Sales at a Chicago corner measure tough times too

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Vendors of socks and T-shirts see people’s moods and spending habits

Hard times are not gauged just by job loss statistics or housing price estimates.

How we are doing could also be measured by the bundles of white tube socks hawked on the northeast corner of 87th Street and Lafayette Avenue.

“Sold one today,” says James Cosey, his eyes always scanning cars rumbling over the pockmarked asphalt on their way to join Dan Ryan traffic.

It is mid-afternoon on a Wednesday—the sky ashen and the bank clock across the street reporting 20 degrees. Cosey has worked this Chicago corner for five years, commuting to the South Side from Rogers Park.

Having once been homeless, he is happy for work. The price: frostbite on all five fingers of one hand. “This is not an easy job,” he says.

A red light is his green light. A car honks, and he works through a three-lane maze of cars to answer the call.

Just as fast, he scoots back to his spot, no sale: “He wanted black socks but we’re out of them.”

Such is the economic reality of drive-by commerce. Cosey, who says he graduated from Hyde Park High School, is 60, and layering up for winter salesmanship has been a way of life for more than 20 years. His first job was at age 8, selling watermelons from a truck. Then he tended the stables for the city’s carriage horses.

He was a regional prizefighter, an office manager. When briefly homeless, he sold Streetwise newspapers.

But this job, his longest, has given him a certain relationship with the people of his city.

He is always there for them on that corner, if not selling them shirts, washcloths, socks, then observing.

“I learn how they look when the gas is high and people are disappointed and kind of upset,” he says.

Around the corner comes his companion this day, a man selling Obama T-shirts and calendars.

The man has no time to talk; he is homeless and needs to watch the cars.

“I just want me a room so I can get me some peace of mind,” he says. “I’m gonna get it. I’m almost there.” His name, he proudly states, is Mr. Wilson; he is 51 and needs just $100 more. But today, no one’s buying Obama fare like they did Election Night.

The man, holding a tray of popcorn bags and strapped with a belt clipped with dozens of Ziploc bags of candy for sale, says he last worked as a bike messenger in the Loop, back in better days when he could afford an apartment in his name.

“It dried up when they bombed [New York City],” he says.

“Those buildings went down, and the messaging got slow.”

The men separate, they work different cars, scanning for eyes from heated interiors to catch their own, wired by the cold.

Warmth comes later on the train ride home.

Barack Obama smiles in confidence on the black shirts hung on the highway fence. The future First Family huddles in portrait above the calendar months, a perfect union.

“He should come take us to Washington,” Cosey shouts, chasing his words with laughter. “That would be nice.”

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