A day in the life of a food vendor
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NEW YORK, April 19 — It’s six on a Wednesday morning, and Kabir Ahmed has snoozed his alarm one too many times. He steps softly, barefoot, around his small, second-story apartment in Jamaica, Queens, creaking through the green and pink hall.
He is late, but careful not to wake his wife and their three children, or his mother, who will be up in an hour to say prayers and cook breakfast. He puts on his baseball hat, slides his feet into rubber clogs and hurries out without coffee.
Ahmed, 46, is in the business of chicken and rice. He immigrated from Bangladesh 23 years ago, and is now one of two partners in a halal food cart that sets up on Greenwich Street close to the World Trade Center, all year long, rain or shine. He is also one of more than 10,000 people, most of them immigrants, who make a living selling food on the city’s sidewalks: pork tamales, hot dogs, rolled rice noodles, jerk chicken.
These vendors are a fixture of New York’s streets and New Yorkers’ routines, vital to the culture of the city. But day to day, they struggle to do business against a host of challenges: byzantine city codes and regulations on street vending, exorbitant fines for small violations (like setting up an inch too close to the curb) and the occasional rage of brick-and-mortar businesses or residents. Not to mention the weather, the whims of transit and foot traffic, and the trials of standing for hours, often alone, with no real shelter or private space.
“What’s hard about this job?” Ahmed says. “Everything is hard. If I get old, I can’t do it anymore.”
The work is both demanding and routine. Ahmed commutes five or six days a week, clocking eight-hour shifts. His ride into lower Manhattan is just over an hour, so if he can find a seat on the E train, he sleeps, squashed between the bodies of strangers, or watches part of a movie on his phone. Last week it was Asoka, based on the life of an Iron Age Indian ruler, played by one of his all-time favorite actors, Shah Rukh Khan.
But today, Ahmed checks his email first, hoping for news from one of the preschools processing the application of his youngest child, Karen. Nothing yet.
By 7.15am, he has reached his usual spot, which he found three years ago by word-of-mouth: a wide swath of sidewalk in front of the BNY Mellon building that gets hectic around noon when those in the financial district crowd — a mix of Wall Street bankers and construction workers, students and tourists — are all looking to spend US$5 or US$6 on a fast, hot lunch.
Though there are occasional turf wars among vendors, Ahmed has never had to fight for space. He buys breakfast — a coffee and doughnut — from a nearby vendor who gives him what Ahmed calls a “neighbor discount.”
“Good morning, neighbour!” is his standard, sunny greeting for the half-dozen other carts on his block.
Like many cart owners, Ahmed hires someone to deliver the cart to him every morning and return it to a garage each night. (Other owners hitch the carts to their cars and drive them in, then face the ordeal of finding a parking spot.)
But by 7.40, Ahmed is getting antsy; the driver is late. “Maybe he has a flat tire,” he says. He stays calm, though sometimes he can’t help but imagine the worst. Ahmed was a New Yorker on 9/11, and this part of the city holds meaning for him. “Many people, they went to work like me, they thought it was an ordinary day,” he says.
It’s cloudy and cold for April, and Ahmed is still sleepy, but he won’t be tempted by the hot jolt of a second coffee. He knows he can’t leave the cart to go to the bathroom (at the Target across the street, or the Whole Foods a few blocks away) until his partner shows up hours from now. Another coffee, this early in the day, would be way too risky.
The driver pulls up with Ahmed’s cart at 7.52, and the two men work quickly to wheel it into place. Inside, the cart is cold, clean and packed with boxes of ingredients.
The food comes from a commissary kitchen attached to the garage in Long Island City, Queens; the city requires that food carts be serviced and supplied by a commissary, and there are many of them, of varying sizes, with different owners, all around New York.
At an extra cost, this one has provided everything Ahmed needs for the day: heads of lettuce, a few dozen tomatoes and potatoes, ready-sliced halal lamb, several bags of boneless chicken thighs, two 12-pound bags of basmati rice, four large plastic containers of potable water for cooking and washing, clamshell containers and napkins.
Ahmed ties on his apron and pushes a few boxes underneath the cart so he can squeeze inside and get to work. Any boxes peeking out beyond the cart’s footprint could result in a fine (penalties can run up to US$1,000), as could parking his cart closer than 6 inches to the curb, or 20 feet to the building entrance. Ahmed knows all the rules by heart.
He connects the 40-pound propane tank and turns on the flattop grill and burners. He cuts lettuce and tomatoes, browns lamb and vast amounts of chicken. He takes care, in the cramped kitchen space, to keep his vegetarian cooking separate. For a long time, Ahmed chops onions in silence.
“If I play music or anything, I get distracted,” he says. “I forget the salt.”
Although Ahmed had little cooking experience when he started, his wife, Sheren Akter, says his food is better than that at most other carts — less greasy, more flavorful, well seasoned.
His menu consists of about 20 dishes, most of them cooked to order, but regulars know to ask for the chicken biryani, flecked with fried onion and cilantro, garnished with half a hard-boiled egg, all for US$6, with a drink. He’d like to raise the price, but worries that he would lose customers.
To make the biryani, Ahmed fries the onion until it’s translucent. He drops in whole cinnamon, star anise, green cardamom pods and bay leaves. Before the chicken goes in, he adds garlic paste and a spoonful of ghee. He cooks the rice in the same simmering pot, adding water and a prepared spice mixture that includes dried papaya and plums. All the passers-by, those with travel mugs and employee ID badges, or those walking their dogs or pushing their strollers, inhale the familiar perfume of Ahmed’s chicken biryani.
Salman Akhtar, a pre-med student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, is Ahmed’s first customer of the day, at 9.30. The men chat in Bangla, and when Ahmed speaks in Bangla, he is louder and faster, quicker to tell a joke.
Ahmed came to New York alone, at age 23. He had studied accounting and commerce at Dhaka College, but in Queens, it took him a few months to find a job. By then, he owed his roommates in Sunnyside almost US$3,000.
He worked off the debt, busing tables and driving cars. But later, after Ahmed married and had children, he dreamed of a small business that he could expand.
He applied for a food vendor’s licence, took a required health and safety class, bought a used cart and took it for an inspection by city officials. (The health department inspects carts at least once a year, and more frequently if a violation is reported.)
Ahmed still needed a food-vending permit, though, and because of a cap on permits imposed in the 1980s, only 4,000 or so circulate. He acquired his from a permit owner who has charged him and his partner US$25,000 for two-year leases (for a permit that cost the owner just US$200), which they are still paying off.
A day ago, Ahmed received a text message: 100 vendors were protesting the cap. Organised by the Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit group that is part of the Urban Justice Center and offers legal representation to city vendors, they hoped to pressure the City Council to pass legislation introduced last fall that would double the number of food-vending permits, gradually, over the next seven years. Ahmed, who believes the costs for those starting out should be more manageable, wanted to join them, but like many vendors, he couldn’t get away from work.
“The system is totally crazy,” Ahmed says. “Whoever has a licence, give them a permit. It’s good for all of us.”
Once the lunch rush starts around 11.30, Ahmed can’t budge from the cart. These hours blur together. He is no longer alone; by noon, he is joined by two more men in the 10-foot-long space — his partner and an assistant — working efficiently around the grill, fryer and steam table, finding their rhythm in the surges of orders as clusters of people appear.
One chicken biryani, no salad (a business administration student wearing earbuds and black velvet flats). Chicken and rice, hold the onions (an angry-looking man, cheeks flushed, in a wrinkled blue suit). Kati roll with veggies (a construction worker in dusty boots, whistling the theme song to “Frasier”).
On a good day, after paying the driver and the garage, and splitting the cash proceeds with his colleagues, Ahmed earns about US$125. For a cart owner, that sum is not unusual.
He could make more, working longer hours alone, but he won’t. Ahmed likes to tell the cautionary tale of a pushcart vendor who made the best food — so good he once netted US$3,000 in one day. That vendor worked alone, and worked himself so hard, Ahmed says, that he got sick. Now he can’t take care of anyone and has no one to take care of him.
Ahmed’s son, Kowshik, who dreams of working for NASA, will be a high school senior in the fall, and Ahmed wants all his children to go to college. “But now I cannot get sick,” Ahmed says, “and I cannot stop working.”
At 3.30pm, Ahmed’s shift ends and he walks back to the subway; his partner will stay until the cart closes at 8.
By now, Ahmed’s feet are sore and his back is aching. Lately, his back is always aching. The F train is delayed, but Ahmed, who likes to keep up on all the latest memes, and has been deprived of internet access for the duration of his shift, doesn’t mind. He passes this time catching up on funny videos.
Three times, he watches a 2015 clip of a 102-year-old woman who intends to blow out her birthday candles but instead sends her false teeth flying out onto the cake. People on the platform turn to stare as Ahmed belly-laughs, nearly weeping with delight.
On the train, he learns that a preschool has accepted his daughter.
By 5, he is home, where he makes a few phone calls and takes a shower. Akter, who works part time as a cashier at a nearby Key Food, is also home. She makes a pot of coffee and warms up the food that Ahmed’s mother cooked earlier: beef curry, potatoes in broth, shredded bitter melon sautéed with onions, a cucumber and tomato salad, and two kinds of rice.
It’s a feast, set up on the narrow table in the living room, where a soap opera plays on TV. As they catch up, Karen climbs onto the sofa to snuggle, and Akter fixes her hair. After work on Fridays, Ahmed goes to mosque, but not today. In just a few hours, it will be time to watch the news, turn in and start it all again.
Every year, they save money so Akter can take the children to visit relatives in Dhaka in the summer. But last week, she suggested that they plan a Caribbean cruise for the six of them instead. Ahmed didn’t think they could afford that kind of vacation, not to mention so much time away from his cart.
But riding the E train today, peeling potatoes, changing out the empty propane tank, he’d been thinking about it all the same. What would it be like to go on a cruise, he wondered. To board a big ship with your family, to vacation as they do in the movies, to fall asleep at night without setting an alarm. ― The New York Times