Tales from quarantine from Nashville street paper vendors

By Hannah Herner, The Contributor

In this article, The Contributor catches up with several of its street paper vendors to find out how their lives and sales have been affected since COVID-19 hit. Although The Contributor has been able to continue printing physical copies of the paper during the pandemic, its vendors have had to adapt in order to maintain both their sales and their relationships with customers in a way that is safe for everyone.

Paul A.

Paul A. normally sells papers at the corner of 5th Avenue and Church Street in downtown Nashville. He’s strategically placed within a block of the Contributor office so that he can come in and visit with the volunteers and enjoy some temperature-controlled air. Pre-COVID, he was in the vendor office almost every day. He has COPD—a disease that compromises his lungs. Last year at this time, he was camping under the Jefferson Street bridge. Paul has been self-isolating in his apartment since mid-March and hasn’t left except to make trips to the doctor.  

“When the UPS driver told me the Batman [AT&T] building was shut down for heavy duty cleaning, and he told me it was probably COVID, I started staying in. Some of my customers work in that building. I was noticing that downtown was starting to dry out. I noticed less people.

It’s been miserable. It drives me nuts to be stuck in here. I’ve been watching T.V.—that’s about it. I’ve been watching the mayor’s press conference every day. I’ve been watching a lot of movies, but that’s about it. You can’t go nowhere; can’t do nothin’.

It’s been important to stay up on the news so that I know what we’re looking at. What scares me now is these kids are starting to come down with respiratory disease after the COVID. That scares me a little bit. It really makes me wonder what’s really going on.

“I worry about my sanity if I don’t get back out. I went into a dark place. I just didn’t function. I’d do good to get out of bed and do simple things.”

I miss my customers. I miss talking to some of these people and getting different perspectives.

I want to be back out there with my customers, but at this point I’m not taking any chances. But I will be back soon. I think if I had better protective gear than that I’ve got, I could get back out there. With my COPD it makes it hard for me to wear a mask, but if we could get the masks with the respirators on them, I think it would work better. It’s just harder to breathe when I have something over my face.

As far as getting tested [is concerned], it burns a little bit when they do it. But it’s good to be tested. I got that first test and went back this week to get another test. I go to the clinic over here. It was free. It takes two or three days to get the results. People are not wearing masks like they should be. They need to make that mandatory.

I probably would have gotten sick and died if I was still out there camping.”

Anthony G. [Credit: Hanna Herner]

Anthony G.

Anthony G. has been selling papers in the evenings outside of Osborne’s Bi-Rite on Belmont Blvd throughout the pandemic. He says his sales have actually been up a bit. Despite the fact that the pandemic hit, and non-essential businesses had to shut down as a result, the grocery store has stayed busy. He wears a cloth mask that he pulls up whenever a customer approaches.

“I put my mask on, and I just make friends with the people. You aren’t selling just the paper: you’re selling yourself. I compliment them on their clothes—anything to start a conversation.

I’ve been a consistently high seller.

It’s a grocery store, so it stayed open. I buy 50 papers at a time. What does that tell you? It’s more than normal.

This is my honey hole right now, because all my other honey holes are closed down. All the bars are closed. I sell at Old Glory. I sit right there in the breezeway right by the gate and the girls tell the men to give me money, and the men do it because they’re trying to impress the girls. It works out for me. He gets laid; I get paid.

I’m in a hotel right now. I got off the phone with my caseworker today and went over to the Veterans Affairs office to fill out an application for a new apartment. I’m saving up my Venmo money and that’ll be my utility money.

I thank The Contributor because it keeps money in my pocket, but I be on my hustle. You gotta admit I be on my hustle. If you’re buying 100 papers a week, you ain’t buying them for nothing. I can’t wait for this pandemic to be over with so the world can be back to what it used to be.”

“I wear a mask when I go outside, period. Always.”

Tyrone M.

Tyrone has been selling at the intersection of Gallatin Pike and Douglas Avenue despite the changes brought about by COVID-19. He has cut back a little on his hours and the number of papers he buys.

“I wear a mask when I go outside, period. Always. We were getting less traffic at first until they started opening up phase two of the city’s reopening plan. Most of the churches were online, but then they said it was all right to go back, and the churches started moving. Sunday is a good day for me because everybody is coming out of the church. I go to church on Saturday, which is the Sabbath day. I know people don’t believe in it, but I always have to tell people to find out for themselves.

I’m not nervous about anything about the pandemic because, first of all, I’m a kingdom child. God doesn’t give no spirit of fear, so there’s nothing for me to worry about. Now I wear my mask. I don’t worry about stuff. If you’re fearing things, that spirit comes from the devil. So I stand on that and it’s real. I know sooner or later they’re going to find a vaccine. There’ve been 100,000 people that died and I’m still here and you’re still here, so we’re doing something right, you know? It’s your faith in God, that’s what sustains us. And you might say, ‘A whole lot of people died. I wonder why they died?’ I don’t know. God works in mysterious ways.”

Shawn L.

Shawn L. has been selling street papers throughout the pandemic, and now he will be selling Contributor masks along with his papers at the roundabout on 16th Avenue and Division.

“I’m hoping that [in terms of] the masks, everybody thinks [about] safety, and that it’s good to have them. You’re trying to protect others as well as yourself. They’re not itchy, they’re comfortable, and you can breathe a little bit better in these. Plus it’s The Contributor! And they’re beautiful, so please come support [us].”

Shawn L. [Credit: Hannah Herner]

Norma B.

Norma B. has made a number of latch hook rugs while she’s been staying at home—it’s one of her favorite hobbies. She went back out to sell again at Old Hickory Boulevard and Central Pike in Hermitage for the first time on 2 June.

“Yesterday was the very first time I’ve been out in 10 weeks—since March. The day before yesterday, I went down to get the new paper, and I usually get, like, 100-150 at a time. Everyone that’s down there has done my orders, and they’re monster orders. Instead I got a whopping 75.

I can’t put any weight on my right foot, and I got up two or three times and I fell. I was pretty close to the road, so I can’t afford to fall. I got up in my chair and people had to come to me. I was out there for seven hours. I looked like a lobster because I forgot sunscreen! I had 31 people stop in all, and I sold 24 papers, and six of those were bundles with all the papers that I wrote in. I had my little mask on.

When I do well, I don’t blow money. My rent was paid, my lights were paid and my phone bills were paid—important stuff. Some things I got three months deferment on. I’ve done pretty well. I always put money aside, so if something comes up I can hopefully cover it.

Ideally, I would rather have seen the number of cases [of COVID] go down for a consistent period of 14 days before I went out. That’s what I would have liked to have done.

I worry about my sanity if I don’t get back out. I went into a dark place. I just didn’t function. I’d do good to get out of bed and do simple things. I’ve wondered, up until now, If I did go out, how they would perceive that? I could go out because it was essential, but how many people would you put at risk? A lot of my people are older. I keep coming up with a scripture from Corinthians that says all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. It might be OK legally for me to do it, but it might backfire in the end.

“Selling the papers has gotten slower. I had one customer ask me if my papers were clean. They are scared they might catch the virus from the papers. But, on the other hand, I have had some ask me how I was doing and if I’m staying safe.”

Now, those little plastic sleeves that I put my papers in when it rains—every paper I have goes in one of those. And people seem more receptive to taking them now. I pay 10 cents extra for those, but it’s worth it, because out of the 31 people who stopped yesterday, 24 took a paper.

I’m known for my smile. Well, you can’t see that through that mask! And it’s really hard to sing. I’m known for smiling and singing. All the things that I’m known for, you can’t really see. But you have to protect the people.

I miss my people. My people are hands on. I’ve had people run from the other lane of traffic to come over and give me a hug. Very rarely did I go out and not get at least one or two hugs, and handshakes and fist bumps—maybe a dozen a day. Those days are over. I don’t know that it’ll ever get back to that. I don’t think it will.

Being out there is the only place I feel like I belong. And it was proved yesterday. 31 people parked their cars. That’s a lot.

I’ll be better once I see everybody and know that they’re OK.”

Randy M.

Randy usually sells papers at 12th and Broadway. He has kept selling throughout the COVID-19 changes and he has chosen to camp alone during the pandemic.

“I don’t want to be around anyone who might be sick. I worry I might come down with it. My fears are about when will it end and how to keep surviving during this time, not getting sick, and being able to eat—to live.

Selling the papers has gotten slower. I had one customer ask me if my papers were clean. They are scared they might catch the virus from the papers. But, on the other hand, I have had some ask me how I was doing and if I’m staying safe.

I feel safer alone. I don’t want to catch it. I am hoping they don’t come and try to make me leave and go to the Fairgrounds [an event site that has been used as a temporary homeless shelter during the pandemic].

What keeps me sane is selling the papers and hoping sales pick up. I look forward to when this is all over and everything opens back up and I sell more.”