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August 17, 1999
Small Voices in the Big Apple
Alan Kravitz in New York
Hossain Moltanmed knows better than anyone else that the life of a street vendor is a difficult one. Moltanmed, who migrated from Bangladesh nearly 10 years ago, spends six days a week in mid Manhattan selling fruits and vegetables, earning about $ 75 per day.
"I leave my house at four in the morning so that I can start working by about eight," he says. "I usually work for 15 to 16 hours a day, six days a week."
He, of course, earns less than the mandated minimum wage, and has no other benefits, particularly health insurance.
He is among over 1,500 street vendors in Manhattan who sell dry and fresh fruits, varieties of chicken and meat dishes including kebabs, hot dogs and soft drinks. Vending food at street corners is one of the jobs new immigrants from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have taken up in significant numbers in recent years, joining others from Yemen, Egypt, Romania and Bulgaria.
"There was a time when you got only hot dogs and knishes on Manhattan streets," says food writer and author Dave Devitt. "But in the past ten years, thanks to hawkers from the Indian subcontinent and Egypt, the food scene has changed tremendously."
"There are times you feel you are on the streets of Cairo or Athens," he says. "There are times I stop by a street coner, take a deep breath and find out what spices I am smelling."
"I wonder when they will start selling tandoori chicken and boti kebabs?"
That could happen soon but right now vendors have to fight a stiff battle with the city which is restricting the places they can hawk their food.
Citing congestion and alleging the food is not prepared in hygienic conditions, the city led by its mayor Rudy Guiliani has been pushing the vendors into the side streets for over a year. Several demonstrations against his policies have not made him change his mind.
"We have been working on the main avenues for over a decade, and there are no accidents, no trouble," says a vendor from Mumbai. "But this mayor does not like small people, and he is pushing us away from the main avenues. The best business is on the avenues. But do we have a choice?"
Bhairavi Desai, who successfully mobilized thousands of New York's taxiwallahs to protest against what they perceive unusual new restrictions by the city and stiff fines against errant taxi drivers, understands the plight of the street vendors.
But she does not understand the talk about unhygienic food. The customers in New York are very smart, she says, and are capable of deciding what to eat -- and where. The big guys in the city do not like to see small guys hawking their food in plush areas, she says.
Many vendors are reluctant to speak or let their names be used in this article. A 31-year-old Bangladeshi called the situation "a big problem". Like many other vendors, he has moved from one location to another, only to find out a few months later that the new location is to be off-limits for street vendors.
Many vendors, who began their own business after borrowing money from their friends and relatives, are finding it difficult to pay back the loans. Some have sold their carts and the trucks they used to bring the food in.
Moltanmed, who used to work for himself, was forced to abandon his own vending business nearly a year ago after being driven from his fourth Manhattan location.
"I know many people who are homeless or are not able to eat three meals a day," he says. "People are asked to move from one place to another, and then they cannot make any money."
But he sees some consolation in the fact that he is working for someone else.
"I don't have to deal with the police or health department every day," he says with a chuckle. "My boss does that."
He at least gives some credit to the city administration in improving one aspect of vendors' life.
There was a time when unauthorized agencies sold street vendor permits for thousands of dollars. Now there is a lottery system.
The ones selected through the lottery are placed on a waiting list and get the permit within couple of years. The fee for the permit varies from $ 200 to $ 250, depending on the location.
But some vendors, impatient to wait for the permit, try to make a living by pushing their luck.
If caught, they pay fines that could range from $ 100 to $ 1,000. Couple of violations and the city could confiscate the cart -- and if the cart is attached to a truck, both the cart and the truck would be gone.
"The most frightening thing is that you will not see your cart or truck again," says a vendor. "It is not like your car getting towed. They don't just impound your stuff and hold on to it for a ransom or a fee."
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