City Hall looming, the fruit guy fights back
Fatima Krug got drafted.
“I came down to get some oranges,’’ she was saying, “and I was going to sit by the water at Fort Point Channel and read my book. But Costas said he needed my help. So here I am, collecting signatures.’’
Costas Katemis is the fruit guy near South Station. He has been there for the last 12 years. If you work around Dewey Square, you’ve probably seen him. He sells fruit to commuters who stride between the trains and the office buildings.
Costas Katemis set up his cart amid the chaos that was the Big Dig, usually outside 175 Federal St. But he also sells in the middle of the plaza between South Station and Federal Street, now part of the Greenway.
Now, as the last pieces of construction equipment prepare to leave, and with everything falling into place there, somebody has decided he’s out of place there.
The city and the people who run the Greenway would like to see Costas Katemis disappear, but he shows no signs of going softly into the night.
“Look at this,’’ he said, holding a copy of an illegal dumping violation. “One thousand dollars. They said I made a mess. Not true. Not true. They trying to make me go. I no go.’’
He’s gotten somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 in violations the last couple of weeks. He says the city is trying to bankrupt him and won’t give him the proper permits.
They say you can’t fight City Hall, but Costas Katemis is determined to try. He figures if he can show Mayor Thomas Menino that thousands and thousands of people in the city want him to stay, he’ll stay.
So the other day, he enlisted a homeless guy and Fatima Krug to collect signatures while he was off running around doing whatever it is fruit guys do when they’re not selling fruit.
“I’m supposed to be home for my husband, but I don’t know when I’ll get out of here,’’ said Krug, a retired administrative assistant.
She presided over a petition table that consisted of a board balanced on banana boxes. She had little trouble collecting signatures. Katemis is a popular guy.
“Costas is a good guy,’’ Brad Lestage said, after signing the petition. “I work for the United Way. I don’t make a lot of money. I can get a couple of pieces of fruit for a buck. I can’t walk into any store around here and do that. I brought him a customer once and he said I didn’t have to pay that day because I got him business. The guy’s just trying to make a living. I don’t see why they have to force him out. He’s a character. He brings something, a vitality, to the area.’’
You can’t beat the prices. Three pieces of fruit for $1.25, two for a buck, and one for 50 cents.
Tim Ralph, one of the homeless denizens of Dewey Square, was collecting signatures for Katemis outside South Station.
“He’s good to us,’’ Ralph said. “He gives us fruit. I’m gonna fight for the guy.’’
Customers admire Katemis’s work ethic. He sets up at 4 in the morning. He braves the heat of the summer, the bitter cold of the winter. In a corner of the city that is chaotic and somewhat soulless, he is a dash of color, a human voice amid the mechanized cacophony.
But while Costas Katemis’s customers say he’s an institution, some city officials suggest he belongs in one. He has been, they say, a huge pain in the neck, alternatively plaintive and defiant. They say he has angered property managers, blocking handicap ramps, using other people’s dumpsters to get rid of his boxes.
They suggest he is not some guileless working stiff, but a streetwise hustler who is playing the character card to avoid licensing obligations that other vendors meet. They cringe at the notion of him being elevated to folk hero status, the David of Dewey Square getting creamed by Goliath at City Hall.
Peter Gori, a project manager for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, has been working with Katemis for years, trying to straighten things out.
“Three or four years ago, he did have all his permits and insurance,’’ said Gori. “We’ve never asked him for anything we haven’t asked other vendors when it comes to permits and insurance. Look, it’s 2010. It’s a public sidewalk. You can’t just set up.’’
Katemis’s customers haven’t been just signing petitions. They’ve been calling City Hall, complaining on his behalf.
Costas Katemis doesn’t have just oranges. He’s got some juice.
“My customers,’’ he said, “they like me. They like my fruit more. But they like me.’’
David Graziano doesn’t like him. He works for a company that operates high-rise fire alarms and he’s found the loading dock at 175 Federal St. blocked by Katemis’s van. He’s clashed with Katemis over the years. Graziano says it was understandable that Katemis’s ramshackle stand grew up in the frontier that was the Big Dig, but that he’s an anachronism in a cleaned-up Dewey Square.
“Last year, he blew up at me, started swearing,’’ Graziano said. “Then the other day, I was walking by and he said, ‘Hey, I don’t [expletive] like you, but please sign my petition.’ ’’
Graziano didn’t sign.
Katemis shrugged. You can’t win ’em all.
“Two days,’’ he said, “I got 2,000 signatures. Thousands of people say I should stay. Doesn’t that mean something?’’
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org