Costas’ fruit cart has been outside of South Station for as long as I’ve been working in Boston. It’s a super-convenient stop on my morning commute; I can pick up two bananas and an apple for $1.25, enough to keep me happily (and healthily) munching throughout the day. The fruit is easily as cheap as I would get in a grocery store; plus, I don’t have to carry it on the train. I’ve also grabbed cantaloupes, pineapples and strawberries on my way home when we needed fruit salad to go with dinner. Costas always had a cheerful smile and an earnest thank-you for each and every purchase.
Until last month.
One day Costas wasn’t there for the morning commute. It was weird, and puzzling, and also inconvenient – I was on a health kick and was trying to add more fresh fruit to my diet.
No fruit the next day, either.
Or the next.
A few days later, Costas returned, sans fruit. He did, however, have a petition. I gladly signed the request for City Hall to grant him a license so he could keep selling me fruit. It’s clearly a service that was utilized by hundreds of people every morning — why wouldn’t they want him to stay open?
I immediately thought of John Stossel. He wrote a little about licensing shakedowns in Give Me A Break; he thought they were largely a tool of established businesses to keep upstarts and newcomers from taking market share. He gave examples like Cornrows & Company which, although exclusively a hair-braiding service, was forced into getting a salon license. Said license including 125 hours of shampooing instruction and practice.
According to this article, though, that’s not it. Boston officials say that he makes a mess, dumps his boxes everywhere and blocks handicap ramps, etc. etc. They say they’re not requiring of him any more than they require from other sidewalk vendors:
But while Costas Katemis’s customers say he’s an institution, some city officials suggest he belongs in one. He has been, they say, a huge pain in the neck, alternatively plaintive and defiant. They say he has angered property managers, blocking handicap ramps, using other people’s dumpsters to get rid of his boxes.
They suggest he is not some guileless working stiff, but a streetwise hustler who is playing the character card to avoid licensing obligations that other vendors meet. They cringe at the notion of him being elevated to folk hero status, the David of Dewey Square getting creamed by Goliath at City Hall.
Peter Gori, a project manager for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, has been working with Katemis for years, trying to straighten things out.
“Three or four years ago, he did have all his permits and insurance,’’ said Gori. “We’ve never asked him for anything we haven’t asked other vendors when it comes to permits and insurance. Look, it’s 2010. It’s a public sidewalk. You can’t just set up.’’
Uh huh. Some city officials suggest he belongs in an institution for being plaintive and then defiant? I really hope that was bad journalism from the author; I’d hate to think that’s a direct quote. (Though I wouldn’t be surprised.)
Costas had Gori’s number on a sandwich board a few days ago, pleading for people to call and help:
I’m crossing my fingers that Costas will be back today. I need some Vitamin C. And I can always use a smile.
*I left messages for a few people and received some voicemails in return, though I haven’t managed to talk with a live person.