Published by Columbia University on September 20, 2000.
Some of the homeward-bound commuters almost seemed afraid of Tony Burtin's hoarse shout.
"C'mon," he yelled at the crush of people exiting the seven train at 46th Street in Sunnyside. "Six tomatoes for a buck. A dozen peaches. C'mon. I wanna go home."
Most turned away, favoring the fruit seller with the same patented New Yorker look they'd give panhandlers. A few, though, just a few, pawed through the produce, handing over crumbled dollar bills as Burtin shoveled their purchases into paper bags. Behind him, co-worker Jerry Costa tossed empty fruit crates into a battered Ecoline van, leaving a few boxes to serve as Burtin's table.
It was the end of a long day for the duo. Up at 4 a.m., they had hit the Huntspoint Market, where they loaded the van with fruit and vegetables.
But a chilly, rainy Tuesday isn't a good sales day for corner fruit guys. When they arrived at the 46th Street station around 5 p.m., their van was still full.
"You can't work in the rain," Burtin said. "No one would stop."
The subway tracks run high in the air over the 46th Street stop, their bridge creating a shelter for the hawkers. By 9:30 p.m., most of their fruit was gone.
"We buy it cheap and we sell it cheap," Costa said. "It's the only way we can make money."
Costa, in his 60s, has been shilling fruit for some 20 years, after taking the business over from his father. "He did it for years," he said, pushing a rain-streaked pair of glasses further up his nose. "It's what I know how to do."
Burtin's introduction to the world of corner sales came later, when he retired from factory work about nine years ago. Social security doesn't provide enough to live on, he said, so Burtin, a grizzled 74-year-old, has taken to the streets.
On a good day, he makes $30.
"I get to stop when I die," he said. "I can't before that."
The fruit sellers usually spend most of their days in the Bronx, hanging out in minority neighborhoods where, Burtin said, "the cops don't bother us much."
In other areas, run-ins with the police are a constant threat, as the two men are working without any sort of license.
"The police harass you all the time," Costa said. Then, gesturing at the three grocery markets on nearby corners, he added, "The fruit store owners complain. They were here first, so they call the cops."
"You're always in the jurisdiction of the police," Burtin said. "They're the bosses of the street."
The men said they work for a Greek immigrant named Dimitri Dicropolos, who owns the old van and who fronts the money to buy the fruit. The salesmen split the profits with him, as do, Costa said, about a dozen other men.
The only way to succeed, the men said, is to have the lowest prices on the street. "If the market's good, so are we," Burtin said. "We buy low and sell low."
Tuesday, the men had bought the peaches for $5 a box and the tomatoes for almost double that. Each box held almost three pounds of produce.
Such wares sell decently when people stop to browse, but Costa said the only days he really enjoys the work is when they get people's favorite fruit.
"Strawberries and cherries," he said. "The day is great when we get strawberries and cherries."