On March 14, Chun Yin took the subway from her apartment in East Harlem to get a good spot on Canal Street to sell jade bracelets, pearl earrings and carved figurines on red silky thread she braids by hand.
She had just set up her folding table when a man approached. He was not in uniform, but Ms. Yin knew who he was: a plainclothes police officer. He waved a hand, signaling her to pack it up.
She showed the officer the city-issued license belonging to her husband. “Husband come,” she told the officer, using the few English words she knew. But her husband was not there. So Ms. Yin, 48, was arrested and charged with selling without a license for about the 30th time in over a decade.
Ms. Yin’s husband, Chee Fei Cheng, has one of New York City’s covetedgeneral vending licenses, of which there are only 853 available to nonveterans. When her husband had a stroke in 2000, Ms. Yin had to support their family on her own, but city laws said vendors could not let someone else sell under their licenses, not even a family member.
Document: New York City vs. Street Peddlers, a Brief History
The couple and local officials wrote letters tothe Department of Consumer Affairsasking to transfer the license to Ms. Yin. But the legal mechanism for a transfer had not been clear or utilized, and the waiting list for a license, with more than 1,800 names, has been closed since 1993. So for more than a decade, Ms. Yin has been repeatedly arrested, and has had to pay fines and clean parks and restrooms as punishment for selling without a license.
“Any rational person would think this is crazy,” said Don B. Lee, who has advocated on behalf of Ms. Yin and other street vendors in Chinatown.
After recent inquiries by Mr. Lee; the borough president,Gale A. Brewer;Councilwoman Margaret Chin;and The New York Times, the commissioner of consumer affairs, Julie Menin, ordered a legal review of the code and said this week that she would authorize a temporary transfer of Ms. Yin’s husband’s license to Ms. Yin, “thus ensuring that his wife can continue the work that has supported their family.” The department was also drafting rules that would allow transfers for hardship cases.
Ms. Yin cried when she heard the news. “I’ve been waiting years — not one or two days — 14 years,” she said through an interpreter.
Michael Nagle for The New York Times
Ms. Yin’s repeated run-ins with the law are an extreme example of a perennial cat-and-mouse game between the authorities and the legion of vendors who sell without official permission to do so.
The number of licenses for nonveterans (under state law, veterans are able to obtain a license without having to wait) has not changed since 1979. Sean Basinski ofthe Street Vendors Project, an advocacy group, has tried to get the City Council to lift the cap, but it is unclear how much support there is for doing so. Since the days of the pushcart,the city has struggled to maintain a balancebetween residents and store owners who want their sidewalks clear and the small-time salespeople seeking a toehold in the economy.
Selling goods without a license is a misdemeanor; officers have discretion to merely issue a summons or to make an arrest. In recent months, vendors in Chinatown selling items like 1.2-ounce bottles of liquid plant food, plastic lotus flowers, ceramic bobble-headed turtles, tube socks and red envelopes used for offerings during the celebration of the Lunar New Year, have been handcuffed, fingerprinted and taken to jail.
A police spokesman declined to comment on Ms. Yin’s cases, but said that 7,230 summonses were issued for unlicensed vendors in 2013. In the same year, the criminal courts processed arraignments for 1,905 arrests for selling goods without a license, according to the courts’ administrative office.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
The day after arriving in New York from Jiangsu Province in 2000, Ms. Yin went to work helping Mr. Cheng, now 68, selling reading glasses and “very ugly” clothing “for old people,” she said. Mr. Cheng, who had come to New York years earlier, obtained his license in 1995. A few months after his wife joined him, Mr. Chen had a stroke. Friends told her to get a divorce, she said. Poster-size photographs of the couple in wedding white hang on the walls of their two-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex.
On a good day, Ms. Yin said, she could take in $200. They get food stamps and Social Security, but her husband’s medications for diabetes, Addison’s disease and other ailments cost about $300 a month, she said, and her 11- and 9-year-old sons always need money for clothes and school trips. Michael, her youngest, has autism, she said, and requires therapy and tutoring.
On March 14, Mr. Cheng traveled to Canal Street to join his wife at the table, which could have prevented the arrest. But, using a motorized wheelchair, he had to take the bus. Ms. Yin took the subway, and did not wait for her husband to arrive to set up.
By the time Mr. Cheng arrived, the handcuffs were tight around her wrists.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
“So now you show up?” she scolded him in Mandarin. She spent 28 hours in custody.
Mr. Lee persuaded Julia Kuan, a lawyer, to represent Ms. Yin pro bono. Two weeks ago, Ms. Yin’s 11 open cases were adjourned. If she does not get arrested in the next six months, the district attorney’s office said, it would drop the charges.
But tempting fate and further prosecution, Ms. Yin continued to sell. Last Saturday, she was sitting on a folding stool next to her table near the corner of Baxter and Canal Streets. In the shade of an umbrella, she strung a cluster of coral-like beads onto an earring hook, which she planned to sell for $8. Polyester scarves ($5 each) and hand-braided necklaces with jade beads and dragon carvings ($15 to $20 each) hung on a wire rack.
“I still have to take care of my family,” she said.
On Friday, Ms. Yin stood outside the Department of Consumer Affairs with a temporary license around her neck; it had her name and photo on it.
“It means my children will no longer have to worry about their mother getting arrested,” she said.