Under the looming shadow of Trump Tower, the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street belongs, unofficially, to a man named John and his coffee cart. On weekday mornings between the hours of 5 a.m. and 11 a.m., John, in his black fedora and white apron, can be found here selling coffee, pastries, egg sandwiches, and juices to the commuter crowd. He’s been parking at this same plot of Midtown sidewalk for nine years, and has survived myriad challenges posed by the ever-changing cityscape.
Still, nothing could prepare him for the unique predicament he now faces: On November 9th, an interim White House materialized just two blocks north of his place of business. Metal and concrete barricades, roadblocks, K-9 units, and a veritable army of police in riot gear now fortify the immediate radius surrounding Trump Tower. For John and his coffee cart, the effect of this heightened security has been catastrophic.
“The first two weeks [after the election], the police would not let me work,” he tells me on a drizzling Wednesday morning. “They said ‘you’re too close,’ so I lost my income. It hurt me bad.” Last week, John was permitted to return to his longtime spot. But because his coffee cart business depends on regulars, many of whom have altered their commutes to avoid the area, John’s struggles continue. “People take different routes now, so I don’t get my customers.”
Reynaldo, who operates a coffee cart on the Trump Tower-side of 55th Street and Fifth Avenue, offers an even bleaker prognosis. “After Mr. Trump won the election, the business went down about 70 to 80 percent,” Reynaldo says. “My regular customers don’t like to pass because of the protection.”
Asked if any of the recent neighborhood additions—like the protesters, police, or media—have helped offset these losses, both Reynaldo and John shake their heads. John is especially frustrated with the media, whose news trucks now occupy the area’s precious few parking spaces. “If I can’t park my van, I can’t work,” he says.
The influx of tourists, eager to get their photos taken in front of the gold-emblazoned name of our soon-to-be president, don’t seem to be helping matters either. “Those people go to the high class restaurants, not here,” Reynaldo says. “Some places have it better, some places have it worse. What are you going to do?”
The seemingly obvious solution is to relocate, which both vendors say they’ve considered. But it’s apparently not so easy as wheeling the cart over to the next block, thanks to a complex web of rules—both written and unwritten—that govern the New York City food cart universe.
In 1981, facing pressure from the restaurant industry, Mayor Ed Koch capped the number of city-wide mobile vendor permits at 3,000. As a result of this limited supply, most vendors must now obtain their permits—technically priced at $200—on the black market, where yearly costs can run upwards of $10,000. The inflated pricing has led to strange, often exploitative, partnerships between food-cart operators and permit-holders. In many cases, a vendor may own his merchandise and equipment, yet still work as an employee of the original permit-owner. Under such an arrangement, the critical decision of location may not be up to the cart owner at all.
Adding to the confusion, the conventions of vendorship dictate that the most valuable locations are basically allotted through permanent dibs. A prized corner may be held by the same cart for years, or even passed down through generations. So although John is fortunate enough to fully own his permit, relocating would mean forfeiting the claim on his turf of nearly a decade. For now, his plan is to wait and see. “I’m hoping he goes to Washington,” John says. “No one likes him in New York, anyway.”
The final coffee cart I visit belongs to Nasser. His spot is on the corner of Madison and 55th, just a half-block south from the jutting rear of Trump Tower. Nasser’s setup is different than the other two—he doesn’t have a griddle, his bagels are already spread with cream cheese, and his coffee costs $1.25 rather than a dollar. Reasonably, Nasser is hesitant to discuss the state of his business with a stranger.
Still, I hang out for awhile, downing my third coffee of the morning and chatting with Nasser during the lulls between customers. He has four kids, I learn, and a big house in Brooklyn with too-high rent. It is nearly 11 a.m., and in a few minutes he’ll drive his cart to a garage in Long Island City, then head to his second job at a coffee distributor in Flushing, Queens. Between his two jobs, Nasser regularly works 15-hour days.
“I’ve been doing this five years,” he tells me. “That’s nothing though,” he adds, pointing to the adjacent hot dog vendor just now setting up his cart. “My friend has been here for 20.”
As Nasser is packing up for the day, a half-dozen orange-vested city workers form a line at his window. One by one, he pours their coffees, bags their danishes, and butters their rolls. “Hold up,” one of the men says after receiving his change. “The coffee isn’t a buck?”
“Sorry, my friend,” Nasser says, smiling. “That’s the President Trump price.”