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Honest work is still work
Last week, the Sunday Guardian began an in-depth look into street vending on Charlotte Street, Port-of-Spain, in the wake of the recent controversy sparked after Port-of-Spain Mayor Joel Martinez made a decision to relocate them to George Street, only to be forced into rescinding the decision after admitting the City Corporation did not have the new site ready. Today, we give a view of life on Charlotte Street from two veteran street vendors.
Hyacinth Kerr has been vending on Charlotte Street, Port-of-Spain, for the past 35 years while her friend Heather Alexander has been vending five years more than Kerr. Both, now aged women, hailing from Morvant, began providing fresh produce to customers traversing the now overly busy and cluttered Charlotte Street strip in the late 1970s and 1980s.
The two, permanently situated at block three, now share their space with a third generation, having taught their children the ropes of vending and now seeing those children now teaching theirs. Block spots were handed out to vendors during the Charlotte Street Market Project introduced by the Council of the Municipal Corporation in 2008 to facilitate vendors operating on the strip.
“This is my first home and my residential address is my second,” Alexander said playfully as she spoke to the Sunday Guardian while attending to customers recently.
“In a box,” is where she shamelessly said she raised one of her children whom she had to take to her hustle each day while seeking to earn a living for her family. She dismissed the ‘ole’ talk by some who categorised as child abuse, vendors who had their children on the job or even learning to sell alongside them. She said with the long hours vendors work, one cannot leave a child unattended for such long periods and it was safer for her children to be with her than at home.
“And for all those who having a problem with the children learning how to vend in their parents’ business, I ask you to just take a walk into the Chinese-owned businesses and see who is cashing and attending. They know about succession. But when we are doing it, it’s called abuse,” Alexander argued.
Block three, located at the corner of Charlotte and Prince Streets, is where you’d find these two friendly and warm ladies who evidently have a wide customer base. Within seconds of our interview, which began after midday, customers kept popping up calling them by name as they bought sweet peppers, callaloo bush, ochre, chive etc. Some even got in on the interview to speak their piece on the Port-of-Spain Mayor’s recent attempt to relocate the Charlotte Street vendors.
Today, these women could have sat comfortably giving their story without worrying if the City Police would confiscate their goods or perhaps even throw them in jail. Prior to the introduction of the Charlotte Street Market Project, vending was a hellish ordeal they said.
“We used to sell on Charlotte Street and run from the police and then we would go on Prince Street and return here when the police gone. And it was a case of being backward and forward but our spot was always mainly Charlotte Street,” Kerr chronicled.
Adding to the memory, Alexander said in those days when the police came, vendors would not even get the chance to pack up their goods. She recalled many vendors’ goods being aggressively heaped up and thrown into police vans, goods on top of goods, everything thing mixed up and much being damaged or completely destroyed.
“Listen, we used to have a saying amongst vendors, once police touch your goods, is like they blight your business,” Alexander said.
“It had a time I got locked up three weeks straight,” Kerr interjected.
Asked what happened her goods then, she said goods would not always be returned to the vendors and if they were, it would be after the court case and by that time they were unfit for sale. A fine of $3,000 is paid for illegal vending and upon release, a vendor had to source finances to restock their stall, they said.
They both explained that it was hard to predict when the police would show up because their visits were quite random.
“Especially on a Friday when you can make a good sale. Sometimes I would now come from the market and set up my goods and they just pass and gone with it,” Kerr said.
She remembered that at times City Police would come with a backhoe, water or garbage truck to carry out their raids.
“You see that lady over there, Kerr said, pointing to an elderly woman sitting across the street from her, “If she gives you a story, you will cry. She could tell you about getting locked up, sometimes being dragged and carried down in her bra and panty alone.”
They said as a result of the constant harassment, many vendors in those days gave up and never returned to vending.
When the 1990 attempted coup carried out by Jamaat al Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr was over, many buildings were either burnt down or defaced in some manner or the other in the capital city. Some of these buildings became homes to street dwellers and drug addicts. There was nothing beautiful about the capital city then.
But vendors Hyacinth Kerr and Heather Alexander told the Sunday Guardian that while the streets remained dismal and city seemed to have shut down for a while, the vendors were the only people who came out on the street, cleared whatever rubble lined the drains or sidewalks and day by day, little by little, brought back the capital’s streets—in their case Charlotte Street—to life.
“We developed Charlotte Street. These people (big businesses) realised if we could come out and do business at a time like that, they then began to follow suit. We did not have the money to buy a building or build one, so we brought our business to the street. These people began to build up and build up and take over and we just had to run again,” Alexander said.
“Half of these store owners here right now ‘eh’ know nothing about Charlotte Street,” Kerr added.
“They were never here in those days but now they don’t want us here. It is not to say that we meet them here, they met us here.”
The perceived notion by many that vendors are ignorant, uneducated and can’t do better in life, Kerr and Alexander said, is nothing but a stereotype and couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“They think we are a pack-ah- dunce. They continue to behave like we don’t know anything. I have many certificates and all my children went to secondary school,” Kerr revealed.
They both pointed out that there are many young men and women vendors who have several CXC passes.
“Look what’s she name have nine passes,” Alexander noted.
Retracing time, Kerr and Alexander said in their era, jobs were difficult to get, especially for women. They said back then when it was not being stigmatised for where one lived, it was fighting to keep one’s dignity intact, in a time where compromising that dignity seemed to be the prerequisite to get hired.
“We can tell you about actual cases and the companies and special programmes that indulged in this type of abuse,” a near teary-eyed Alexander said.
“And it still happens today,” Kerr interposed. Why you think all those women now coming out and speaking against these powerful men on cases of sexual harassment? Back then you did not have a voice so it was either you go with it or forget your dream.”
Alexander added: “It’s not that we could not do better in life, we tried and we were just not willing to compromise. Today, our children are educated because of our sacrifice and today or tomorrow if they decided vending is not what they want to do, they have options. But we have taught them the value of hard work and not being ashamed of a job if it is honestly providing for their family.”
VENDORS, BUSINESSES NEED EACH OTHER
Admitting that vendors too had to take some of the blame and responsibility for how they are often viewed and treated, both Kerr and Alexander said often times vendors do a lot of foolishness and behave carelessly, jeopardising the opportunity given to them to operate their business.
They said now that the various blocks have been shelved in the new programme, vendors needed to show the Government and the public that they can do good business by adhering to regulations and stop treating their livelihood like a hustle and rather a career.
“Let’s keep our spaces clean. Let’s dress appropriately. We are providing a service; let us look like service providers,” Alexander stressed.
Not forgetting store owners, she added, “We have got to find a way to work together in harmony. The fact is no one person is going into these stores to by a bail of kitchen towels or mats, but we are.
“Vendors make up a huge part of their customer database. And we need them for our businesses to run, we both need each other, so let us all go forward with a good plan and stick to it.”
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