Mossad, a 23-year old from Banha, a city on the Nile in northeastern Egypt, arrived in New York when he was 19. After he received his green card, he landed a job at a pizzeria.
‘I wasn’t happy with it because they served alcohol and pork, but I needed to work,’ he says. ‘As soon as I got my cart permit, I quit that job and started doing this.’
He and his four brothers sell halal hotdogs throughout the city, a common profession among Egyptian immigrants. ‘My friends are the guys that work on the street, since we all have similar jobs and see each other frequently,’ he says, contentedly.
He works alongside five Egyptian vendors who all seem to have found a home away from home next to Radio City Music Hall. One can sense their brotherly bond as they chat on a concrete ledge as George Wassouf’s raspy voice echoes through a speaker in Mossad’s cart.
A couple of blocks up, Melad Mekhaein, an older vendor, peacefully stands with his hands behind his back. Only a few signs and a yellow and blue Sabrett umbrella adorn his cart. The minimal decoration matches his simple temperament.
‘I used to teach for three hours a day and spend the rest of my time at home,’ he says with nostalgia. In 2010, Mekhaein quit his job as a high school teacher in Minya, a city in northern Egypt, to become a hotdog vendor in the Big Apple. As a sudden drizzle drives people indoors, he patiently waits for a turnaround.
‘In Egypt, people love each other. Here, life is dull,’ he says in an unmistakably Egyptian accent. ‘It’s difficult if a person comes here at an old age. If they’re young, they can enjoy it. Whereas an older person, their brain – khalas – it can only grasp so much! That makes it even harder to learn how to speak English.’
While Mekhaein reminisces over his past lifestyle, other vendors appreciate the freedom that comes with their low-profile jobs. ‘It’s better than working in a store. I hate feeling imprisoned,’ says Khaled Abdo, as he leans against his cart near an Applebee’s on Broadway. Though a few grey hairs peak out from under his baseball cap, he projects a childlike innocence.
A Banha native, Abdo completed his three-year military conscription straight out of high school before moving to New York in 1995. He delivered Domino’s pizzas for six years before he joined the more informal food sector.
Abdo explains an unspoken rule that prevents street vendors from invading each other’s territory. ‘If they all line up near each other, they won’t make any money,’ he says. ‘But everyone knows that, so we try to not bother each other.’
A man approaches his cart and asks for some bread. Abdo instantly hands him a hotdog with mustard and ketchup. ‘I know a few homeless people in the area that I have no problem serving, especially if they’re old and aren’t fit to work. But of course, I can’t feed everyone who asks for a free hotdog,’ he says with a grin.
Not only does Abdo help those in need, he’s also a great source for directions. An expert on the ins and outs of the city, he regularly guides confused tourists to nearby train stations and bus stops.
An avenue away, Wael Hassan sets up his colourful cart in front of the No. 1 downtown train. He sports a John Cena t-shirt and introduces himself as Mohamed Al Shishkebabi. ‘I gave myself that nickname because it’s easy to remember,’ he says playfully. ‘I’m a Muslim who sells shish kebabs, so it makes sense!’
Hassan swapped Cairo for New York in 2004, but he’s been stationed at his current coveted spot for five months. ‘It’s not new to me,’ he reassures. ‘I’ve worked with big carts and small carts, selling shish kebabs, rice – lots of things.’
A spectacled woman stops by to briefly chat. ‘She’s a friend of mine. She’s a beggar,’ says Hassan as he chuckles. ‘She rents an apartment and lives comfortably. You can find her on the sidewalk holding a small cardboard sign that reads “Helb za homeless and za poor.’’’
Hassan shares an anecdote from his days as a chicken and rice vendor near a nightclub in Chelsea. ‘People would party and drink, then visit my cart afterwards since I was the only vendor on the street. One time, a tall guy ordered a plate food. I gave it to him and he continued walking. I called him over and asked for my money.
He turned around, grabbed my head, spun me around, shoved the cart, and asked, ‘What do you want?’ I responded, ‘Do you want anything to drink? Soda? Water?’’ Acting out the incident, he laughs and adds, ‘What else could I do?’
A Californian couple on their first trip to New York order two spicy hotdogs. As they pose for pictures in front of the cart, Hassan prepares a colourful concoction of sauerkraut, onions, chili, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, barbecue and hot sauce. One customer dressed in a crisp suit waves to Hassan as he waits in line. ‘You’re late, huh?’ Hassan asks with a smile.
A senior editor at Fortune magazine, the man was scurrying to his office at the Time & Life building but stopped to pick up his usual lunch. ‘He’s a good friend of mine! He took a selfie with me!’ he says as he’s handed his order.
‘I’m a social guy,’ Hassan boasts with a smile. Once the customers receive their hotdogs, he turns on a generator and an LED marquee lights up along the top of his cart. Fittingly, it reads, ‘I love New York.’
This article can be found in Brownbook’s November/December 2014 Issue.
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