At a Tel Aviv Corner, Young Merchants Struggle to Sell Flags

In the countdown to Independence Day, aspiring capitalists search in vain for patriots

Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
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Teens sell flags ahead of Independence Day, May 2014
Teens sell flags ahead of Independence Day, May 2014Credit: Dudu Bachar
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

Thursday noon in the parking lot of Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center, known to be a fairly patriotic institution of higher learning. Only two out of a hundred cars I counted bear Israeli flags. In Nahariya the next day, I randomly count off 100 cars leaving town; only seven fly the blue and white, plus one outlier with the Argentine flag. A random stroll through Tel Aviv produces a similar result: Fewer cars sport the national flag this year, just days before Independence Day, compared to previous years.

The hot spot for selling car flags in Tel Aviv is the intersection in the shadow of Yoo Towers, a few meters from where the residents of the Givat Amal neighborhood are facing eviction. Nearly all the sellers are 14 years old, give or take, and for some reason they all live in Holon. Last year most of them worked for a south Tel Aviv store owner who took a healthy commission from them. This year they are no longer freierim, suckers. Some of them still work for the same employer as last year, but others went freelance. They buy the flags wholesale for 1.70 shekels (50 cents) each and sell them for 10 shekels apiece. Alex (all the names are made up), who was a salaried employee last year, is now a boss himself who this year hired his friends, making a pretty penny in the process in what could be seen as an allegory for the state itself. The employees say that for every flag sold, they get one shekel and the boss gets nine. Another group claims to keep six shekels for themselves, and they say the sellers who claim to get just one shekel are lying.

I arrive on Thursday afternoon. The teens have been at this intersection for two days already. It’s a safe bet that one of the television news shows has focused on the exploitation and the potential for being hit by a car, as part of the annual television tradition of tsk-tsking. But the boys seem pleased with the “action,” and there’s no guarantee that high school is safer or more edifying than selling flags at the Yoo intersection.

Among the young merchants, there seems to be a consensus that business is much slower than last year. The sales team of a boy with the vaguest hints of a mustache called Adiel and another boy, Grisha (Adiel calls him “Russkie” on account of his Russian background) have been in the field for two or three hours already. They’ve sold just 10 flags. A seller from a different team has sold eight flags in three hours.

“Last year we sold a lot more, 30 an hour,” says Adiel, perhaps exaggerating. “This year the drivers ignore us, they don’t open the window. One guy yelled at me to get out of the road and on the sidewalk, even though I was on the shoulder. Of course we’re bummed. The boss is mad at us. He bought goods and no one’s buying.”

Members of a different crew, whose members all wear shirts from Holon’s Kiryat Sharett School, attribute the poor sales to the socioeconomic level of the area. “The millionaires don’t want their cars wrecked,” one ventures.

Alex’s crew are now sitting with a group of freelance flag sellers. They rest on a traffic island, since sales are static anyway. “People are stingy. They buy flags and save them for next year,” says Nimrod, one of the sellers.

The boys ask to see my press card, in exchange for which they offer me a Camel, and try to nail down the demographics of their target audience. “The deeper their pockets and the better the car they drive, the less likely they are to buy,” says Sergei, who works for Alex and is half a head taller. “Older people buy more than younger people and women buy more than men,” he says.

Still, the teens think it the economic situation might be making people think twice before buying a flag. One attempts to show me how it’s done. He ignores a car with an Arab couple in traditional dress and approaches a car with an open window that’s stuck in traffic. “I have one at home already,” the driver says, accelerating. “He has a press pass,” the seller says in an effort to close in on a passenger, pointing to me.

I ask why all the sellers are concentrated in the Yoo Towers area, and they tell me they tried in Holon for a couple of hours and they didn’t sell any flags.

It’s May Day, International Workers’ Day, and I ask Alex whether he is the contractor for Sergei and the rest of his friends, but he doesn’t like the word. “Contractor is a bad name. In fact, they’re making good money, and I brought them cola and Bamba,” the young capitalist says defensively. “I’m doing it to help their parents. Everything I make here I give to the parents.”

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