A little rubber and plastic slingshot. The white man with the satchel and ball cap raised it.
With a turn of his fingers, he slid and slipped a white plastic bit into the thick rubber band. As natural as snapping fingers, he pulled the band back and shot the little twisty, twirly, bendy bit with the light-up end into the sky.
It shot 50, 60 feet into the dark air, its blue light flickering down through by the white terra cotta of the downtown Wrigley Building, a plastic helicopter seed available for tourist purchase.
He picked it up off the ground and shot it into the sky again.
“Where do you get those?” I asked.
“I sell them,” he said, mistaking my request as a potential sales pitch rather than a question of provenance. “Five dollars.”
I corrected him on my intent. I work here, I said. Just across the street, I said, just south of the Trib Tower plaza where for night after night, week after week, month after month, I had seen him stand for hours, slingshotting his little copters into the night sky so tourist kids could beg their parents to pay the five bucks for the swirling lightstick descending from above.
I wanted to know where one obtains big satchels of light-up copters.
“A friend of mine in L.A. makes them,” he said.
He was one of the first round of pedicab drivers in NYC back in the day, he said. Now the industry has become clogged and clotted, he said. Too many people cutting corners, giving bad service, getting a well-earned bad rap for a once-nice gig, he said.
He travels in winter, he said. Travels to places warm and beachy when the Michigan Avenue plazas just north of the river get too cold and lost to fling light-up helicopters into the sky for five bucks a pop.
He could never work in an office, he said.
Just stand outside one, I mentally added for him. I felt bad about that.
We talked a long while, while I was waiting for my ride. He asked about me, about my job giving tours on the Chicago River. He asked how much it paid and he answered my questions about how much the light-up copters bring in. Two downtown tourist hustlers comparing notes.
One of his helicopters came down almost on a woman’s head. He apologized
“That’s the first time that’s happened,” he said.
“Really?” I asked. “You must shoot them, like, a hundred times a night.”
He didn’t say anything. Another wanderer came by and he wanted to be sure a copter was flickering in the sky for them.
I felt bad that I made a snarky mental note when he talked about offices. I felt bad about this man at work, working a harder, more demanding and honest job than anything the desk jockey he hawks to must negotiate.
He doesn’t work to monetize brand, making substandard services and companies seem sine qua non. He doesn’t middleman people’s finances, try to slice off a hunk for himself whenever people want to buy a house, car or mocha frappuccino. No one gets wounded, jailed or broke in his racket.
He just shoots off helicopters and asks if anybody wants one.
And somehow he’s the hustler.
He’s the one who got chased from his usual turf south of Trib Tower by a big corporate display. He’s the one pedestrians won’t look at, the one people walk by without making eye contact with. He’s the one who has to handle a palm-out “No thank you” hand as response from people who won’t break stride when he asks them if they want to own something cheap and fun.
He’s the one who says “Five dollars” quietly so the cops don’t roust him.
No fine print. No brand. No hard sell. Just a little street hustler working the night, asking five bucks for a cheap, fun thing. If you don’t want it, no worries. The next one might.