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

Auctioneer A. Jack Downin at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in May. He's been working auctions for 40 years ... or it could be more, he said, laughing.
Auctioneer Jack Downin at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in May. He’s been working auctions for 40 years … or it could be more, he said, laughing. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Keeping track of the bidding, A. Jack Downin says the competition among bidders keeps things interesting. He'll slide in some patter to keep people relaxed, but steers clear of politics. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Keeping track of the bidding, Jack Downin says the competition among bidders keeps things interesting. He’ll slide in some patter to keep people relaxed, but steers clear of politics. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Downing says he wants people to have fun at auctions, but also works to make sure the crowd knows where the bidding stands.
Downing says he wants people to have fun at auctions, but also works to make sure the crowd knows where the bidding stands. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
In another part of the festival, sheep wait to go into the show ring. The bleating of sheep can be heard over at the auction tent.
In another part of the festival, sheep wait to go into the show ring. The bleating of sheep can be heard over at the auction tent. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Old and rare breeds are shown at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, and after showing, many participants will head over to the auction to see if they can find bargains among the fencing, feed buckets or clippers and shears for sale. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Old and rare breeds are shown at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, and after showing, many participants will head over to the auction to see if they can find bargains among the fencing, feed buckets or clippers and shears for sale. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
People come from all over to festivals like this one in Howard County that featured Downin as an auctioneer. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
People come from all over to festivals like this one in Howard County that featured Downin as an auctioneer. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Lots of young people attend the sheep festival and are in the crowd at the auctions. Downin likes seeing them take part, but you won't catch him calling them kids. "Goats have kids," he says, "I call them young people." (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Lots of young people attend the sheep festival and are in the crowd at the auctions. Downin likes seeing them take part, but you won’t catch him calling them kids. “Goats have kids,” he says, “I call them young people.” (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
"Dani" quit his $10 an hour job after finding he could make more--up to $200 a day, sometimes more, hawking bottled water and energy drinks on the Mall. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
“Dani” quit his $10 an hour job after finding he could make more–up to $200 a day, sometimes more, hawking bottled water and energy drinks on the Mall. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
The National Park Service has a contract with a company that sells food and beverages at the 9 kiosks on the Mall. Selling out of a cooler like Dani and many others do, is illegal. Dani says he's been arrested before, but the money's so good, it's worth the risk. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
The National Park Service has a contract with a company that sells food and beverages at the 9 kiosks on the Mall. Selling out of a cooler like Dani and many others do, is illegal. Dani says he’s been arrested before, but the money’s so good, it’s worth the risk. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Another drink vendor, selling without a permit, moves on past the spot where Dani was working. These vendors who sell with out permits, know where the foot traffic is highest, and gamble that they won't run into police. The tourists will sometimes haggle, but often pay the $2 vendors may ask because it seems convenient. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Another drink vendor, selling without a permit, moves on past the spot where Dani was working. These vendors who sell with out permits, know where the foot traffic is highest, and gamble that they won’t run into police. The tourists will sometimes haggle, but often pay the $2 vendors may ask because it seems convenient. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
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Auctioneer A. Jack Downin at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in May. He's been working auctions for 40 years ... or it could be more, he said, laughing.
Keeping track of the bidding, A. Jack Downin says the competition among bidders keeps things interesting. He'll slide in some patter to keep people relaxed, but steers clear of politics. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Downing says he wants people to have fun at auctions, but also works to make sure the crowd knows where the bidding stands.
In another part of the festival, sheep wait to go into the show ring. The bleating of sheep can be heard over at the auction tent.
Old and rare breeds are shown at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, and after showing, many participants will head over to the auction to see if they can find bargains among the fencing, feed buckets or clippers and shears for sale. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
People come from all over to festivals like this one in Howard County that featured Downin as an auctioneer. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Lots of young people attend the sheep festival and are in the crowd at the auctions. Downin likes seeing them take part, but you won't catch him calling them kids. "Goats have kids," he says, "I call them young people." (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
"Dani" quit his $10 an hour job after finding he could make more--up to $200 a day, sometimes more, hawking bottled water and energy drinks on the Mall. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
The National Park Service has a contract with a company that sells food and beverages at the 9 kiosks on the Mall. Selling out of a cooler like Dani and many others do, is illegal. Dani says he's been arrested before, but the money's so good, it's worth the risk. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Another drink vendor, selling without a permit, moves on past the spot where Dani was working. These vendors who sell with out permits, know where the foot traffic is highest, and gamble that they won't run into police. The tourists will sometimes haggle, but often pay the $2 vendors may ask because it seems convenient. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

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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