My Uncle Ayman is out of Lemon Snapple. I fish through the drink compartment, a deep bin on the far left of the hot dog cart, and settle for a Diet.
"Please. Courtney. Take whatever you want."
He always says my name like it’s a sentence all its own.
He’s selling hot dogs, lukewarm pretzels, iced teas, and sodas on 34th street, on the west side, near the Javits center. It’s not his usual spot, but there’s an Auto show and he was hoping for a busy day.
"Business is not so good today," he says, "These people, they’re not hungry."
I watch the Auto-show-goers from my comfortable station, leaning against Ayman’s green SUV, which is parked on the street behind his hot dog cart. Some approach the cart and many are looking for a Lemon Snapple. Ayman, frustrated, makes a phone call to and yells in Arabic at someone who I can only assume is his supplier.
He works quickly; his fast hands grab at tongs, napkins, cans, and bills. He stores cash above the drinks, in a compartment sealed by a sliding metal door which he slams in his fervor. Singles go in a low cardboard box, easily accessible for change, I figure. Larger bills he puts below the box. I soon realise that no item on his cart has a fixed price.
"You see, it’s $1.50 for him," Ayman says, gesturing toward a Jersey Dad, who is enjoying a hot dog with sauerkraut, "but not for everybody. Sometimes $2, sometimes .75. Depends how they look."
I’ve always suspected as much, but I don’t tell him so. Instead I glance up and down 34th street, counting the brightly colored umbrellas. There are five other hot dog carts on this block. I’m sure the Jersey Dad could have saved fifty cents, had he really tried.
I hear a loud call for a Peach Snapple from the street, and Ayman runs, drink in hand, to a man in a black Chevy Blazer. The Blazer peels off and Ayman returns with a dollar and some change, though he had previously quoted the price at $2.
There’s a table full of pink, blue, and purple sunglasses to our left, and I tell Ayman I want to take a look. He helps a customer, a burly man who asked for a "beef frank," while I examine the table.
"Something you want?" Ayman calls to me. He reaches into his pocket for a roll of bills. I assure him that the sunglasses aren’t the right sort, that I don’t want anything, and then return to the cart.
Three kids of about my age, two boys and a girl, gather in front of the cart, talking quietly at first.
"How much for your drinks?"
"Which drink?" Ayman asks them.
"Drinks. Drinks. Your Drinks," they say, making drinking motions, as if he hadn’t understood.
"I have different drinks. All different prices."
The girl speaks up.
"Are you giving me attitude because I asked for a drink?"
"No, no. I have different drinks. There’s not one price for a drink."
The boys say, "A soda. A soda."
Ayman replies, "Soda? One dollar."
The girl continues, "You know, I’m doing you a favor by giving you my dollar. This is my money, that I’m giving you. I’m doing you a favor. And you give me attitude?"
"Oh, shut the fuck up," I say quietly. She doesn’t hear me, and I’m relieved. Their fight continues until the boys decide to walk away.
"Is this your dollar, ma’am, sir?" He shouts after them, and then tears the dollar to shreds. He tosses the pieces into the air and they land on the sidewalk, in puddles, under the car’s tires, and on top of other trash. He’s silent for a few minutes, raging, smoking a Marlb Light. He sees me scribbling, looking at the fallen bits of dollar.
"Courtney. Don’t write this."
"But it’s wonderful," I say.
"Keep it for yourself. Nobody needs to know this, it’s bad!" He pauses.
"You know," he continues tentatively, "she thinks she’s doing me a big favor. With this one dollar. I get two tickets a day! Two hundred fifty, three hundred dollar each! And she thinks this is ‘big favor.’ It’s no big favor. Look."
He takes out his wallet and pulls out a pink ticket.
"Every day?" I ask.
"Every day we fight with cops. Last night I came home, I had no..." he gestures to his throat, "from yelling at cops. But I know, they just do their job."»
He turns away for a second, frustrated.
"This is hard job. When I was at home, Egypt, I was not hard like this. I was soft, like nice, I never had fights. New York is hard place. Not like Egypt."
He looks up, startled, and runs out into the street at a white van. He says a few words to the driver, and then returns.
"You can go to the city in Egypt and say hello to people. Not here in New York. I work the same corner for three years, same people. Some nice, but some don’t say good morning."
He crosses his arms and imitates the people who don’t say ‘good morning.’
"How much is a hot dog, man?" A short, older man in a security uniform asks.
"One dollar," Ayman responds. To me he says, "He works here, at Javits, so for him, one dollar."
A tall man comes up to the left side of the cart and sets down a case of Lemon Snapple. Ayman says a few words to him in Arabic.
"My niece," he says in English, and the other man shakes my hand. He leaves, but returns shortly with a few boxes of pretzels. Pretzels come packaged like new shirts, unsalted, in blue and white boxes marked "New York Pretzel." Ayman rolls each one in salt and stores them in a compartment on the right side of the cart that reads "Hot Pretzels."
I watch a young man across the sidewalk smoke a cigarette, pace, and make calls on his cell. He’s been there for about fifteen minutes, I realise. He calls at Ayman and gestures with his head.
Ayman doesn't hear him.
"Yo, papi. How much for a hot dog?"
"You want to pay more?"
"Make me one."
He walks away.
"What does he want on it?" Ayman asks me.
I shrug my shoulders. He returns after a few minutes and says that he wants onions on his hot dog. Ayman makes it speedily and the young man eats it in three bites.
Behind him is a family, an old father and his three sons, all in Ralph Lauren, all of whom want "everything" on their hot dogs. For them, hot dogs are two dollard apiece.
"It's an ok day," Ayman says after they leave. Business is picking up. He leans into his green SUV and turns up the Arabic music on the radio. When he turns around again, he has another customer. He serves the man quickly, saying a few words in Spanish.
"All of the Spanish men, they all think I'm Spanish. Everyone thinks I'm Spanish. Especially when I have..." he traces the outline of a beard around his chin.
The young man from across the sidewalk returns. He thrusts a dollar at Ayman.
"Make me another one, papi. They're good today."
"I speak a little Spanish," He says to me.
"Me too," I reply.
"One more, papi, one more."
He hands Ayman another dollar. Ayman hands him another hot dog. The young man catches sight of something in the road and runs off.
"I speak French too," he says, "I studied. In school. English was worst for me. My dad, he had someone come teach me at home, two times a week. My teacher ask me, ‘why don't you want to speak English?' I say, ‘It's not my language.'"
A small boy asks for a Gatorade, for which Ayman asks two dollars.
"Two dollars for a Gatorade? Man!"
"You want to pay more?"
"Hell no, man, that's too much money already!" He continues to speak, but I don't hear him. I'm busy watching the young man from across the sidewalk; he's come back for more.
"Hey, papi! I'm gonna give you two more dollars. I want two more hot dogs, but not now, ok? I'll tell you when I want them. Ok? I'll be back."
"Yo! Man!" The small boy yells at a friend, "This guy's charging two bucks for a Gatorade!"
Ayman sighs, "See, Some people nice."
"Make me another one, papi! I got five, right? If I get another five, I get one free, that's how it works!"
"See, he's nice."
"Man, check it out, two dollars for a Gatorade!"
Ayman sighs again, "See, that one, he just likes to talk. Some people, they just have to talk."