Rent-A-Vet

On countless corners in New York City vendors peddle their wares, offering everything from phone chargers and iPod covers, to art, books and DVDs. To judge by the sheer number of vendors, one might wrongly assume that selling merchandise, and securing space in New York is easy. Not so.

A lottery system in place for all applicants, save for war veterans, means that many are never selected or may even have to wait for over ten years to receive their vending license. A woman selling incense outside of Whole Foods by Union Square described the latter as a common situation. Many who depend on vending as their livelihood have circumvented the system, and have used the veterans’ privileges by renting their licenses, or even them.

“People actually rent the veteran, the veteran becomes a part of your business,” said a vendor on 14th St. between 5th Avenue and University Pl., who asked not to be named. “He might be sitting there, and working with you, or even just sitting there and taking a percent of what you make.”

The vendor explained that because this is illegal, needs like these are not publicized, but word travels through the vending community.  “It is a very disciplined relationship, the veterans find out through word of mouth.”

Art being sold at union Sq. Only art is permitted in the park.

Different licenses are granted to vendors, depending on the nature of their goods. Books, art, and spiritual material can be sold by anyone, and are protected under the First Amendment however, vendors still need to get a Tax ID, and secure a space. For vendors selling general goods, a general vending license referred to by most vendors as the ‘white license’  is needed from City Hall. Often it is vendors who are selling general goods that rent the veterans, and their licenses.

A more specific license, known as the ‘yellow license’ is used to purvey particular goods, and through distinctions such as  ‘Consumer/Cigarette’, vendors holding these licenses are allowed to sell cigarettes and candy.  Surveillance of yellow license holders by city officials is much more stringent, and one such holder explained that his kiosk is visited every three months, without specific notice, and his business is surveyed.

For many who are using a veteran’s general vending license the potential to be visited by city officials, although less structured than those for yellow license holders, is one of the reasons why the veteran often becomes a present member in the business. Some have even complained about the behavior of police in enforcing rules such as table length, and distance from the road. White license holders often have the freedom to move between a designated area, as in the case of my interviewee- who has the freedom to sell anywhere between University Pl., and 7th Avenue.

However, vendors often maintain the same spot said the source, and that there is a kind of “vending etiquette.”

“People in this area [Union Square] will arrive very early to set up, and they even get into fights,” he said. “Some people make friends and help each other out, different blocks function differently.”

None of the vendors approached were comfortable discussing the renting of a veterans license, and none of those approached were willing to share their names.

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