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A Day in the Life of a Food Vendor

The work is both demanding and routine. Mr. Ahmed commutes five or six days a week, clocking eight-hour shifts. His ride into Lower Manhattan is just over an hour, so if he can find a seat on the E train, he sleeps, squashed between the bodies of strangers, or watches part of a movie on his phone. Last week it was “Asoka,” based on the life of an Iron Age Indian ruler, played by one of his all-time favorite actors, Shah Rukh Khan.

But today, Mr. Ahmed checks his email first, hoping for news from one of the preschools processing the application of his youngest child, Karen. Nothing yet.

By 7:15 a.m., he has reached his usual spot, which he found three years ago by word of mouth: a wide swath of sidewalk in front of the BNY Mellon building that gets hectic around noon when those in the financial district crowd — a mix of Wall Street bankers and construction workers, students and tourists — are all looking to spend $5 or $6 on a fast, hot lunch.

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Mr. Ahmed, left, and Sayed Shabana positioning the cart. Numerous regulations cover its placement.

Credit
An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Though there are occasional turf wars among vendors, Mr. Ahmed has never had to fight for space. He buys breakfast — a coffee and doughnut — from a nearby vendor who gives him what Mr. Ahmed calls a “neighbor discount.”

“Good morning, neighbor!” is his standard, sunny greeting for the half-dozen other carts on his block.

Like many cart owners, Mr. Ahmed hires someone to deliver the cart to him every morning and return it to a garage each night. (Other owners hitch the carts to their cars and drive them in, then face the ordeal of finding a parking spot.)

But by 7:40, Mr. Ahmed is getting antsy; the driver is late. “Maybe he has a flat tire,” he says. He stays calm, though sometimes he can’t help but imagine the worst. Mr. Ahmed was a New Yorker on 9/11, and this part of the city holds meaning for him. “Many people, they went to work like me, they thought it was an ordinary day,” he says.

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Salman Akhtar, right, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, is the first customer of the day — at 9:30 a.m.

Credit
An Rong Xu for The New York Times

It’s cloudy and cold for April, and Mr. Ahmed is still sleepy, but he won’t be tempted by the hot jolt of a second coffee. He knows he can’t leave the cart to go to the bathroom (at the Target across the street, or the Whole Foods a few blocks away) until his partner shows up hours from now. Another coffee, this early in the day, would be way too risky.

The driver pulls up with Mr. Ahmed’s cart at 7:52, and the two men work quickly to wheel it into place. Inside, the cart is cold, clean and packed with boxes of ingredients.

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