Everything Must Go-Bama
The Vendors' View From a Harlem Sidewalk
New America Media, News Feature//Photos, Words + Photos: Russell Morse Posted: Nov 14, 2008
NEW YORK -- Tables of vendors selling Barack Obama merchandise have now become as ubiquitous a sight in New York City as Halal Carts and bored cops sending text messages: every corner, every hour of the day. They’ve been around for a while now, but after election day the tipping point was reached.
Obama’s face is available now on everything from snow globes to dinner plates and plastic blinged-out wristwatches. We’ve seen this kind of merchandising before: bootleg Bart Simpson shirts and the Malcolm X fashion explosion of the early 90's, for example.
On a recent evening, I visited the epicenter of Obama-nalia vendors: 125th street in Harlem. There, I met Ishmael, who makes consistent sales from his table across the street from the Apollo Theater. He told me that he recently lost his job as a custodian and started selling clothes in the street for his brother. “We used to sell basketball jerseys and jeans”, he said. “But this is the thing now.”
Ishmael was chatty, explaining that he really is an Obama supporter. He launched into a review of race and religion (he is Muslim) and his childhood in Brooklyn. “I got jumped one time in Bensonhurst and they called me a ni--er,” he said, laughing. “But this is a different time now.”
Next to him, a Somalian man selling phone chargers noticed his wares weren’t moving as fast and started jokingly calling out to passer bys. “I got Obama chargers! Obama phone chargers!”
A few tables down, I met Fillmore, who claimed to have started the Obama T-Shirt phenomenon. He told me that several months ago, the rapper Mos Def asked him to make an Obama T-Shirt for a concert he was giving at Lincoln Center. Fillmore printed up 11 (one for Mos, ten for his accompanying jazz band) with a photo of Obama accompanied with the slogan “So Fresh, So Clean.” The slogan refers to the Outkast song of the same name and what some considered racist comments by then-rival Joe Biden.
Fillmore says he knew he was onto something when people in the audience at the concert were going crazy, asking the band to give them their shirts. “After that, I went into business,” he said.
Fillmore and Jack, the man selling O T’s next to him, said they get a pretty diverse group of people coming to buy shirts. “We get a lot of foreigners,” Fillmore said. “From Italy, France, England, even Japan. They love Obama even more than the black folks out here.”
As I made my way down the block to meet other vendors, Fillmore warned me not to talk to some of the Obama profiteers. “See this guy right here?” he asked me, pointing to a man with a table of Obama hats. “Don’t talk to him. He don’t care, he may as well be selling socks. Nothin wrong with that, now. Gotta eat. But some of us been down since day one.”
He took the time to point all of the Faux-bama salesmen on the street and singled out others, who have been in the Obusiness for a while.
Way downtown at Union Square, I met a man who designs his own shirts, including one with a portrait of Obama on the dollar bill. He explained that business peaked in the days after the election. “It was like a sugar rush,” he said. “It’s back to normal now, though.”
The mania has reached Times Square, too. There, souvenir shops sell versions of the I HEART NY shirts that read I HEART BARACK OBAMA in the same font.
It’s unclear whether this Obamenon should inspire awe or cynicism. On one hand, an unemployed janitor found work and legions of Americans are so excited about their new president that they are willing to wear a T-shirt with his face on it.
Also worth considering is what’s going to happen to all those fake diamond watches when they break in two weeks? It’s sad to think that there may be a blowout sale in the near future. Everything must Go-bama! We’re rolling Barack prices! Our prices are so low, you’ll think we’re Hussein!
Russell Morse is a New York based writer for New America Media.
More from Russell Morse:
The Place that Hope Forgot to Visit on Election Day
Dwindling Hope, Irrelevant Election: Young People Get Their Cynicism Back
Working For Peanuts -- Downturn Hits the Streets of New York
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