It was Saturday evening, downtown near District 1 Councilman Roger Flores’s La Paloma restaurant. Michael John and his wife strolled the River Walk with their vending merchandise cleverly hidden beneath a black trash bag, so as not to disrupt the “ambience of the River Walk” with blinking lights and Santa hats. They were looking to catch a break in a profession that has now been outlawed.
Nearby, under the canopy of Christmas lights, a mariachi band began to play. The Park Police close by tapped their feet a little, even as one sombrero-clad guitar player opened a case to welcome flying coins and dollar bills.
The moment that trumpet player put one toe on the tile patio playing “La Bamba,” he was breaking the law, thanks to a November City-ordinance amendment that banned traveling shows and sellers, but something made the Park Police look the other way. Hoping to take advantage of the hypocrisy of the whole situation, John shadowed behind the band, seeking refuge in their apparent tolerability. Moments later, he was met with the wagging finger of the Park Police.
“We are only down here to watch for you!”
Is it a matter of mariachi favoritism?
As of Tuesday, six lucky winners of the lottery system were given $750 permits to vend on stationary spots on the River Walk, provided they made it through a number of hoops, including three rounds of background checks and an exhaustive application process. The Paseo Del Rio Association, which forced Council’s intervention when they refused to carry out their role to give vending permits, had two major beefs with roaming vendors — safety, and disturbing the pristine, family-accommodating atmosphere of the River Walk with their “toys and trinkets.” Vendors block the walkway, and inhibit free movement along passageways with their “stationary queues,” said Greg Gallaspy, Paseo Del Rio’s Executive Director. However, if you visited the River Walk on December 10, near the Chamber of Commerce offices, you would have seen several merchants causing congestion at the Holiday Arts and Crafts show hosted by none other than … Paseo Del Rio.
Perhaps it’s not the products (you can buy a blinking Santa hat at the Five and Dime General Store) nor the supposed danger of cluttering walkways (check out those strollers and dinner tables) that prompted the City to clear out vendors like Michael John (but not the mariachis).
“People want to help people like themselves,” theorizes John. “The shit rolls down the hill, and unfortunately we’re at the bottom.”
Beyond the “matter of looks” issue, John asked why we were issuing permits in the first place. Seems we forgot about Robert Martinez, he said. Two years ago, the City made an agreement that would allow Martinez to lease a space for his caricature art underneath the Market Street bridge for $350/month. Recently, Martinez got some bad news: come Christmas Eve, he must vacate his spot. The Current noticed the letter was not on official letterhead, and not from the sole person supposedly responsible for leases, Paula Stallcup, Downtown Operations Director. Stallcup said that Martinez was a special case, but after the ordinance, would be subject to the same rules as the rest of the vendors. He didn’t apply for one of the coveted six permits.
If we’ve learned anything from this whole River Walk vending situation, it’s that looks really do matter — add a sombrero and you’re under the radar.