Tbilisi in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, each with his own stand. One of them, Alex Leikin, acknowledged that he did not know the name of the man in the motorized cart. All he knew, he said, is, "if he's not here, we can't work here."

State legislators say they expect that a new and better law will be in effect by Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, city officials are trying to develop a comprehensive plan although it remains to be seen whether the state and city efforts will find the synchronicity that translates into common sense on the streets.

This week a City Council hearing on the matter captured the elusiveness of that goal. Police officials testified about their enforcement of the inconsistent laws, vendors in the audience called them liars, and the hearing's chairman begged everyone to please offer solutions. The problems, he said, are stipulated.

While people down in City Hall debated his livelihood, Mr. O'Conner was working Times Square. His job may lack amenities; it may be one in which his umbrella stash compels him to pray for rain. But it is what he does now. It is what so many disabled veterans did before him on the streets of New York, because that is how the government sometimes says thanks.

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