Cart and soul

The sight of a street-corner hot dog vendor a block from our downtown offices reminded me of an old newsroom colleague hard at work while a rubber ducky face peeked out from under his tochis.

I was sitting one miserable summer’s day in a remote, dark corner of the newsroom, hiding — the heat being what it was. Unhappily, our switchboard operator was onto me and phoned back. “There’s a guy in the lobby with balloons, and he’s crying,” she said. “Pavich says get off your ass.”

Downstairs, sure enough, stood a grossly overweight man, early 40s I guessed, with a blue balloon-animal on his head and a handsome assortment of others. And sure enough, he was crying, the tears staining his smooth face as they dripped over a sheen of perspiration. For a second, I imagined sweat rivers cascading from the bare swath on top of his skull and collecting in a little pool behind the balloon-dam snugged around his head.

Between sobs that embarrassed us both, he told me why he’d come looking for the questionable aid of a faceless newspaper.

He was mentally challenged — he said “ruh-tawded” — and had been trying to peddle balloons on the downtown streets, unsuccessfully, for the second summer running. Customers weren’t a problem; my guess was that folks responded to the man-child’s pleasant face. It was The City. He and his handmade, freshly painted pushcart had been stopped by a cop on his first day out the season before, and told to beat it until he got the proper permits. This began a bureaucratic nightmare that hadn’t ended.

His nemesis was a city planner with a peculiar vision of a revived downtown. He adorned one boulevard with lighted red monkey bars to give an urbane air to a retail lane lined with vacant shops. Every time the Balloon Man jumped through a licensing hoop this guy put in front of him, he was shown three more. The cart had to be just so, the wheels just so, the signage just so, ad nauseam.

Newsrooms are full of cynics — they’ve been called disillusioned idealists or disappointed romantics — who got into the racket because they really thought they could effect change, when that only rarely happens. But sometimes, when nobody’s looking, the weight of a newspaper can quietly do just that in small ways.

I called the bureaucrat and told him I’d found a great little story about regulatory harassment of a very sympathetic victim, dead bang, Page 1. (I didn’t intend to write about it.) Soon after, his boss — an eminently reasonable woman I’d known for a while — called, wanting to know why I’d scared her star planner. I told her. Within days, the Balloon Man’s own vision was real, up and running.

He returned with thanks and gifts from his small business. One of them was a ring-shaped child’s swimming pool float, yellow plastic with a rubber ducky head. I blew it up and presented it to one of our rewrite guys on his first day back from hemorrhoid surgery. His slid it under his burning butt and sighed.

Strange and sad how this city has, for so long, locked gazes with grand visions while ignoring or actually harassing the small entrepreneurs who put texture into a retail district. What’s more truly urban than pushcart vendors?

“Cool city?” You could say “texture” is a part of “cool.” And you can’t fabricate texture — you have to let it happen.

Seeing the hot dog cart, and the people lined up at it, reminded me of the Balloon Man and made me wonder if things had loosened up a little.

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