From bags to riches

Weekly, I unwittingly donated a sack of laundry bags to the city of New York, via the police. Did breaking the law nag on my conscience? Not at all.

by Scott Kalechstein — 

“Nylon jumbo laundry bags! Machine washable! Water resistant!” Uttered at the top of my vocal volume range, these words were my money mantra for seven years while I worked the sidewalks of New York City as an unlicensed, self-employed street peddler. You could say I was into MLM Sales (Maximum Lung Marketing!). I bought the laundry bags below wholesale, straight from the factory, and made a great profit selling them just below retail. I loved the quick cash and the gutsy, streetwise calluses that formed on my psyche. I was part of the color and pulse of a place where adrenaline, art and survival all blended into a tapestry of shadows and light.

My style for hawking the bags became a kind of creative, comic performance. “How did you get into this?” people asked me, as I handed them their purchases. My answer, “How do I get out of this?” as the call of a career in music and the healing arts grew louder, and my patience for eluding the police grew dim.

Did I say police? Yes, I confess! This job was not exactly legal. “Slightly illegal” was my juicy rationalization. Weekly, I unwittingly donated a sack of laundry bags to the city of New York, via the police. Did breaking the law nag on my conscience? Not at all. Well, at least not my conscious conscience. I was a rebel without a pause, enjoying the game of cops and robbers, and moving too fast to question my ethics or my sanity. Besides, I was also using the job to practice my mindfulness meditation skills.

My technique was called Zen and the Art of Spotting the Police Before They See You. This spiritual discipline for finding inner strength in the inner city found me routinely in the yoga posture of being on my toes, my head stretching from left to right, being very here and now, moment to moment.

I developed a sixth sense, an organically grown synthesis of intuition and paranoia. I could even spot the officers dressed in civilian clothes, pack up my bags and slip into the crowd at a speed that Houdini would have admired. But even with my escape skills honed to a science, I did get caught on occasion.

One day, an absurd idea crossed my mind. I had learned to spring into action when a creative prompting knocks on my door. Before hesitation festered into analysis and paralysis, I took out my pen and wrote: “To Whom It May Publicly Concern: This note is written permission for my son, Scott, to sell laundry bags on the streets of the City without a license. I know it is against the law, but my son is such a good boy in almost every other aspect of his life. I think he is entitled to some leeway here. This note officially absolves him from the law. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but a mother’s written permission sure is! Hugs and kisses, Mom.”

I put the note in my pocket and waited, almost eagerly. Sure enough, my sales were interrupted the next day by two of New York’s Finest. “Hold it!” I confidently barked. “I’ve got a pardon!” I handed one of the officers my note. He read it out loud in official police business monotone. For a moment I feared the worst.

Trying to humor a New York City police officer can have disastrous results. Finally, the pregnant moment gave birth to a response: “Take a walk! This one is on Mom!” I was a free man, thankful for the juices of creativity that had turned a potentially negative situation into a close encounter of the hilarious kind.

The next day I was in my usual location when a police car came out of nowhere, flashing lights and blasting sirens, and parked a breath away from my frozen body. The two officers were right in my face before I even realized that they were after me. But instead of my bags, it seemed I was in possession of a rare and precious piece of literature. “We want the note!” one of them said. “We told everybody in the precinct about it, but they don’t believe us. We’re going to post it on the bulletin board.” I relaxed, realizing that the sirens were part of a joke to get back at me.

Sometimes my sales tactics included saying things like, “The strongest laundry bag you can buy without a prescription!” Other times I got even sillier: “You’ve read the book. Seen the movie! Now buy this bag.” Some people enjoyed a good laugh; others would quicken their pace for fear they might catch whatever I seemed to have. Joy can be dangerously contagious, easily spread by inner child-to-child contact, often rendering its victims quite vulnerable to spontaneous emissions of playful life energy.

When my laundry bags or my humor were not well received, I got to work through some of my rejection issues. I used my sidewalk adventures as therapeutic stepping stones, time and space to experiment with my self-expression and to develop some confidence.

Six months after selling my last laundry bag and moving to California, I went back to visit. I couldn’t resist visiting the locations where I had sold most of my bags. I strolled into the Kosher Pizzeria, my old hang-out. The employees gave me a warm greeting and handed me last week’s Brooklyn Heights Gazette. On the back page was a comic strip with yours truly, captured in caricature, selling my wares on Court Street. The caption read, “Whatever happened to the laundry bag man?” I’d left my mark on the streets of the city where I’d grown up. That felt good.

A few years later I returned to give a concert. A woman in the audience kept staring at me. She appeared dazed, confused and disoriented. At the concert’s close, she approached me cautiously. “I know you from somewhere,” she said painfully, as she attempted to make a difficult withdrawal from her memory bank.

I looked at her and knew. “Nylon laundry bags,” I exclaimed with a huge smile. “Oh, my God! You’re the laundry bag man! What happened to you?” She had many more questions, wanting to know the details about how I had gotten off the streets and created such a rewarding career doing what I love. Her reactions gave me a richer appreciation for my bags-to-riches journey.

Remembering those days feels like a past-life regression. I made warm, human, creative contact with each customer, sending them off with positive vibes and their purchase. What started as laundry bag sales evolved into a laundry bag performance ministry, which transitioned into what I do now. My job has always been about extending love and sharing joy. That is always the business at hand, whether it is gift-wrapped in laughter, singing or selling nylon jumbo laundry bags.


Scott Kalechstein is an inspirational speaker who sometimes breaks into song during his talks and workshops. He is also an inspirational singer who has been known to break into speaking in between songs. Scott travels near and far, comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 2, April/May 2007.


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