I boarded the uptown A train at the 42nd Street station yesterday hoping for a quick and quiet ride home after meeting friends at the United Nations.
However, while a quick ride is often guaranteed, a quiet ride is often impossible because the A train runs express from 59th Street to 125th Street. This nice long uninterrupted run offers singers, mariachi bands, conga drummers, evangelists, hip hop dancers, Michael Jackson impersonators and other street performers the perfect stage to show off or hone their skills.
Panhandlers and itinerant vendors, on the other hand, are less commonly seen on the A train along this stretch of its route because it restricts their ability to engage the maximum number of riders in the minimum amount of time by hopping from one car to the next at each station stop.
On this day, when I stepped into the subway car and settled into my seat, all was quiet. When the A train stopped at 59th Street, the conditions looked promising for a tranquil ride home: No kids with boom boxes, no musicians or musical instruments in sight!
But, just as I was about to slip into a reverie induced by the gentle rocking of the train when it started its long run uptown, an older gentleman launches his well-practiced spiel from somewhere behind where I am seated.
He: “It slides in. It slides out of the solid plastic holder. It will not bend, it will not break. It protects your metrocard or your ID*. It slides in. It slides out. It costs $4 in the stores but the subway price is only $1. It slides in. It slides out.”
I do not turn around, I have seen him on the trains many times before though not on this long uninterrupted section of the A train route.
I can picture him standing behind me in the middle of the subway car with his hands raised aloft while sliding a metrocard in and out of a clear plastic holder.
He repeats his spiel: “It slides in. It slides out…” and so on, without interruption.
This is a bad sign. If his spiel is uninterrupted, it can mean only one thing – he has not made a sale. No one has offered to buy his metrocard holder.
He starts his spiel again: “It slides in…”
This time, his voice gets louder which means he is advancing up the subway car towards me.
In a moment of inspiration, I reach into my coat pocket and fish out my metrocard safely encased in the same clear plastic holder I know that is being offered for sale. I extend my arm out towards the centre of the subway car ready to intercept the vendor when he reaches where I am seated.
When he reaches my shoulder, he notices my arm and the metrocard in its plastic holder in my hand.
We look at each other and slowly exchange a friendly nod and he says: “Oh, I see you already have one!”
The people sitting around me perk up and start to pay attention. A lady with an iPad on her knees tears her eyes away from the screen. Others peer over the tops of their newspapers, books or magazines. Yet, others snap out of their defensive New York blank stare intended to block out the rest of the world with the subliminal message that they see nothing, hear nothing and will not respond to any external stimuli.
Me: “Yes, it works well. I have had one for 5 years and it hasn’t broken”
A man sitting in front of me is the first to move. He pulls out a wallet from the right hip pocket of his trousers, rummages around in it and pulls out a dollar. He quickly becomes a proud owner of a new metrocard holder. He slides his metrocard into the holder and inserts it into his wallet. He leans back in his seat visibly satisfied.
The guy next to me starts to stir. “I’ll have one,” he says. Another quick sale.
The iPad lady now closes the lid on her iPad and reaches for her purse. Another sale.
We exchange smiles.
Meanwhile, the vendor continues towards the end of the subway car still chanting his spiel “It slides in, it slides out…” When he reaches the front end of the subway car, he sits down and proceeds to smooth out the notes in his hand.
The iPad lady starts to fidget with her purse again. “I need to get one for my mom and sister,” she openly declares. She looks towards the front of the subway car to see where the vendor has gone but she can’t spot him.
From my seat, I can see him still sorting and smoothing his cash. I wave to him but he doesn’t notice me. The iPad lady gets a little desperate and calls out “Mister, mister” in the general direction of the front of the car. Heads at the front of the car turn towards the sound of her voice. The vendor looks up, sees me waving and heads back to us.
He sells the two extra holders to the iPad lady. Then the man sitting in front of me announces, “I’ve got to get one for my wife or she’ll kill me?” Ka-ching, another sale.
The iPad lady raises her eyebrows and says incredulously, “She’ll kill you for not getting her a piece of plastic?”
He offers her a wan smile in reply.
The vendor heads back to his seat at the front of the car, clearly satisfied with the number of holders he has sold in the space of five minutes. He settles down to enjoy the rest of the ride to 125th St. in peace.
The point of this tale? One should never underestimate the power of a personal product endorsement in a situation where buyers have limited information about a product.
*The metrocard is New York City’s plastic farecard on its subways and buses.