On a sunny Thursday morning, Hakim Elnagar is up at nine o’clock and out of his apartment—a two-bedroom walk-up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium that he shares with his wife and four children—by 9:30. Elnagar is a street-kebab vendor, and the leisurely wake-up time is a luxury in his world. His neighbor, a coffee-cart guy who calls himself German, wakes up at 2:30 a.m. From 161st Street, it’s a short train ride to the garage at Ninth Avenue and 39th Street where Elnagar keeps his cart—and from there, it’s just three blocks to his place of business: 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, prime Manhattan vending territory. It’s the same routine six days a week.
Today, Elnagar, an Egyptian-American who emigrated to New York eleven years ago, is at the garage by 10:10, exchanging salaam aleikums with other vendors. The garage, the gutted ground floor of a brownstone that’s home to a half-dozen carts, is run by a fellow Egyptian named Abdullah. Abdullah charges $200 a month per cart, and Hakim owns two (he operates one; a partner mans the other). The garage is more than a place to keep carts safe. In back, there’s a makeshift wholesale shop where cart men can stock up on their wares before heading out to the streets. A freezer chest is filled with hot dogs, and shelves are piled high with Admiration mustard and Trappey’s Louisiana hot sauce. There’s also a giant shower booth where carts get hosed down. Abdullah’s cousin, Mohammed, lounges at the shop’s entrance with a prehistoric calculator and handwritten ledger in which he records the vendors’ tabs.
Elnagar operates a stretch version of the basic hot-dog cart, with the dogs de-emphasized in favor of the kebabs. It’s eight-and-a-half feet long, close to the maximum allowable size, and includes a hot-water tank for hot dogs, a cooler for ice and soda, a dry shelf for pretzels, and a twelve-by-twelve-inch charcoal grill. It takes two Sabrett umbrellas (WE’RE ON A ROLL!) to cover it. Its front and sides advertise, in peeling letters, SHISH KEBAB—HOT SAUSAGE—BOILED HOT DOG—GRILLED HOT DOG—PRETZEL—KNISH—COLD SODA—WATER—SNAPPLE. Mounted over the grill and facing inward, where only Elnagar can see it, is a price list: “Hot Dog $2,” “Hot Sasg $2,” and so on. Elnagar wrote it, but he doesn’t abide by it. Sometimes he charges $1.25 for a hot dog, sometimes $1.50. “Some people are regulars,” he explains.
Elnagar stocks the hot-dog tank with a dozen or so Sabrett franks, enough to get started. The rest he stores in the cooler. Then he glops mustard from a gallon jar into a squeeze bottle, refills his salt and pepper shakers, and drains vinegar from a sauerkraut bag into the hot-dog water. Does that improve the flavor? Prolong shelf life? Elnagar shrugs. He’s never thought about it. “Everyone does that,” he says.
At 10:22, the meat arrives from a nearby halal wholesaler—beef and chicken, cubed, skewered, drizzled with olive oil, Saran-Wrapped, and buffeted with ice cubes. At 10:34, a forklift drops off six cases of New York–brand pretzels from M&T, a Brooklyn baker that supplies almost every cart in town. Elnagar grabs a case, which holds 40 pretzels. Then he picks up two bags of Kingsford charcoal and a copy of the Post. All around him, other cart men stock up and push off. There isn’t much camaraderie among them, nor is there any hostility: If anything, there’s an air of the assembly line about their preparations. When Elnagar’s cart is full, it’s one last salaam aleikum to Abdullah and he’s on his way.
It’s a little before eleven, and Elnagar is piloting his cart up Ninth Avenue, against the traffic. He appears to be pushing it, but that’s an illusion. The cart is equipped with a small motor. Elnagar is really just steering the cart. He stops at a pizza shack on the corner of 40th Street, parks the cart, and buys a slice. “Breakfast every day,” he says. Elnagar’s taste for pizza may stem from the fact that he doesn’t sell it.
When Elnagar makes the right turn onto 42nd, a van almost clips his cart from the left. Then a bus roars by on the right, an ad for the latest Die Hard passing an inch from his cheek. Elnagar was hit by a car once, seven years ago. Actually, he says, “my cart hit me.” The car slammed into the cart, and the cart slammed into his hip. The woman who was driving offered Elnagar $20, which he refused. He headed directly to work.
At eleven sharp, Elnagar arrives at his spot, on the north side of 42nd, facing a parking lot. The closest business is the Laugh Factory. German, the coffee guy, is getting ready to vacate the spot right next to Elnagar’s. After vending for the past seven hours, he’s going to take a one-hour break, then begin his second shift—noon to 8 p.m.—a couple of blocks away.