When I first saw this practice I thought “Oh, that’s cool. Street vendors.” and walked on. They tend to mind their own business and just stand there, unlike the CD and filched goods salesmen lining U Street who yell and plead with you to buy their wares. I’m sure the people tending these carts and coolers, handing out shaved ice and bagged fruit to passersby are nice, upstanding citizens. I’m not saying otherwise. What I am saying though is no matter how well-intentioned, this is flagrantly illegal. And not because “the man” said so to be a dick but because they present a real and present health risk.
I’ve seen many shaved ice carts tended by children far too young to be manning anything that requires handling money and customers. Hell, these kids are too young to ride their bikes in the street, let alone man a cart in the sun for four hours. Not only is it illegal child labor, but I wouldn’t trust a kid to make me a shaved ice. It’s not hard, but I doubt they use gloves when they scoop the ice and for all I know the bin they’re scooping hasn’t been cleaned out in months. Kids are also not known for their personal hygiene.
The little old ladies selling Ziploc bags of mango slices aren’t free from this, either. Proponents say they’re just trying to make a buck doing something relatively easy and appreciated by the community, what’s the big deal? The big deal here is that it’s unsanitary and at times can create a public nuisance, crowding the small area behind the bus stop on 16th and Irving. Some might say “Why bother fighting this? It’s a victimless crime”. Yes, and so is prostitution, but just because it’s victimless doesn’t make it legal.
What’s more, it’s not entirely victimless; any number of communicable diseases and bacteria can be spread by improper food handling and packaging. How about some Hepatitis A with your mango? Or if not that, could I interest you in some norovirus? All it takes is that little old lady hawking bags of sliced fruit to cough a little or neglect to thoroughly wash her hands after using the bathroom and then grope some mangoes. Next thing you know you’re hunched over your toilet cursing God, your impulsive purchase of street fruit, a random conquistador you remember from high school Spanish class, and Jim Graham.
Of course, as in anything in life, caveat emptor or “buyer beware”. If you’re dumb enough to buy fruit or shaved ice off the street without knowing if it was produced in a reasonably sanitary manner, you deserved that diarrhea. But that’s why laws about food handling and operating a legitimate business exist: because you shouldn’t be put in that situation, anyways. Getting food poisoning from your local restaurant sucks and shouldn’t happen, but it does, and when it does you have a proper legal process to file a complaint against the restaurant. Health codes are there for a reason (and not just to give money to those companies that make the “wash your hands” signs). Don’t believe me? Read The Jungle.
The only reason Jim Graham allows this to continue unabated is because these folks are keeping him in office. If he were to crack down on this he would lose his seat to – GASP – someone who would probably represent the yuppified hipster class that’s elbowing in on his territory and are scheming to rid themselves of Graham’s lunacy. Listening to his primary constituency of Hispanic immigrants and tending to their needs is wonderful and all, but turning a blind eye when they are blatantly disregarding sanitation and business laws is wrong. Blaming crime on legitimate business like Jumbo Slice, Alberto’s, and fining LEGIT businesses who advertise with sidewalk sandwich boards just makes this transgression even worse.