Years ago pushcarts were common and colorful fragments in the noisy mosaic of American city life. On New York's immigrant-jammed, lower East Side, at Boston's bustling, historic Faneuil Hall, up on Federal Hill in Providence, along Roosevelt Road in Chicago, and in the busy market places of San Francisco, brass-lunged street vendors pushed and jostled their way into the economic life of America.
Most of them have disappeared by now, but in the countries that fringe the Mediterranean, the countries from which so many of the American street vendors emigrated, the tradition of the pushcart lives on. In such cities as Naples, Dubrovnik, Athens and Istanbul, thousands of pushcarts still take to the streets at dawn laden with an unimaginable variety of products that their indefatigable owners confidently expect to sell before the day is out.
In Beirut, especially, the ubiquitous pushcarts, laden with gravitationally-impossible piles of goods, have long been a source of delight—and service—to tourists. They have also been a not unimportant arm of the city's merchandising system. Pushcarts sell an extraordinary variety of goods: bright wooden stools with woven straw seats, ice cream, water pipes, potted-plants, plastic kitchen utensils, plumbing equipment, hammers and saws, used and new dresses, men's suits, shoes, toys and books—to name just a few. Some pushcarts offer goods impossible to find elsewhere. Pushcarts also collect rubbish, deliver refrigerators and dispense hot and cold drinks. In the spring they stock strawberries, in the fall, hot chestnuts. When the season is right they're loaded with dates, sweet corn, almonds and apricots. Some, equipped with a dishpan and disinfectant-soapsuds to wash glasses, sell fresh orange juice. Others, equipped with hissing Coleman lanterns, offer flounder caught minutes before in the dark seas off a nearby beach. All cheerfully scream their prices to penthouse apartments, load up baskets lowered to them on a rope and send their goods skyward with an indifferent flourish and a bellowed reminder not to forget the money.
In recent years, unfortunately, they have also been a source of escalating irritation to drivers as they plod along busy streets, infuriatingly indifferent to blocked traffic lanes and blaring horns. And the Lebanese government, which has hopes of one day restoring the profitable western tourist industry, has begun a campaign to discourage what it sees not as a picturesque sight, but as a shabby outmoded reflection on Lebanon's status as a "modern" country. The campaign has been half-hearted so far, but the handwriting may be on the wall. Whether the pushcart people will read it is another thing. In the meantime they go pushing colorfully, insouciantly along as they have for generations.