When the streets are closed, what happens to the carts?
Just one month after the 2016 election, we checked in with a group of people who spend most of their time near Trump Tower. Not the heavily paid security, the NYPD, or the orange man himself, but the coffee cart workers who spend their mornings selling cheap caffeinated beverages, egg sandwiches, and pastries to construction workers and buttoned-up businessmen.
Everything changed after the election. For these particular pushcart workers, it meant business was down. Way down. When the streets are closed, where can the carts go?
In December, Melania and Barron Trump still lived in Trump Tower. Protests and marches around the building became a regular occurrence. Now, nearly a year after the election, the family has moved to Washington, DC, and protests, while still prevalent, are more spread out. Though cries of “this is not normal” have become commonplace, perhaps sales of the beloved morning bean brew have at least returned.
The first coffee cart I visit is Nasser’s, on 55th and Madison. Originally from Egypt, Nasser has lived in New York for ten years and operated his cart for seven. His cart is smaller, and doesn’t have a griddle. When we last visited him, he was hesitant to discuss his sales. This time he was genial and open, and for good reason.
“When he won, it was a big problem,” he says. “Now, it is OK.” He explains that right after the election, more streets were closed off and “people were scared” to go about their business as usual. Now, his business is back. He even gives me a free pastry for speaking with him.
But not all streets are created equal. Over on Fifth Avenue, the workers tell a different story.
Otabek is new to the area; his cart has only been here since July. Like Nasser’s, his coffee is priced at $1.25 instead of the standard dollar, although he only charged me a dollar, so who knows. He’s only been around for two months, but his displeasure already shows. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that the streets were closed for three days when Trump visited New York for the first time since the inauguration.
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,” he said. ”Bad for us.”
However, coffee is not everything for Otabek. He also sells Belgian waffles and ice cream, and once morning hours are over he relocates to peddle those.
Finally, I visit John, the fedora-clad man who has been at his coffee cart on 54th Street at Fifth Avenue for nine years now. For John, sales were bad in December, and they’re bad now. I tell him I thought maybe business had improved at least slightly.
“No. Today was horrible,” he says. “You see, my shelf is full.”
As the croissants and doughnuts sit there, unsold, we discuss how increased security measures have hurt him. Cart workers don’t typically know in advance if anything will happen that will make them unable to do business. Surprises like that can be even worse than knowingly taking a day off. John talks of “unfair” police harassment, including a time the very cops he served breakfast to made him leave at 9 a.m.
“I lost the whole day of orders, all this in the garbage,” he explains. “These breads, I can't have them for next day, they have to be fresh. It's been so rough.”
It’s not just Trump; other factors are driving sales down. The elite of Fifth Avenue appear more inclined to shell out for fancy espresso or Starbucks than buy their coffee for a buck from the street. This, plus the new political administration, has reduced the number of carts on John’s intersection from 6 to “2, maybe 3,” he say. Location is everything.
“Some guys in front of [the] subway make money, but me on a side street? There's a guy on 55th and 6th Avenue, he makes twice as much as I do,” John says. “I barely make my salary. He's just one block away.”
Relocating a cart is a rare and convoluted process that doesn’t happen much, if at all, thanks to an array of complications revolving around vendor permits and food truck licenses.
“We can lease [carts] out to someone else, but besides that, you're stuck with it. It's not a taxi, where you can get in and get out. It's like a marriage, a long commitment.” He also has two children in college, so he’s thankful he at least still has a job.
I thank John for taking the time to talk to me.
“Well, I was free,” he replies. Though in his case, being free comes with a price.