Selling Messages of ‘Yes I Can!’ — and ‘Change You Can Smell’

Howard University News Service

Shannon Hardy of Brooklyn, N.Y., rushed over and plopped his knapsack onto an empty white table. He unzipped it and out poured a variety of pins with pictures of the 44th president, Barack Obama, the first lady, Michelle, and their daughters.

“They will not let you into the parade without a button,” Hardy shouted as people walked by.

Vendors decorated the streets of Chinatown in D.C. with an array of Barack Obama apparel including T-shirts that read, “I was here, and you wasn’t.”

Vendors traveled far and wide, with many originating from New York, to be part of history and to get a stake in the money to be made from the Obama craze.

Hardy arrived in D.C. with 4,000 Obama pins and buttons. Within a few days, he sold half of them at two for $5.

“Let me drop a jewel,” said Hardy, which is a term meaning words of wisdom. “This is Barackonomics. They had Reaganomics. This is Barackonomics. It gives everyone inspiration. It is progress. I see a lot of people who used to sell drugs, and now they’re doing something positive.”

Comparing Obama-Mania to CrackSimpon Jones, manager of Last Stop, a clothing store on Georgia Avenue, said, “Obama is crack cocaine, and everybody is trying to get their dollar off of Obama.” Jones’ stock of Obama shirts were winding down on the evening before inauguration. He offered deals when customers purchased more than one T-shirt with promotions, such as buy one get one half off. His cheapest shirts sold for $9.99.

Star Walters, 41, of Ohio, a petite brown-skinned woman, boasted about the deals Jones offered her on the shirts she’d just purchased for herself, her mom, her sweetheart and her son.

“He wants everybody to be happy and be able to take something back home,” said Walters, adding that she would wear her Obama shirt for the inauguration.

From Keychains to ‘The Audacity of Soap’Next door at Sports Zone, a sports clothing store also on Georgia Avenue, was an entirely new selection of Obama T-shirts that read “Yes We Can,” “The Dream Is Real,” “I Love Barack Obama” and “Coming to Every Home” with a picture of the first family within a television set. Others T-shirts were made from the covers of Time and Vibe magazines, which featured headshots of the president for $9 to $14.

On the same block, Up Against the Wall, an urban clothing store, sold not only “high-quality” Obama T-shirts for $45, but also Obama fitted caps for $36, key chains, bags and “The Audacity of Soap” with a red and blue picture of Obama.

“This is the only one (inauguration) that we’ve been open for,” said Al Nice, manager of the store for 18 years. “We normally close on inauguration because there is normally no traffic.” Nice said that people from England, Germany and Botswana have made their way into his store.

Colin and Necko Taylor of California chatted as they sifted through, Nice’s selection of original T-shirts. Colin’s brother is a licensed vendor who provided the couple with Obama gear.

Lashonda Wright, a resident of Laurel, Md., described the need for Obama paraphernalia as “Obamarama!”

One-Man Stimulus PackageWhereas Necko said, “We’re calling it the one-man stimulus-package. Everybody seems to be capitalizing off of his presidency.”

In the bitter cold, a man with locks who calls himself Z-Love stood outside Up Against the Wall, clutching $5 portraits of Obama drawn by his friend.

“Everybody is feeling Obama right now,” said Z-Love, who is from Camden, N.J., but is staying with a friend in D.C.

One woman in search of Obama souvenirs said, “if this wasn’t happening, they wouldn’t be able to make any money.”

In Chinatown, Hardy thought it was great that people were feeding off Obama’s energy. “With any other president, this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Something New; Something FreshMany described it as the need for someone new and something fresh.

“It’s because he’s different,” said Wright’s friend Lisa Bizzell of Atlanta. “He is not the same old traditional that we’ve seen the last 43 presidents. He’s different not only because of his race, but his style. He is the people’s president. You haven’t seen that since JFK.”

For some like Trevor Johnson of Los Angeles, the Obama fad was part of the excitement that accompanied history in the making.

Johnson bought an Obama poster and called it a “nice collector’s item.”

“It means a lot,” Johnson said. “The first African-American elected to the world’s highest office. It’s a big honor. Thinking about all the struggles that black people have been through just here in this country alone. I think it really says a lot. Anybody who looks any resemblance to me is a big deal. I think that caught everybody by surprise.”

Indeed it did, especially for those who witnessed the civil rights era and years of segregation like Shukriyyah Muhamed, 61, of Montclair, N.J.

“I think about all my ancestors who’s not here who really struggled and paid the price so Barack could get up in there,” said Muhamed, who added that the new president was a “very handsome brother.”

Muhamed set up shop at Vermont and U Streets, where she sold baseball hats for $8, pins and calendars for $3, a $9 Barack Obama bill for a dollar, key chains, and adult and children’s shirts. Muhamed also works for Blue Cross Horizon, Blue Shield, an insurance company.

“The people who went through the civil rights with the beating and the lynching, the KKK and all the hanging and stuff, I wish they were here; my mother she’s not here,” Muhamed said. “This is for them.”

Ponytail Prepares for Presidential Shoe ShineThere he sat in a wood and cloth chair, sporting a navy blue doo-rag, a green work shirt over a white tee, denim blue jeans and black slippers, staring at a television set in the corner of the shop. Everyone calls him Ponytail, and he is the owner of Ponytail Shoe Shine Parlor and Shoe Repair. He has owned the shop at 1003 U St. for 50 years.

His shop was closed for the inauguration, which he viewed from his television.

“I wasn’t about to go downtown,” Ponytail said. “I’m a sit right there in my chair. Then when my guys come, they can sell that stuff. I’m going to clean up my shop.”

On the floor were shoes and boots that Ponytail was working on. The stuff he referred to was the Obama paraphernalia displayed in his window. He was selling mugs, calendars, magnets, pins, Obama autographed pens, pencils and knitted hats. Prices ranged from a dollar for a pencil to $10 for the mugs and signature pens.

“It’s a good thing,” Ponytail said. “There’s gonna be a lot of money for the city. You can’t criticize them for making money. In this time in the economy, they have no choice.”

The wall behind Ponytail was covered with signed photos of political figures, entertainers and other officials whose shoes he has shined. The A-list wall of fame included Janet Jackson, Bill Cosby, Colin Powell, Thurgood Marshall, Sammy Davis Jr., the Impressions, the Manhattans, Condoleezza Rice, Tommy Ford, Marion Barry, the late Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ponytail described King as one of the greatest men he’d ever met. “This is a great day for black folks,” Ponytail added. “I never thought in my lifetime, that I would live to see this.”

He recalled a time not too long ago when his parents could not vote. “Dr. King can turn over in his grave and rest in peace now, because his dream has finally come true.”

Ponytail has five children and 17 grandchildren. He paid for his children’s education through shining shoes.

“I’m proud of what I do,” Ponytail said. “I love it.”

He said he’ll shine Obama’s shoes next. “I’ll get him down here. That’s why I’m painting the shop now.”

Business on U StreetFarther up U Street, the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl was packed to capacity. Vendors ran in and out pulling merchandise from their vehicles to display to customers in the restaurant.

Alvin Moresse Johnson parked across the street from the busy eatery where he sold a studded $50 Obama jacket for $75, several pins, a hat and a shirt for a total of $105.

His prized customer was Sanicka Cummings, 30, of Los Angeles. She was eating with her mother and her mother’s friend when Johnson approached them.

“If I see it, I grab it,” Cummings said. “They are helping the economy. I’d rather see them sell shirts than weed.” She said that most of the items she purchased she would not wear, rather it would be “keepsake stuff.”

‘Use With Good Judgment’Back in Chinatown vendors were table to table, selling everything from the usual Obama apparel to Obama DVDs, CDs of Obama-inspired songs, puppets, dolls and even condoms that read “use with good judgment.”

Near the Chinatown Metro station, Sister Iris Woodridge from Mother Dears Community Center offered prayers for Obama free of charge.

“I’m out here on a wonderful day,” said Donald Jeter, a vendor from Maryland. “I’m out here tryna make a little money with Obama my best friend now.” Jeter turned to face the average height cardboard cutout of the president.

“I saw him, cut it out and I said I know people would wanna take pictures beside him,” Jeter said. “This is the closest you gonna get to him anyway so you might as well take a picture with him.” People could take photos with the Obama cutout for $2 with their own cameras.

Jacquie Alexander of Baltimore offered Jeter a Barack oil in exchange for a free picture alongside Mr. President. Alexander was selling Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia oils as well as others named for people such as Paris Hilton for $7. Alexander sells oils on a regular basis, and she noticed that people buy oils and other fragrances based on the names rather than the scents.

The Malia and Sasha oils were sweet and slight. The Barack oil had a masculine and “subtle” undertone. The Michelle resembled the Sasha and Malia oils. Alexander mixes different scents according to the person’s character. She chose to sell oils because she wanted to do “something new and different and to be involved.”

On 7th and G Streets, a vendor from New York had the usual Obama knick-knacks as well as some National Achievemints for your breath and a variety of Obama fresheners.

“Obama fresheners,” he said, “a change you can smell.”