I know how you feel. They make me uncomfortable, too. The way they set themselves up at the roadside, so you have to see them. The way they look at you, trying to make eye contact. Those crude, hand-lettered signs that plea for your money. Sure, it’s easy if the traffic is moving and you can brush by with barely a glance. But when you’re stuck there, waiting for a light to change, or when you have to walk by them, then what do you do? Look past them like they’re not there? Gesture that you don’t have any money with you? Or do you dig around for some change, even though you know full well it’s probably just going to support some bad habit: gummy bears, video games, Bieber downloads.
You know what I’m talking about — those annoying roadside lemonade stands that crop up all over our neighborhoods and back roads this time of year. I hate coming upon one of those things. First, the “lemonade” is usually some chemical crap out of a can. Not only do I not want to ingest said crap, but I also don’t want to get hosed for 50 cents or a dollar for it. (Oh sure, they might have a bowl of real lemons displayed on their stand for marketing purposes, but don’t let that fool you. Momsie will surely be sweeping them back into the kitchen at day’s end to garnish her Stoli-and-tonic.) Secondly, this product is distributed by kids, and we all know (or can imagine) where their little fingers have been. (And why aren’t their kitchens being inspected like other food-service facilities? Where are their hairnets and plastic gloves?) And finally, I don’t approve of the message it sends to the future of America: Stand by the side of the road and beg under the guise of “selling” something no one really wants or needs, and you’ll be rewarded.
Same goes for the rest of them: those toddling buskers who fiddle in front of an open violin case at fairs and farmers’ markets; the high-school barkers, the ones who jump out at you from the side of the road trying to get you to have your car washed; and, worse, those kids who station themselves outside store entryways, hawking everything from cookies to raffle tickets to popcorn. (My favorite cause was to benefit Cape lacrosse. Seriously? Seriously?) Some of these groups don’t even bother with the ruse of selling you something. They just rattle a can at you. At least they’re straight-up about it.
I still avert my eyes.
Nor do I think these practices are particularly safe. I mean, what if one of those li’l lemonade vendors gets a sugar rush from sampling his wares and spazzes into traffic? Or what about all those car-wash cheerleaders jumping around and waving their quivering pompoms on the sidewalk? That surely can’t be safe for pedestrians. And talk about distracting drivers! I almost went off the road the other day when I saw a chunky male teen sporting a full-body apron depicting a buxom bikinied broad’s body on it. That still wasn’t enough to compel me to get my car washed, though.
And what about the dangers incurred when these pint-sized peddlers disrupt the flow of traffic in and out of our stores? Without any warning or signal, shoppers will inevitably haul up and stop to peruse the exotic-nut or discount-magazine selection. This practice can easily result in one of those painful shopping-cart incursions: a run-over foot, a wheel grazing the back of your heel, or the standard butt bump. I don’t have any ready statistics on how much these incidents have gone up since the time when kids who wanted extra spending money simply planted a few rows of beans or picked up an extra shift at the bottle-blacking factory, but you can be sure the numbers are through the roof. I mean, if we were to shut down these rackets — like the city of Portland is shutting down panhandling in medians on August 15 — it would only be for the kids’ own good. Really it would.
Part of it, of course, is how uncomfortable the whole issue of money is to most people. When I was growing up, money was not discussed in my household, so I just assumed it was very bad and very dirty. I remember once finding my father’s pay stub on his dresser. How I thrilled at those words — net, gross, withholding — and ogled the zeroes. Surely we must’ve been the wealthiest people in all of Bath, Maine. (Yet, if so, why couldn’t I have that Suzy Homemaker oven I so longed for?) Later, I came to understand that talking about money was vulgar. You quietly tithed at church (but always by check, so God could keep a record). You didn’t discuss salaries or real estate values, except when gossiping behind closed doors. And you didn’t haggle. That was for horse traders and junk dealers. (It took me a few years of antiquing before I could cough out the words, “Is that your best price?”)
But most important, you would always be on guard against being swindled. Nothing offends my people more to the core than being fleeced. Of course, this issue didn’t come up much for me during my bohemian, early-adult life, since I rarely bought anything. I worked crappy jobs. I lived in dumps. I drove my cars into the ground. And I let my mother slip me a check every now and then. But then I got married. Became a homeowner. Started earning enough to finally buy that Suzy Homemaker oven (if I wanted it) and still have enough to share. At this point in my life, I do my part, and I pay my taxes. I feel I can drive by these kids with impunity. Giving in to these retail ruses is the same as being hoodwinked. Do you know how much my property taxes are? I’m paying for the very arithmetic you use to add up your profits, Little Missy!
But I have to confess: I know a bit how they feel. As a small-time author, I have on numerous occasions been asked to sit and sell my books — either at readings, talks or at book fairs. (Note: Don’t sit next to Colin Woodard or Monica Wood at these things, unless you want to stand and massage their shoulders as they tirelessly sign their books.) Selling at these events is OK, though, because people are purportedly there because of you. Even if they don’t purchase your latest gorgeous, fabulous book — a collaboration with renowned landscape painter Marguerite Robichaux titled Glorious Slow Going (available at your friendly local bookseller) — at least they know who you are and why you are sitting there, and they don’t look at you like you’re, well, a panhandler. Which is very often what happens when you’re at a bookstore to do a signing without a reading.
I have done these signings only a few times, and it’s interesting to watch people’s reactions. There are the averters: I don’t see you, I don’t want what you’re selling and don’t care what it is. You are proverbial roadkill. There are those with minor curiosity, people who will peer at your book (but not you) from a few feet away. They’ll crane their necks and for some reason keep their arms behind their backs. (It’s probably where they’re hiding their big bag of money.) Only at the last minute will they glance up at you with a quick arch of the eyebrows, as if to say, Well, isn’t that special? before they hustle themselves and their bag of money away. Then there are the Nosey Parkers, the ones who do want to know why you are sitting there and what you are selling, and they want you to tell them all about it. They will turn every page of your book and ask loads of questions, and just as you think you’re about to close the deal, their gaze will go a little blank, they’ll murmer something like “Good for you,” and then they’ll ever so gingerly close your book and run their fingers along the table’s edge as they drift on to the next thing.
The very first one of these signings I did was at a bookstore up the coast, when my book Maine & Me came out. I have to say that all the book’s related events prior-to had been well attended, and I was feeling pretty fancy with myself. Except at this “event,” no one was interested in either me or my book. My table was set up by the store’s front door, and people scurried by when they saw me. No matter how friendly and non-threatening I tried to look (not an easy task for me), no one stopped short and disrupted traffic. No one perused the pages of my book. No one even made eye contact. I was an invisible being in a prominent place.
So, maybe I’m being a little hard on the kiddos. Aren’t they, after all, just trying to ply their way in the world? And what if their doleful looks and proverbial outstretched hands make us squirm a little? It’s good to get nudged out of our comfort zones every once in a while, don’t you think?
Elizabeth Peavey hawks her wares here monthly.