Water, One Dollar



293 Church St., NY, NY 10013

Neighborhood: Financial District

Mohammad B. Miah is a small man. He stands about five feet tall with his red and white and black leather hi-top sneakers on. He lives in Astoria, Queens, and he wants to know whether I work for the city. He motions in the direction of City Hall.

“You have a job?” he asks.

“I’m a writer,” I say, waving my notebook, which is green and skinny, and has spiral binding on top.

“You work for the city?” he asks.

“No, for a newspaper,” I answer, waving my notebook again. His English is not great, and I think ‘freelance’ will be too hard to explain.

Every morning, Mohammad spends two dollars to ride the subway to 293 Church Street, a garage-like space tucked between two fancy restaurants in a bustling corner of Tribeca. 293 Church Street is more like a not-place than a place. Mohammad calls it a “gar-iz.” It is run by a bristling man named John who has a grey mustache and a heavy Eastern European accent. For six months, Mohammed came to the gar-iz every morning to pick up a silver cart, which he would wheel here, to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, and sell hot dogs. On a good day, he made about $60 profit. On a slow day, $40.

Mohammad has a vendor’s license, which he keeps in a dirty plastic sheath in his otherwise empty brown leather wallet, its tarnished beaded ball-chain necklace wrapped around it. The license cost him $60, plus $56 for a required 2-day class which taught him that he must wear plastic gloves to handle food, and offered guidance as to how to dress appropriately. The rent on the cart was approximately six hundred dollars per month. It varied, though. “If I am making good business,” he said, “rent go up.”

A vendor’s license allows you to sell food on the street, but a permit is necessary to own your own cart. One day, he showed up at the garage to find that the cart he was renting was no longer available. Permits expire every 7 months, so Mohammad speculates that the cart owner’s permit ran out, or that someone else laid claim to the cart. In any case, he says, pointing to a blue and yellow Sabrett umbrella on the other side of the approach to the bridge, “Maybe he have permit. I have no permit.” Which is to say, without his own permit, there’s nothing he can do.

So now he arrives at 293 Church Street each morning with two blue coolers and an old silver hand-truck. “Water! Cold things!” he says to a group of tourists walking by. “One dollar!” It comes out sounding like, “Wada! Coldings! Wandallah!”

He spends about $30 to fill up the coolers with water, soda, Gatorade, and ice. He wheels the hand truck down Church Street, weaving in and out of parked cars and traffic. The wheels on the truck squeak as he walks. The two coolers are stacked on top of each other, and the lid on the top cooler doesn’t fit quite right. Handfuls of ice cubes fall onto his feet and hit the pavement. His small frame moves quickly, and, struggling to keep up, I keep an eye on his blue and grey and yellow baseball cap, which is made from parachute material and Velcros in the back. He is like a compact little rectangle, with a tan fleece top and blue polyester pants.

He makes a left onto Chambers Street, passes a fruit vendor and a hot dog cart, passes Ralph’s Discount City, and tells me we’re going to the Blooklyn Biliz.

“The Blooklyn Biliz. You know the Blooklyn Biliz?”

I think he’s saying “Brooklyn Village,” so I shake my head no.

“I show you.” He tells me to walk on the sidewalk.

The sky is looking grey, and despite the temperature, which is only in the mid-50s, the haze and the humidity make the air feel hot and sticky.

“Maybe coming rain today,” he says, “people no buy cold things.” Mohammad looks up at the gathering cloud cover. “It’s hard making people like water.”

Mohammad picks a spot at the approach to the Bridge where there is a brass symbol of a walking person inlaid into the sidewalk, with matching brass arrows inlaid on either side, in each direction. The on-ramp for cars hugs the left side of the walkway, and the off-ramp hugs the right. Clumps of tourists walk by, holding cameras and guide books. Joggers and bikers pass, too, sweaty and fast. The Blooklyn Biliz looks dishwater grey on this cloudy day. Its usual majesty is dwarfed by all the taillights and the buildings, which, from this angle, seem at least as tall, if not taller. Even the buildings on the Brooklyn side of the bridge seem tall enough to jostle for the skyline’s attention.

“I set here,” says Mohammad. “People come across. They tired. They buy water.” He lays the two coolers side-by-side, takes their lids off, reaches into the ice, and pulls the bottles of Gatorade—which, at $2, are his most expensive item—to the top of the chilly pile.

“Wada! Coldings! Wandallah!” he calls to a passing blonde family.

“No thank you,” says one woman.

“OK,” says Mohammad, “have a nice day.”

His voice is slightly nasal, and he speaks quickly and confidently, as though he is not aware of the fact that he is often hard to understand. He has dark brown deep-set eyes and a square-shaped dark brown beard with a few grey hairs. Mohammad came to this country from his native Bangladesh when he was 34 years old. The lawlessness and random violence in his country had been wearing him down. “My country too much crazy people,” he says. “People gun. You have money, they take it.” He had been trying to get a visa through the lottery visa program since 1990. He hit the jackpot in 1998. “This country very nice. I like this country,” he says. “Here you have one thousand dollars in your pocket, nobody takes it.”

Mohammad has been here at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge for an hour. So far today, he has made $4.

“Gatorade, Miss?” he asks a passing woman. It sounds like “Gatorid.” “Want Gatorid? That’s good.”

Mohammad wonders if it’s too cold for people to want soda. “I looking for another job now,” he says. “Outside work, vendor, too headache.” Rain, cold, people’s whims—his living is too uncertain. “People buy water, I have money. People don’t buy water, I don’t have money.” When he wants to go to the bathroom, he must cart his coolers to a nearby bench and ask some people sitting there to watch them while he runs to Starbucks.

He lives in a 2-bedroom basement apartment which costs $800. I ask him if he lives alone.

“No, not a loan,” he says. “Rent. Monthly rent.”

He lives with a friend, another Bangladeshi. His wife is still in Bangladesh. He wants to bring her here, but it’s too expensive. “‘How come you no make America for me?’” he says she asks him. “I say no, maybe later.” When he goes to City Hall to try to get her a visa, they always ask about money, always money. “City say ‘how much you make money?’ If you have money, city give you visa.”

He interrupts himself. “Yes sir, wada?” He continues. “If you have no money, city says, ‘how can your wife eat?’”

The Urban Justice Center recently released a report about street vendors in lower Manhattan. They interviewed 100 vendors in 5 languages, and they found among them a median yearly income of $7,500. I cannot imagine Mohammad making even that much at this rate. “The typical vendor,” wrote the New York Times in an article about the report, “is a married immigrant man who is the sole provider for his family and has no health insurance.” That’s Mohammad. “Only 20 percent of the vendors reported English as their first language; forty percent said they were uncomfortable speaking it,” the Times went on to say.

Mohammad is a Muslim. He belongs to the Alamin Mosque on 36th Avenue in Long Island City. He prays five times a day. He might not get a chance to pray five times today, though. He looks at his watch. He sometimes goes to a mosque near here, if he can get away while he’s working. “You watch?” He gestures at his coolers.

“Sure,” I say. “I’ll watch.”

“Really? No problem?” he asks? “You watch, I go?” I nod. “No problem.”

“You watch, I go.” He’s happy. I watch his little blue and grey and yellow hat bob through the crowd towards the Assata Islamic Center, a mile north, on Allen Street.

A sign above my head reads “AREA UNDER NYPD VIDEO SURVEILLANCE.” I watch the twin yellow lights flash at the off-ramp. Bottomtop. Bottomtop. Bottomtop. I write in my skinny red notebook. I wait. A red double-decker Gray Line bus drives by, people spilling off the roof with their cameras. Bottomtop. Bottomtop. I look at the Bridge. Some 27 people died during its construction, most of them immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. One tourist in an orange Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt passes, doubles back, asks for a beer. When I tell him it’s only water, soda, and Gatorade, he leaves. While Mohammad is gone, I sell two sodas and one water. It’s been about two hours, and Mohammad’s total is now $7.

He returns in about 20 minutes. He smiles at me when I hand him the crumpled dollar bills. “Oh,” he says. “You sell?”

Mohammad has four children. The oldest is 17, the youngest—he has to count forwards on his hand from 1997—is 9. They live in Queens, too, with their mother, his first wife. She’s Bangladeshi but they met here. She divorced him a few years back when she fell in love with another man. After that, Mohammad went back to Bangladesh “to make another marriage.” It sounds like he says “mat-iz.” He gives his first wife money for their children.

“Wada?” He pauses to ask a passerby. “Cold dlink?”

“No thank you.”

“OK, bye.”

He turns to me. “You matiz?”

I’m wearing a wedding ring. I am, for all intents and purposes, married, although my partnership is not valid in 46 states and, until 1993, was flatly illegal in 14. For simplicity’s sake, I shake my head. No. It’s not a lie, not exactly.

“No?” he asks. “What happen?”

I just shrug silently. He leaves it alone.

Mohammad says he has tried to get a job in a restaurant, but he can’t because of his beard. The weather is getting cold, and he knows he won’t be able to sell cold drinks for much longer. So he has decided to try to get a job with the City. His options are limited because he can’t read or write much English. But he wouldn’t mind working with trash. “I make cleaning job,” he says, “OK. No problem. Garbage OK. I like this.” He looks appraisingly towards City Hall.

“Wada?” he asks the next person, and the next. “Wandallah.”

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