Aílton Manuel da Silva is not your usual waiter. He dresses as one, carries himself as one and even sports a tray full of cold drinks and snacks, but instead of a restaurant or a cafe, he works in the streets, braving the hot sun and incoming traffic to provide for his family. He is the “traffic waiter” of Recife, and probably the world’s most elegant street vendor.
Every morning at 5 a.m., 43-year-old Aílton Manuel da Silva wakes up, puts on his creased pants, white shirt, bow tie and lacquered shoes and leaves for work. He arrives at the busy intersection of Avenida Almirante Dias Fernandes and Rua Emiliano Ribeiro at around 5:30 and gets ready for a long day of waiting through traffic. He prepares his bottles of cold water, cans of soda and snacks like popcorn and chips, sets them neatly on his metal tray, and at 7 in the morning he steps into traffic to offer motorists his assortment of refreshments.
Aílton has been working as a traffic waiter for two years. It all started in January 2015, when he lost his job as a lathe worker, and with it, his ability to take care of his wife and three children. Tired of waiting for another opportunity to join the active workforce, the 43-year-old decided to try his luck as a street vendor in an intersection near his home, in Recife, Brazil’s Pernambuco state. He knew it would be tough, but he didn’t expect people to be so prejudiced against street vendors
Dressed in a tank top, shorts and slippers, da Silva failed to convince drivers to give him the time of day, and most of them didn’t even roll down their car windows for fear of being harassed. But he didn’t let the negative experience get him down, instead he decided that what his new job needed was a little class. He changed his casual attire with an elegant one, trading the shorts for creased pants, the tank top for a white shirt, the slippers for lacquered shoes, and even added elegant accessories like a black bow tie and a hat to protect him from the sun. People’s attitude toward him changed radically and he now earns enough to support his family and even put his wife through college.
As soon as the stoplight turns red, the traffic waiter steps into the street, carrying his products on a tray, like an actual waiter, and tries to get the attention of as many drivers as possible, before they drive off. Aílton is quick on his feet, and doesn’t mind working in the street, but he says things get tough after about 10 in the morning, when his biggest enemy, the sun, starts to make its presence felt. He tries to drink as much water as possible to keep himself hydrated, and often splashes it on his face and clothes as well, but having to wear long sleeves and pants in direct sunlight sometimes takes a toll, and he gets tired very fast. Ever since his wife warned him about skin cancer, he also makes sure to cover his skin with plenty of sunscreen.
Over the past two years, the traffic waiter has become a local celebrity in his neighborhood, and that has attracted the envy of his competitors. Genilson Luiz, who owns a self-service restaurant near Aílton’s usual spot, told the Diario Pernambuco that he often heard talks between other street vendors about how the traffic waiter was monopolizing the area and putting them out of business.
“They never got physical with him, but we had to warn another street vendor to leave him alone, explaining that it was Aílton’s attitude and elegance that was winning over customers,” Luiz said. “He always treats people with respect and they always look to him when they want to buy something.”
A typical work day usually ends at 5:30 p.m., and yields the traffic waiter around 400 Brazilian Reais ($121). That’s enough to put food on the table, but Aílton hopes to one day follow in the footsteps of his wife and get a college education, to increase his chances of finding a real job, and eventually be able to open his own store.
If this man’s ambition and effective marketing strategy aren’t enough to make an impression on you, perhaps you’ll be more impressed with his generosity. Every month, the traffic waiter saves money from his earnings to buy food, personal hygiene products and mattresses for the Jesus de Nazaré retirement home in the town where he grew up.
“I don’t have much, but I have enough for myself,” da Silva told reporters. “As long as I can help those worse off than me, I always will.”