The Street Vendors of Color Who Saved Times Square

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When you’ve been on the streets for as long as these men have, you see a lot of things and a lot of people. And last Saturday night, May 1, they saw that something wasn’t right.

There wasn’t just one hero. There were two. It seems to me that Duane Jackson is getting a lot of airplay, but it was really Lance Orton and Duane Jackson who sounded the alarm. This is Lance Orton, above.

And this is Duane Jackson, below.

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T-shirt hawker Lance Orton flagged down hero officer Wayne Rhatigan, 46, who was patrolling Times Square on horseback Saturday night.

“I’m not a celebrity, I’m just an average Joe,” Orton said Sunday night, a towel wrapped around his waist in his Bronx apartment. “It’s nice, but I’m not a glory hound.”

Orton, 56, is disabled. He walks with a cane from his wounds in Vietnam. The authorities had been clamping down on giving more vendor licenses to disabled vets recently; perhaps this episode will change their minds.

Called “grumpy” early on, because of his distrust of the media, Orton as well as Jackson had to stay at the scene for 12 hours, bereft of sleep and unable to go home. When he was allowed to go home, the cops and the customers from a nearby restaurant applauded him and shook his hand.

Duane Jackson, 58, is also a Vietnam vet and disabled. He saw the same discontinuity as Orton. Who sat this car here?

It wasn’t the first time the 58-year-old Vietnam veteran from Buchanan, N.Y., had been in a dangerous situation on the job. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was selling items on the corner of Wall and William streets when terrorists flew jetliners into the World Trade Center.

His latest brush with danger caught Jackson by surprise. At first, he didn’t think the smoking car was that big a deal, he said.

Initially, Jackson said, he was “basically thinking that it was a car with something in the back that had caught fire, not knowing that the guy had propane tanks and gasoline.

“Now that I saw the propane tanks and the gasoline: What if that would have ignited? I’m less than 8 feet away from the car. We dodged a bullet here.”

I think that I may have seen Jackson before in the Times Square area when I was working in that area of New York. Why? Because he sells handbags and wallets for women. And sometimes, he’ll let you haggle for something you like, or has sales on stuff he can’t move. At times, you can get a purse for $3, but you’d have to check it out to know exactly what you were getting.

Sometimes these street vendors are licensed, while others are not. I got to tell which ones were licensed. They stuck around and weren’t rousted by New York’s Finest. The others moved zig-zag from corner to corner with their swag in suitcases and with folding tables, hopefully one step ahead of the Heat.

Some have organized themselves into little unions, and share some corners with each other. Some guys already have records; others are brothers of color who can’t get a job. Some are new African immigrants. Some rather prefer selling on the street.

They’re not all in Tiimes Square. They’re at Washington Square Park (books!) and famously, in and around 125th Street in Harlem. The African soap sellers of shea, and coconut and black soap are there. I mourned when my straight off the street stash ran out in Madison. And they’re on parts of Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X Boulevard. My favorite vendors were those who sold homemade or label seconds or castoff jewelry, so-called pashmina scarves and books. I still have some of them.

With the tight squeeze in Times Square, especially on weekends, there often isn’t much room for you to look at what catches your eye. But if you ever think that the vendors aren’t there, you’re wrong: they are. They’re looking at you looking at their merchandise, such as it is. They’re keeping an eye on things, even for each other.

Which goes back to how Orton and Jackson were able to sniff out immediately that something was definitely wrong last Saturday night. They have seen everything and everybody. The pickpockets. The theatergoers. The kids from out of town. The tourists. The check cashers. The residents. The hustlers. The famous. The homeless. The office workers. The new jumbotrons. The tap dancers and the Gypsies who perform in the subways.

And because they alerted cops, and even provided an eyewitness description of the perp to go along with the videocam results, something awful has been averted at the heart of New York that would have altered the lives of many of the thousands crammed into the Square.

For whatever intents and purposes, Orton and Jackson were supposed to be there on Saturday night. And they deserve more than just New Yorkers’ thanks in return.

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~ by blksista on May 3, 2010.

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