During the late 1990s, when I worked as a researcher in the Judiciary Square area of downtown Washington, DC, my job required me to walk across The Mall twice each day to pick up documents at the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation.

En route, I would invariably stop to talk with Elijah, a chatty Senegalese-immigrant street vendor who sold sunglasses and similar wares from a table in front of the Starbucks on Indiana Avenue near my office.

I don’t recall how we became friendly, though I suspect we first struck up a conversation when one of us asked the other for a cigarette.

In the proceeding months, Elijah would occasionally ask me to work his table for a few minutes so he could run into a nearby restaurant to pick up lunch. During those times, I sold a few pairs of sunglasses and umbrellas—though I wasn’t very good at the job and also refused to follow Elijah’s off-the-books policy of charging white customers a premium.

Elijah had little in the way of worldly possessions. He didn’t earn much money as a street vendor.