Getting to Know Your Local NYC Street Vendor

Union Square buzzes on a Monday morning as Palash Das Gupta puts on his cash-filled fanny pack and settles in by the fruit and vegetable stand he has been operating for the past four years. You’ll find him six days a week, 12 hours a day standing along the southwest corner of Union Square.

Every morning street vendors like Palash set up among the bustling crowds on 14th street. They meld into the background behind the homeless people sitting with signs propped against their knees, chess players calling out for opponents to join them, students finishing their coffees while reading in the shade, business people taking a smoke break, and tourists trying to navigate the many subway entrances.

New York City’s 20,000 vendors are the one constant as reliable as the buildings themselves, but who are these people we pass every day and often glance away from, even cross the street to avoid? Palash, like many other vendors, is an immigrant. Five years ago he came to New York from the region of eastern South Asia known as Bengal with no job and no plans. A friend helped him get his vendor’s license and set him up on the sidewalk.

Further uptown, Lei Bai sells her own photographs and photographs of art. Lei is Chinese. At 18 she moved to Japan to study and work after her graduation. In 2003 she moved to New York on a whim. “Sometimes when you get older, you want a change, you’re ready for something else,” she says, so she worked as a freelance photographer, and started selling photographs on 42nd street between Broadway and 6th.

When asked if she likes her job, she laughs and says “Oh, I love it, honey. I’ve been doing it for eight or nine years, I love it.” She loves the city and despite the fact that her job is not easy, it is “unique… there is always a different customer, a different story.” You might think it’s hard to make money as a vendor, but according to Lei, “making a living is easy.” Still, it’s not necessarily bringing in the big bucks. “You can’t say ‘Oh, I want to be rich!’” she says, laughing.

Palash Das Gupta with his fruit and vegetable cart in Union Square; photo: Alexis Medina

Palash has a similar attitude. When asked the burning question: what does he do when he needs a bathroom break? “I go to the supermarket, or in there,” he says while gesturing towards the 5 Napkin Burger next door. He doesn’t worry that someone will steal from his stand while he’s away. “It’s only three, four minutes. I get paid either way,” he chuckles. He is happily single with no children and no family living in New York, but he doesn’t get lonely. He has his customers and his friends.

He knows enough English to make a sale and joke around. Despite the language barrier, his customers appreciate him and make an effort to shop from him. One woman shouts “He’s the best. Three packs of raspberries for one dollar? It’s crazy. Try getting a deal like that in there” as she points to the supermarket behind her. A regular customer jokingly complains about the banana selection, so Palash reveals two new bunches. The customer tousles Palash’s hair, snatches the bananas, and pretends to make a run for it. The two laugh, money exchanges hands, and the man continues on his way.

Fi2W is featuring stories by students in the Feet in 2 Worlds journalism course at The New School. This article was written by student Alexis Medina.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.