Some ‘side hustles’ become ‘full-time gigs’: Looking at labor on Labor Day

Some 'side-hustles' become full-time jobs in the current economy. WTOP looks at the changing face of work on Labor Day.

WEST FRIENDSHIP, Md. and WASHINGTON — Go on social media, and you can find people promoting their “side hustles.” But there’s nothing new about supplementing your income with a second job. From Maryland’s exurbs to downtown D.C., people find ways to put their skills to work. Sometimes the side hustle even turns into a full-time gig.

At the Howard County Fairgrounds

Jack Downin, of Williamsport, Maryland, used to work at the Mack Truck plant in Hagerstown decades ago. Now 79 years old, he remembers the advice from a fellow factory employee, who told him, “You’ll make good money, but at the end of the day your lunch bucket will be empty — if you don’t have something on the side, you’ll never get ahead.”

Downin recalls the impact of rolling layoffs at the plant back then, and said he made the decision to go to school to become an auctioneer. Downin, who was raised in Maryland but had worked on cattle farms in Mississippi, said his brother, who also worked as an auctioneer, helped him learn the ropes. “He was a good mentor,” Downin said.

While e-Bay and other websites allow people alternative ways to sell items, Downin said auctions will continue to appeal to buyers and sellers. “I think there’s always a demand. An auction is, I think, a fair way of selling something.”

The competitive bidding is something of a sport, and offers bystanders entertainment. Downin loves to pepper his patter with commentary on current events, but adds “I try to stay out of politics — I might get in trouble!” he said, laughing.

At this year’s Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds, Downin auctioned off everything from sheep shears to buckets and blankets. Even as buyers eyed each other, trying to get the best price while avoiding being outbid, there was a lot of joking and laughing.

Along with helping buyers and sellers walk away having gotten a fair deal, he wanted them to enjoy themselves. “There was one lady, and she had fun at the sale,” Downin said, remembering one bidder. “I want that,” he said of the smiles and handshakes that end each day’s sales.

Along the National Mall

A very different type of sales activity goes on at the National Mall on the blazing hot summer days, when tourists hike from one attraction to the other. Individuals hauling stacks of coolers crack them open, calling out, “Ice-cold water! Gatorade!”

One of those hawking offering the promise of refreshment to parched tourists was a man who identified himself only by his first name Dani. That’s because selling drinks on the National Mall is illegal. Concessionaires hold a contract with the National Park Service at nine kiosks that dot the Mall from the Air and Space Museum to the Lincoln Memorial.

Dani sees himself as providing an alternative to the kiosks — where a bottle of juice can go for as much as $4. He frequently offers passing tourists twofers: two bottles of water or Gatorade for the price of one.

He can do very well on a sweltering summer day — if he avoids the National Park Police.

“I average about $200 a day, many days I do much better” he said, explaining that business has been so good, he actually quit a job to sell drinks full-time. “I was making only 10 bucks an hour at my job,” he said.

Dani said he is tried to go the legal route, but permits aren’t issued to vendors on the National Mall. A company called Guest Services International holds the contract.

He said vendors like him, who sell on street corners in other areas of the District, don’t do as well … there just isn’t the volume of foot traffic they need to cash in.

He sees himself as providing a service to thirsty tourists. “There’s tens of thousands of people who come here every day — and if I can help just one percent of them and help myself in the process, I don’t see what’s morally wrong with it — even if it’s illegal.”

While he pitches drinks — he said the blue Gatorade is a particularly hot-seller on hot summer days — he offers visitors tips on where to go and what to do beyond the traditional sights on the Mall. “My parents are from East Africa, so I always have to promote ‘Little Ethiopia’ over on 9th and U Street,” he said.

As a cluster of tourists approached, he stopped talking and got back to business. “Ice cold water, Gatorade, two bucks!” he called out.

A family of five stopped to pick out their drinks, haggling just a bit before deciding to pay the asking price of $2 a bottle.

Turns out, Dani the drink-hawker on the mall and Downing the auctioneer in the countryside may seem different on the surface, but their work has a common thread: a little chatter, a little bidding, and satisfied customers.

And just like at the fairgrounds, Dani’s street-corner deal ended with a handshake.

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