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Among the various iconic symbols of Philadelphia's Italian Market — the imposing mural of former police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo; the great chariot wheels of cheese hanging in the windows of the Di Bruno Bros. grocery — John Banks is probably among the lesser known.
On the other hand, he's probably one of the most colorful. Nearly every day for the past 20 years (yes, this year marks his 20th anniversary, he says), Banks has hawked 50-cent shopping bags and delivered groceries to nearby and elderly residents ($2 to $3 per delivery) from his homemade storefront — a shopping cart — developing in the process his own ramshackle brand.
There's the uniform: hat, boots, cargo pants and a pair of sunglasses that he never, ever removes. And then, attracting what must be hundreds of photographers, pro and amateur alike, over the years, his carts. He's "taken to advertising" on them, he explains mildly: Each is plastered from top to bottom with Banks' handmade signs, which he creates with black marker in a style that is instantly recognizable and often beautiful: "The Name for Stress-Free Grocery Delivery Since 1991," reads one. "A Very Strong Bag!" reads another. Others are more contemplative: "I Love You Mom!"; "May the Work That I Do Speak For Me."
"That's how I beat my competition. I'm an artist!" says Banks, who adds, "I didn't go to school for art; I learned from my mother."
And then there's the broadcast: Affixed to the cart is a cotton-candy-pink-accented Sharp stereo, from which Banks blasts his latest mix tapes, Jackson 5 on a recent visit. Banks broadcasts his business as well by voice, merrily shouting made-up slogans as shoppers walk past.
He's iconic enough, apparently, to have made it into a scene in Rocky V. "I didn't want to be in Rocky V, but I'm in Rocky V," he explains.
But not everyone in the Italian Market finds Banks so charming; for some longtimers, in fact, he's symbolic of an element in the market they'd rather not see — and the recent push by organizers to "clean up" the Market could conceivably send him packing.
"People think the Italian Market is dirty," says Cookie Ciliberti, secretary of the South 9th Street Business Men's Association, as she stands only a few paces from where barrel fires and garbage regularly line the streets. "We're trying to change."
Some members of the South 9th Street Business Men's Association want Banks to clean up his act ASAP or leave the corridor. "I tried to kill him twice this week!" Ciliberti bemoans. She claims that Banks "leaves his trash everywhere" (Banks denies this) and begrudges his use of the Market's port-a-potty, which she emphasizes is "for customers" — all of which, she says, works against the association's attempt to re-brand itself. The country's oldest, continuous open-air market has acquired Facebook and Twitter accounts, "with an iPhone app on the way!" boasts Ciliberti.
The Italian Market is having a bit of an identity crisis, you might say. And Banks is part of that crisis.
Domenick Crimi, general manager of Cappuccio's Meats and a director of the business association, is sympathetic to Banks: "He's got a good heart. My mom's religious, she prays with him." But Crimi says that the city is pressuring the Italian Market to "get organized," and Banks isn't one to play by the rules when it comes to things like licensing. (By city ordinance, all street vendors must have a license, but many don't.)
"He doesn't really listen," Crimi says of Banks, adding that the vendor is nonetheless part of a long tradition: "Ninth Street has always been a seat-of-your-pants type of thing."
"We're definitely pro bag guy," says Carla Rose, whose family owns Molly's Café and Bookstore. She says Banks is integral to the Italian Market's image, and she'd miss him dearly if he was gone: "Every morning you wake up to all the different catch phrases: 'Fish!' 'Two dollars a pound!' It just wouldn't be the same without 'A dollar a bag!'"
Banks, for his part, rejects the characterization of his business as "dirty," and he dismisses such attacks as "gossip." "The Italian Market is a soap opera," he counters, "and I know soap operas. I used to watch All My Children."
Critics may be "jealous," he added one recent evening, but he'd rather not talk about the fuss. Nearly finished after a long day at the Market, Banks was resting on a fold-out chair he'd brought and taking in a nice sunset. Shuffling through his tapes, a thought occurred to him — a gentle jab at his critics.
"The only reason I'm still here tonight," he mused, "is to wait for the trash truck to come!"