August 27, 2005

Street Vendors

By Armando Huerta © 2005

Anyone who's ever been to a major city in Brazil has come face to face with the street vendors who populate the sidewalks. They aren’t concentrated in any specific part of city. You can see them on the busy shopping thoroughfares of Ipanema to the major avenues in the downtown financial districts of Rio. As luck will have it, they don't only limit their presence to major avenues with wide sidewalks but also to small cobble stoned side streets where two people can barely pass by each other on the ancient sidewalks built during the Imperial reign in the 1800s. Everything imaginable is sold by these folk: chocolate, panties, clay piggy banks, batteries, breast lifters... everything that one could possibly want.

The street vendors are a resourceful lot. Not only do they haul their merchandise from their homes in the outer regions of the city but they also carry along makeshift stands on which to display them. These can be homemade carts with rusty wheels and a ply board plank to cardboard boxes that can be folded instantly like an accordion. The reason for the wheels on some and quick dismantling stands on others is simple: evading the police. In Brazilian metropolitan cities there is a constant struggle between the street vendors and the police who try to run them off. In the event that they don’t accept a "tip" which makes them look the other way. In the downtown area where I have my office there are tropes de choque, "shock troops," whose sole job is to clear the streets of vendors. They gather in groups of 15-25 with helmets, masks, fiberglass shields and batons. Their presence is announced by the beating of their sticks in unison on the aforementioned shields like gladiators getting ready for battle. This signals the vendors to haul ass out of the area, jumping all over each other to collect their goods, dismantle their signs and run like the dickens down the street. Most often that's the case... sometimes they decide that they’ve had enough and stand their ground.

Coming back from lunch one day I had the misfortune of running into one of those confrontations. The tropa de choque had already started their drum roll and the vendors who were in no mood to run that day were collecting items to throw at them. I, like any reasonable person, picked up my pace and made a beeline for the safety of my office building. Alas, I had chosen that specific day to eat somewhere that was not around the corner and found myself navigating barricades much like a French peasant during Bastille Day. Rocks where sailing in the air one way with tear gas canisters going the other. By this point I broke into a brisk trot wrecking havoc on my shins as I was wearing my very favorite patent leather dress shoes. Comfortably nestled in a cloud of tear gas, my thoughts turned from making it to my office building to making it into any building at all! In the paper I've read of passersby being caught in the midst of a street battle and getting "accidentally" beaten to a bloody pulp by the overzealous policemen intent on grounding anyone in their way. Unfortunately the doormen in the area are used to these melees and at the first sign of one drop the metal shutters down over the doors to the buildings. My brisk trot, by then, became a full fledged 50-yard dash and I started hollering to our office doorman to open the shutters when I was a block away. Luckily he was closing the metal grate at that moment and I was able to crawl/slide under the door before rocks started hitting the building. As I always try to make lemonade with life's proverbial lemons I got to thinking that what happened wasn’t so bad after all. At least I got a nice workout.

One hour later I got the courage to venture out again so I could stop by the money machine. There on the street, where a battle of epic proportions had just taken place before my very eyes, were street vendors calmly displaying their goods in all their glory and trying to holler louder than their competition. Like I said... they are a resourceful lot.

Armando Huerta is a writer from Sao Palo, Brazil.

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