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The Kebab Man of 42nd and Eighth

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At least Elnagar has the best spot on his block. He gets the good spots for a simple reason: seniority. He’s been at it for nine years, everybody knows him, and if you usurp his place, he will simply show up earlier the next day or slash his prices or squint at you until you’re gone, in a bloodless kind of Wild West showdown. “Nobody owns any spot,” he says. “Just respect.” A new kid recently showed up on the block, a Latin American guy not familiar with the rules. He had set up a small cart not 30 feet from Elnagar’s and was getting traffic. The interloper clearly had a handle on the technique of competing-by-undercutting. There were signs taped all over his cart, handwritten in Magic Marker: EVERYTHING $1. A steamboat’s worth of charcoal smoke issued forth from it. “That’s an ugly cart” was all Elnagar allowed himself to say on the subject. Within a week, the guy disappeared, perhaps fined into oblivion by the Alphas or maybe shamed into leaving.

A little after two, Elnagar’s friend Muhammad Abdul-Aziz drops by. Abdul-Aziz is a late-middle-age African-American man who’s been taking people’s pictures in Times Square for 30 years. He started out using a Polaroid; now he’s gone digital. Lately, his business has been taking a drubbing from camera phones. Abdul-Aziz says he once went by the name Butch Leake and was a member of the Drifters. “We used to police these streets ourselves,” says the man who says he performed “On Broadway” in the seventies, following two Port Authority cops with his eyes.

At 2:35, three giggling midwestern girls buy hot dogs. The popularity of hot dogs sold on the street in this town is something of a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Vendors stock them because they believe it’s the New York thing to do, and tourists buy them for the same reason. Elnagar can take or leave hot dogs; “They’re fine,” he says. He takes more pride in his kebabs—anointing them with hot sauce and lime juice just so, the way Christine taught him. Elnagar says he tried to sell shrimp kebabs once, “but people were afraid of them.” He also tried kofta kebabs. “People didn’t know what they were.”

When he served the midwestern girls, Elnagar noticed that his mustard bottle was leaking. “See,” he says. “I’m losing mustard.” After every squeeze, Elnagar is now forced to change his rubber gloves and wipe down his serving counter with a napkin. That starts a cycle of waste and diminishing margins. At 2:41, a solution appears in the form of a bedraggled, homeless-looking Indian man whom Elnagar calls “Errand Guy.” If street vending is close to the ultimate entry-level New York job—from here, people graduate to driving a cab—Errand Guy’s job is still another step down. His responsibility is to run to nearby stores and pick up things for the vendors. Elnagar hands him $5 and sends him off to search for a new yellow squeeze bottle.

At three o’clock, Christine arrives for a visit, carrying a faux Louis Vuitton purse in one hand and a Dan Simmons paperback in the other. She is boisterous and disarming, an army brat who’s gone to thirteen schools all over the States. Elnagar and Christine met seven years ago. She worked nearby at a jewelry store and was a regular customer. Christine and Elnagar’s four children—Ghada, Ahmad, Karem, and Reham—range in age from 4 to 13. Despite their names, the children are not being raised Muslim—or, for that matter, Christian. “They’re public-school American,” says Elnagar. Although Elnagar is a practicing Muslim, he’s first and foremost an American striver. Religion and politics are not his thing. “I went to work on 9/11,” he says. He uses the term “stupid 9/11” several times. “I don’t care about the United States or Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. I care about my children and my family.” Elnagar says he’s never been a victim of discrimination, but a bearded friend of his recently got called a terrorist, simply for having the name Mohammed on his license. “I told the guy it’s against the law to say that,” Elnagar says. He holds only one political grudge. The nineties saw an aggressive push against street vendors, including those in Times Square. “Giuliani closed a lot of streets,” Elnagar says. “We lost a lot of business.”

Rudy or no Rudy, a steady flow of vintage New York crazies still pass Elnagar’s cart. Around four o’clock, a dreadlocked man with a joint blows pot smoke on the kebabs. “Marijuana!” says Elnagar. “Some people, huh?” Several minutes later, a junkie waltzes by, blubbering. There is a guy with cigarette burns on his flak jacket, wearing a laminated newspaper clipping and a plastic-flower bouquet on his chest. And a guy wrapped in an American flag. Errand Guy has been gone for almost three hours now. “He’ll be back,” Elnagar says.


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