Pimp up Your Cart by Pedro Gadanho

Notes and Fictions on Instant Vendor Urbanism.

The Cafenauta

Juan wakes up and tries not to disturb the children sleeping by his feet. He touches his wife gently on the shoulder, she rolls over silently. This is the only one moment during the day , when the scent of her dearest body seems to fill the air, before the garbage heats up and its stench covers everyone like a warm blanket. He no longer recognizes the smell of coffee broiled by his wife in the room corner. He washes his face quickly over a darkened basin and looks through a slit, as the night-light slowly turns purple over the neighborhood. His wife pours coffee onto his backpack contrivance and helps him to strap it up. Geared up with twenty litters of coffee, with his hand on a plastic tube used to pour the beverage , he leaves their tiny shed. He waves yet forgets to smile. He walks in the drizzle, his feet splashing in the mud. As he approaches the main street, he looks out for other cafenautas among the crowd heading to the buses. He waves at Pablo. They have all bus lines covered, each one in and out of the long camiones eight or nine times until they reach the central market in DF. By the time they get there at the break of dawn, they all meet at the estación to refill. His trip to the heart of the city will take a bit more than the usual two and a half hours everybody else takes. But, at least, as he pumps caffeine around, his time in the packed buses will be the most profitable of the day.

Streetwise

The weather is sultry. Streets are filled with all sorts of motorbikes. Apparently, there are eight million motorbikes in the city. And the population is only twelve million. One of the first things people taught us when we arrived to Saigon was how to cross the streets. There are no traffic lights. When you start the unlikely adventure of crossing a road you can’t stop nor change your walking speed. Slowly, you walk straight into the compact, ever-moving flow of vehicles. As speeds are constant, you look into biker’s eyes and negotiate if they pass in front of you or just behind your back. They see you and they dance around you. You develop a weird sense of trust. And so you learn the city is not for the weak stomach. When it came to eating, after having some exquisite, unidentifiable delicatessen in the ever-busy markets, we decided we were ready to take a shot at the street food. As in any Asian city, there was the usual myriad of carts with fast fried choices – fruits, sweets, dried insects, and many more of bizarre stuff. However, the most intriguing phenomena were the rough-and-ready, pop-up food places that lined the streets after dusk. Old ladies would squat around large noodle stewpots with piles of miniature plastic chairs behind them. Following the locals, we picked our own chairs and sat nearby other fellow feasters. One of the old ladies came to us with two bowls, splashed steaming water on them and poured the most delicious noodles we had ever had. And while the crowds passed by, we slurped our 60-cent grandma’s soup away with great delight. We kept debating how this kind of involving experience with the guts of a city had long been prevented from us in our own places. Faced with increasing regulation, obsessed with the sanitation of every aspect of our everyday experience, we had just forgotten about the pleasurable spontaneity of actual urban life.

Pimp up my cart

When you look at the amazing homeless mobile devices of the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko conceived in the 1980s, you may come to grasp that, when it comes to wandering presences in public space, there is a strong bond between homelessness and street vending. Wodiczko’s portable shelters ironically resemble small crematoriums that foretell political hara-kiris of some undefined future. Nonetheless, they could also be futuristic contraptions that would sell roasted chicken to the passers-by. In a similar vein, having seen the designer Michael Radowicz’s ParaSITE homeless shelter from 1997, one could extrapolate that street vendors, like homeless people, could parasitically benefit from the urban infrastructure in a much more clever way. Just as he uses hot air coming from air conditioners to inflate and heat up his ingenious portable sleeper, street vendors could make use of other urban resources that are not being exhausted to their maximum potential. Either spatially or energetically, there are a lot of resources going to waste out there. This being said, it is suddenly obvious that innovative design for street vending could become much more of a popular trend among unemployed architects and designers with a humanitarian penchant. Then you may also recall that some time has passed since the design of ice-cream vans had famously inspired Reyner Banham. At this point, you definitely start feeling that contemporary vendor trucks are an important part of the urban vernacular that could deserve some witty attention from the creative sect. As Banham had it in the delirious ‘Sundae Painters’, where do you see today pieces of vendor equipment that suggest a ‘Rocket-Baroque phase’, with their improvised designs coming straight out of the wildest popular imagination? Where do you see carts that look like they are ‘colonized by a new tutti-frutti of detached motifs’? Well, if you crave for something comparable you probably have to go to São Paulo. This is where the ‘Pimp up my Cart’ movement is hopefully now extending from garbage collection wagons to all sorts of mobile vendor devices that are to be seen across the Brazilian megapolis. And the curious thing is that the growing trend is all about social self-empowerment. As local people proudly report in nicely edited videos on YouTube, the pimping is adding respect and amazement where otherwise you faced exclusion and loathe. From trash TV and trash carts to selling carts, as vendor movements themselves are proudly rising, or gourmet food trucks gather huge twitter followings and cult status, we may suddenly be ready for a renaissance of design in the improvised culture of street commerce.

New York, 21 September 2012