Meet the littlest cogs in a big media machine.
Patrese Chambers was not the kind of person who had fluffy profiles written about her in the newspaper. She had a job with the federal government for 18 years before getting laid off in the late ’80s. After that, it was “straight down,” as her mother puts it.
Chambers became a drunk and a welfare mom. “It was a terrible life she lived,” says her mother, Ella Brannum. “She was an alcoholic. She just moved from place to place. She didn’t have a regular address.”
But when Chambers was killed after being struck by a car last July, she was warmly remembered in the pages of both the Washington Post and the Washington Times. “The outgoing 48-year-old mother of two was a familiar face—a touchstone for customers who knew that every morning, whatever the weather, ‘Pat’ would be on the corner,” wrote Libby Copeland in the July 26 Post. Hundreds mourned at her funeral. More than 20 cars rode with her body to Glenwood Cemetery at 2219 Lincoln Road NE.
Chambers’ death got big play in the city’s two dailies not so much because of the life she led but because of how she died. For a decade, Chambers had peddled newspapers on the street, first selling the Times, more recently selling the Post. When she died, she was standing on a corner selling papers to drivers near the U Street-Cardozo Metro station. Chambers was hit by a 1999 Volkswagen Passat three blocks from Garnet-Patterson Middle School—where her 14-year-old daughter attended class.
“It was a freak thing,” says Brannum. Brannum doesn’t blame the Post for her daughter’s death. In fact, she says, she was glad her daughter sold newspapers. Like many newspaper hawkers, Chambers had come upon the job as a way of recovering from a series of wrong turns in life. The money was small, and the work could be cold and dangerous, but it beat some of the alternatives. “She wasn’t lying around,” says Brannum.
Brannum says that after Chambers died, the Post footed the $3,800 bill from Frazier’s Funeral Home on Rhode Island Avenue NW for her daughter’s memorial service. But that symbolic gesture doesn’t obviate what the paper had never given: sick leave, insurance, or vacation.
Tiny workers helping great big companies, newspaper hawkers sell copies of the Post and the Times, but are not employees of either company. Instead, they belong to the anonymous ranks of “independent contractors.” Often hired straight off the streets by independent newspaper distributors, they get little money and fewer benefits. According to many who hustle papers to earn money, they’re not even guaranteed regular work.
Although Chambers is the only one to have died while selling newspapers since the Post started its newspaper-vending program in the summer of 1996, scores of others have trotted alongside moving cars, hustled papers in sub-zero temperatures, and risked their lives for bread-crumb compensation. What started out as a program intended to sell papers and help funnel some money to homeless vendors now looks an awful lot like another case of cheap labor doing wealthy institutions’ dirty work.
On a luminous fall morning, Lawrence Twyman is dressed in a Washington Post reflector vest and a dark-red plaid shirt that could have come straight from Abercrombie & Fitch. In fact, that’s where Twyman used to work before he ended up on the streets. He still lists the upscale store on his resume, two copies of which he produces from a plastic garbage bag. One of them is damp and smells like wet leaves.
This morning, Twyman’s dreadlocks are tucked into a knit cap as he dispenses a stack of papers to commuters. The day is so crisp that even the broken glass crunching beneath our feet on Missouri Avenue NW sounds pleasant. Near the intersection of 13th Street and Missouri, he runs past a taxi and a Malcolm’s On-Site Welding Service truck. Like many hawkers, Twyman sells both the Post and the Times.
Today, despite his Post vest, he carries copies of the Times over his arm like a bullfighter’s cape—which is appropriate, because he moves through rush-hour traffic with the grace of a matador.
“You see how quickly shoes wear,” says Twyman in a smoker’s voice. He points down at his Nikes, where the soles are peeling off: “You do a lot of running.”
A resident of the Crummell Shelter on Kenndall Street NE, the 44-year-old Twyman says he and his buddies are not exactly starving. They can always rustle up a sandwich from So Others Might Eat at 71 O Street NW or from one of the McKenna’s Wagons food trucks in the city. Twyman sells papers so he can get his clothes cleaned or buy a pack of Newports or a 40-ouncer.
Post Public Relations Manager Linda Erdos says 125 to 150 hawkers sell her paper at spots around the region. They sell 12,000 copies of the Post on weekdays and 14,000 on Sunday, according to division manager Andy Denault—a small but steady part of sales that average 800,000 copies daily. Times Circulation Director Arthur Farber says 85 hawkers sell the smaller paper and account for about 2,000 to 3,000 sales a day during the week.
Hawkers earn 10 to 15 cents for each Post sold during the week. They make even less on the Times. At 10 cents a paper, they need to sell 52 papers an hour to make the minimum wage, $5.15. Most earn less—from $3.00 to $4.50 an hour. They work Monday through Friday 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. and longer hours on Saturday and Sunday.
Hiring homeless people as hawkers gets rave reviews from circulation directors. “It’s been very successful for the Post,” says Denault. “They’re very loyal; they’re very dependable.”
The hype doesn’t do much for Twyman’s mood this morning. “Put in your imagination how it must be out here when it’s raining,” he says. The sun warms the mailbox next to him as he talks. “You have people say, ‘I don’t want a wet paper.’ And it’s really difficult to sell people an absolutely dry paper when you’re walking in the rain.”
Twyman once took classes in business administration at American University, and he took a civic-law course from Georgetown University Law School while behind bars in the late ’80s. “It was better than counting flies on the wall,” he says. This morning, he studies the sports pages of the Times as he walks down 13th Street. He often travels with a Dean Koontz paperback in his back pocket. He says he has read Plato, Newton, and Engels, and he enjoys talking about philosophy with the Rev. Pierre Conway at the Dominican House of Studies on Michigan Avenue NE.
And if you ask him about his job, Twyman will describe the pitfalls in elaborate detail: “Let me reinforce how bad this job is,” says Twyman. “When you go and fill out a job application and they say, ‘What are you doing now?’ it’s hard to even say. Who do you use as a reference? Can I use the Washington Post or Katharine Graham? We’re not part of Katharine Graham’s organization. People don’t look at me as having a job. They look at you as a goof-off.”
Twyman unfolds a copy of the Times and places it across a small pile of bricks near an Enterprise Rent-A-Car agency in a back alley near where he sells papers. Quarters, nickels, and dimes fall out of his hands onto the newspaper. He brushes the coins into a brown paper bag and stuffs the bag in his pocket. He has made $9.90 in two hours and 45 minutes.
Fifty-two-year-old Charles Thomas limps up alongside Twyman. A Vietnam vet who suffers from nightmares and a skin rash common among people who were exposed to Agent Orange, Thomas wears a blue D.C. Lottery cap. Thomas’ beard is speckled with gray, and he smells like booze. A hawker, he says he hasn’t had a regular job for a while.
“Might as well call this unemployed, too,” he says. “It’s something to do. But no benefits. You get sick and that’s it. You get hit by a car, that’s it.”
Well, there’s actually a bit more than that. The Washington Post Co. provides hawkers with a reflective vest, a knit cap, and gloves for winter, and sponsors a Carrier Appreciation Day in summer, when carriers and hawkers go to Six Flags America.
But the world doesn’t look like a very appreciative place after Twyman’s shift this Friday morning. Just after 9:30, he counts his money on a gravely path next to a “Do Not Enter” sign. Apartments are posted with “No Trespassing” and “No Loitering” signs. The only place that seems welcoming is the Missouri Avenue Market, a dilapidated store with a catchy slogan painted above its door: “Check out our beer specials!”
“I talked to a man who works at a local high school,” wrote Twyman in a 1998 essay he showed me. “He said, ‘You’re a nice guy and very intelligent. I thought all newspaper guys on the street were drunks, druggies, social rejects.’”
“It shook me, what he said,” says Twyman. “I told him a lot of us are just people who have fallen on hard times and are trying to get our acts together. It’s not as easy as you think to be a newspaper hawker. Most of us just make enough money to replace the shoes we wear out walking up and down with the papers.” CP