man push cart

The Sundance Movie Channel recently broadcasted the movie of the same name as this blog entry. It is the story of a former Pakistani pop singer who migrated to NY with his wife to try to fulfill an American Dream. However, like many who come to America he finds that even the best-laid plans can go utterly wrong. His story gives meat and bones to the unique life of push cart vendors.

My regular ‘guy’ is from Afghanistan; been there at his ‘spot’ for about 10 years. Recently he got an upgrade to a bigger cart, which all his regulars blessed and cheered! That man has some stories to tell. One guy in particular who speaks with him, well we can’t make sense of, he is a pleasant man who speaks 5 -yep five languages fluently, we’ve tested him and he is homeless… From northern Africa, we would have thought him UN material. Our ‘guy’ says, ‘no, the man is victim of a push cart scam’, he never recovered, financially or mentally.

Man Push Cart…
At every train station exit, at every hospital or school entrance, and on any shopping strip or park you will find in New York City a multitude of pushcarts. They cater to early morning commuters rushing to work. They cater to workers looking for a cheap but hot meal. To late risers and shoppers, all looking for the ‘regular’ coffee and tea, the bagel with cream cheese, the doughnuts in mind-blowing varieties, fruits, vegetables, and the fast food lunches or dinners ranging from the Middle Eastern, Mexican, South East Asian, Dominican menus to the New York style hot dogs and pretzels. All at a price NY money-strapped buyers hunger for.

These men and women like the classical mail carrier brave rain, sleet, snow, and blistering heat to make a living feeding us what ever we crave. If they are stable in one niche-corner, they will know your order by heart. When the lines are long a ‘Good Morning’, ‘How you doing?’, and ‘Here you go, have a nice day’ is the extent of your conversation. If you come by before the 7:30 am rush or after 10:00 just before or after the noon lunch mayhem, you get to chat. They are the street side version of bartenders. They listen, give advice, joke and laugh with you. Theirs is conversation that can take you around the world to some unknown or commonly known city, village, and country in an instant. They are the ones you can practice your second language on, or reconnect with your roots- even if they are from Jersey!

For those you see year after year, you get to know their families by proxy, some will have pictures of home and family proudly displayed on the plexi-glass windows. You know whose generous, street smart, or an inexperienced newbie (covering for the original renter or owner). You know who has saved enough to ‘promote’ the small carts into larger wagons that can hold two people, or graduated to self-contained trucks with grills, fridge, and electric appliances.

They are up at 4:00 in the morning wheeling, dragging (especially if they don’t have a vehicle- hence the name man push cart- but I can imagine there are other reasons), or driving right up to their ‘space’. They start the water boiling, the coffee brewing; set up the doughnuts and muffins, pack ice into coolers for the juices, water, and soda container favorites. The money is partitioned in a way they can make change quickly and effectively for the hundreds of customers without, hopefully, leaving their area to seek change at a nearby bank. By 5:30 am, they are geared and ready for the masses as they travel into the concentrated work areas of NY.

Depending on what they sell, the set up time can be for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They leave when their particular ‘specialty’ food is no longer requested or practical. Some of the ‘fully stocked’ trucks can be there a good 12 hours, supplying the customer with just about anything to eat or drink. Some of these vendors can only be found in particular ‘cultural’ or ‘ethnic’ hot spots.

It’s easier for you to find Dominican ‘Chimichurri’, the ‘Habichuela con Dulce’, the ‘Morroco’, and ‘Jonnikekes’ (Johnnycakes for the rest of you) in upper Manhattan or ‘The Heights’, like it is with Gyros, falafel, and Kofta in Mid-Town to Lower Manhattan. The wallas selling somosas, Pani Puri, South East Asian shay, and other goodies mostly found where many of the workers are of the same ethnic group. Everyone however benefits, no matter where these push carts settle.

The fruit and vegetable sellers are also a group that usually stop for the day around 6:00 pm- but they, as is for those carts that are not enclosed, have the harshest workdays. They are hardy men, for sure, but only found on the ‘good days’ when snow and rain or blistering cold are not in the forecast.

The sellers also follow particular religious seasons- all the wallas are out after sunset for those who have fasted all day long during Ramadan. You can see them line up at street corners of India Rue, Little India, the Egyptian quarter (newly named for the amount of Egyptian taxi drivers that rest around 4th Street and Houston Street) Some carts and trucks won’t sell meat on Wednesdays or Fridays during Lent. Those who have Halal and Kosher signs, with their appropriate Licenses (in NY no license means an impounded cart) cater to both Jewish and Muslim customers. We do not ask because we know we can eat it. The Department of Sanitation makes daily rounds around the city doing surprise inspection one thing wrong and the penalties can range from a ticket, summons to court, impounded cart, to jail. Everyone tries to stay on the right side of the law- a lawsuit could ruin these men and women well into a distant future.

I hear rumors of other carts selling Japanese, Korean, and Chinese food are also starting to pop up in Midtown Manhattan. Some of these newer carts are men laid off from the big companies or who have seen themselves work hard with no monetary rewards. Have to hunt a few of these to taste the menu!

The prices for renting a cart fully supplied can be debilitating, unless your need far exceeds the fees. Graduating to enclosed wagons that hold more than one person or fully equipped are a major long-term investment. Fellow compatriots, who can be helping hands or cheating scoundrels, sponsor many vendors. Others are family ‘band of brothers’ who have pooled their money wanting to climb out of the morass of working 12 to 14 hour shifts in Deli’s, Bodegas, taxi’s, or restaurants. With a dream, they plunge into street vending. Some make it- paying for their kids or their own educations, renting an apartment or home, or building ‘back home’. Others do not- stolen or impounded carts, jailed, mugged and in the worst cases killed. However, fewer pushcart sellers die out in the streets compared to their taxi, Bodega, or Deli counter-parts.

They are a repository of daily NY life- high to low end. Their stories a wonder and testament to the mixing bowl NY is. They experience the worker who does not have enough money to pay, to the one that will leave an extra dollar to pay for the homeless person standing nearby begging for a quarter. These men and women have a huge and fierce heart that shows how they share their lives and at times even their money with their customers and beggars alike. Many a day you will hear a buyer say ‘hey don’t forget to add the dollar I owe you from the other day’.

When you happen to visit NY watch for these sellers, quickly you will notice the set-up patterns and their schedules. If you live in NY, take a closer look at your ‘usual guy/gal’ vendor- share a moment. Then again, you probably already have.

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