A City Desk series chronicling the inaugural working class

Woe betide the D.C. street vendor who sets up shop on the sidewalk without a license. Competitors narc, and cops swarm. Pretty soon, the scofflaw vendor is packing his wares.

But this is the inauguration, and the authorities have real menaces to worry about.

So Ismail Jones and Jamar Muhammad are doing their business unimpeded by officialdom at 14th and V Streets NW, outside of Busboys and Poets. “We didn’t have a permit to set up. We just came down nine in the morning and got our spot. The Washington police haven’t harassed us, either. They actually came up and started talking to us. They support us,” Jones said.

What are these guys selling? What else—Obama mugs, Obama t-shirts, Obama hats, and Obama key chains. Almost all of the aforementioned are 2 for $5, a bargain by most standards. Both guys are from Philadelphia and make a living by selling apparel and accessories in Northern Philly.

Both guys said they’ve had trouble finding permanent work and credit Obama for helping them put bread on the table. Jones said, “Obama hasn’t signed anything yet, but he’s already given us income. If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be here right now.”

Jones and Muhammad have been selling in D.C. for a week and making frequent trips between Busboys and a wholesale warehouse on Florida Avenue and 5th Street NW. “Yesterday we had to renew our supplies twice in one day. And actually, I have to go restock now,” said Muhammad.

They usually sell whatever is hot and in demand, calling themselves “full time hustlers.” However, they said they’ll be sticking with Obama merchandise well after inaugural festivities. “This is history, man. It’s history. Whoever thought they would say (picking up a deck of cards), who got those Obama cards? But people buy them. There will never be an Obama item that nobody will want,” Muhammad said.

Photos by Charlotte Kesl