At 11:15, Elnagar’s first customer shows up: a Thomas Haden Church type accompanying a young Middle Eastern brunette. They buy two waters, for $1 apiece. Water is one of a street vendor’s most profitable items—a bottle costs about 25 cents wholesale, and the spoilage rate is nil. Later in the summer, the price will go up with the temperature, from $1 to $1.50 (more ice is needed to keep the water cool, Elnagar says). Come August, most vendors, no matter what their ostensible specialty, essentially become water salesmen.
Elnagar upends a can of Sterno over the coals in the pit and lights it with a napkin. A wave of heat blasts upward, and he covers the pit with a pretzel-salt tray. Elnagar used to teach metal casting at a technical college in Cairo. When he arrived in the United States in 1996, his first move was to get a job at a Queens foundry. It was a decent gig, $18 an hour, but dangerous. Two years and two eye surgeries later, the 1,500-degree heat caught up with him, and doctors forbade him to go near fire. His skill set unusable, his English still tentative, Elnagar found himself forced to start over. He got a $200 vending license, passed a city-mandated food-handling test in Arabic, rented a $3,000-a-year permit from an absentee owner, and got behind a grill.
Elnagar didn’t decide to become a kebab vendor out of any special fondness for food, he says. He chose that line of work for the same reason many newly arrived immigrants do—it’s a proven, if modest, moneymaker that’s easy to master and doesn’t require much English. He recognizes the irony of going from foundry worker to kebab vendor. “Yeah, still with the fire. Almost the same thing,” he says.
As a year-round vendor, Elnagar makes about $35,000, roughly equal to his foundry salary. Christine, his wife of seven years (“She’s American,” Elnagar tells me with a sheepish grin), is trying to finish Hunter College and helps him on the side. She negotiates wholesale prices (“If you buy more of something, you should pay less for it,” she says), does the books, and goes to court to fight violations. The money is barely enough to cover the bills. Hakim and Christine rent their apartment, and have no savings. Hakim has a 13-year-old son, Reham, from a previous marriage, so college looms. Neither spouse wants to be chained to the trade. Last year, Elnagar began taking accounting courses at Brooklyn College, and Christine eventually wants to teach English. Still, being a kebab vendor has its advantages: “I like the freedom,” Elnagar says. “I like to be my own boss.”
A few minutes shy of noon, a trio of teenagers approach and ask Elnagar about practically every item—“What’s that, Dog? Can’t hear you. How about that? That?” They laugh, and buy nothing. A moment later, a van pulls up and a passenger rolls down her window. She asks for a pretzel and a grape soda, eats the pretzel, buys a second one, returns it (too cold), orders a hot dog, rethinks that order, and asks for a Diet Pepsi instead. Elnagar complies, although he hates serving vehicles curbside. It’s legal, but many cops think it’s not. Elnagar got ticketed for serving a vehicle as recently as a week ago. When he went to court and pointed out that he’d broken no law, the cop retroactively amended the violation to “failure to give a receipt.” Never mind that not a single street vendor has likely ever given anyone a receipt. “The law’s made in Albany,” Elnagar says. “It’s not made here.”
Elnagar doesn’t get hassled more than other vendors—probably less, in fact, since he generally follows the rules and keeps his cart clean—but a good “Alpha cop,” Elnagar says, can always find something worth writing a ticket for. The Alphas are the NYPD officers who monitor street vendors. Just last month, they gave Elnagar not one but two tickets for standing near his own cart while a fully licensed cousin was working at it. The alleged violation: failure to conspicuously display a license.
“But I’m not vending,” Elnagar remembers saying.
“But we know you. You’re the guy who owns this cart.”
“But I’m not working today.”
“But you own the cart.”
“Listen,” the cop said with a sigh. “Let me just give you the violation, and a court will throw it out. Okay?”
It’s prime tourist weather today, but business has been slow. Over the first hour and a half of his shift, Elnagar has moved just three pretzels, three waters, and four sodas. He doesn’t sell the day’s first hot dog until about one o’clock, to a giant in a New Era cap. One reason for the slump: “Look how many carts came out today,” says Hakim, pointing out the competitors one by one. Within a hundred feet of us, in the shade of the Port Authority terminal, there are two hot-dog carts, a fruit cart, and a peanut cart. Studying the block, Elnagar counts ten operations. What bothers Elnagar the most is that the very next block—the much more lucrative stretch of 42nd between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, with its movie theaters and Madame Tussauds and B.B. King’s—is closed to vendors until 7 p.m. “Why you close that block? Open it!” Elnagar says. “It’s gonna cost the city the same amount!” Elnagar suspects the closing has to do with a certain chain restaurant on that block. “McDonald’s—that’s a $500,000-a-month business,” Elnagar says. “So what if they make $450,000? I have four kids. I’m trying to put food on the table.”