Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

A Day in the Life of a Food Vendor | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Kabir Ahmed cooks to order during the early shift in his food cart. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

New York- It’s 6 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.

Mr. 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.

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?” Mr. Ahmed says. “Everything is hard. If I get old, I can’t do it anymore.”

The work is both demanding and routine. Mr. 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.

By 7:15 a.m., 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 $5 or $6 on a fast, hot lunch.

Though there are occasional turf wars among vendors, Mr. Ahmed has never had to fight for space. He buys breakfast — a coffee and doughnut — from a nearby vendor who gives him what Mr. Ahmed calls a “neighbor discount.”

Like many cart owners, Mr. Ahmed hires someone to deliver the cart to him every morning and return it to a garage each night.

The driver pulls up with Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 $1,000), as could parking his cart closer than six inches to the curb, or 20 feet to the building entrance. Mr. Ahmed knows all the rules by heart.

Although Mr. 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 $6, with a drink. He’d like to raise the price, but worries that he would lose customers.

Salman Akhtar, a pre-med student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, is Mr. Ahmed’s first customer of the day, at 9:30. The men chat in Bangla, and when Mr. Ahmed speaks in Bangla, he is louder and faster, quicker to tell a joke.

Mr. 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 $3,000.

He worked off the debt, busing tables and driving cars. But later, after Mr. Ahmed married and had children, he dreamed of a small business that he could expand.

He applied for a food vendor’s license, took a required health and safety class, bought a used cart and took it for an inspection by city officials.

Mr. 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 $25,000 for two-year leases (for a permit that cost the owner just $200), which they are still paying off.

Once the lunch rush starts around 11:30, Mr. 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.

On a good day, after paying the driver and the garage, and splitting the cash proceeds with his colleagues, Mr. Ahmed earns about $125. For a cart owner, that sum is not unusual.

Mr. Ahmed’s son, Kowshik, who dreams of working for NASA, will be a high school senior in the fall, and Mr. Ahmed wants all his children to go to college. “But now I cannot get sick,” Mr. Ahmed says, “and I cannot stop working.”
At 3:30 p.m., Mr. Ahmed’s shift ends and he walks back to the subway; his partner will stay until the cart closes at 8.

The New York Times