Monday, March 15, 2010

The magic of the New York food cart

New York has gone through a number of transformations over the years. From the 1960s and 70s - when love and art reigned, the time of Andy Warhol and the Factory, Patti and Robert and Woodstock and 20-cent subway rides - to the 80s, when Wall Street began to fully emerge as a driving force in the world, to the 90s, when disillusionment and safe sex reigned, to the 2000s, the New York of post-Sex and the City consumerism, which saw Starbucks and a number of other annoying trendy chain spots popping up on literally every corner. Perhaps ironically, that's the New York I fell in love with back in 2004 when I first visited the city - or more accurately, I fell in love with the city when it was in this stage of evolution. Because, ultimately, there's one thing that never seems to change about the city: its energy, and the feeling it stirs in people who are drawn to it. And that energy, that feeling, is embodied in another thing about the city that never really changes: the food cart.

The food cart is a magical thing. It's a cart in every sense of the word - it has wheels, it's pulled behind a vehicle, it's partially open-air - but it serves a higher purpose in providing busy New Yorkers with things that are edible. There are a number of different types of food carts in the city. The most common are the hot dog/sausage carts that heavily populate touristy areas like Rockefeller Center and Herald Square, and the gyro/shish kabob carts that tend to park in areas where young people gather in search of greasy drunk food: East Village, Lower East Side, Hell's Kitchen/Times Square. I still remember the first street gyro I had, in the summer of 2007 in the East Village. Life-changing.

Another staple of the food cart family, pictured above, is something I had inexplicably not partaken of until today: the coffee cart. These are all over the city in the mornings, spanning from Harlem to Wall Street. I see one on my walk to the train in the mornings at 103rd and 3rd, and then on my walk from the train to work along virtually every street in Tribeca. This morning I really, really wanted some orange juice - I know, I'm such a hardass - and, remembering I had a few rare dollars in my wallet, I decided to brave the mysterious coffee cart and partake of a New York staple.

I felt weirdly nervous as I waited in line, listening to the guy in front of me order a large coffee with two Splendas. The guys behind me, who clearly worked together, were having a conversation about their summer plans, tossing around the prospect of finding other work or maybe leaving the city. As they talked, visions of Coney Island danced in my head: the beach, sun, cool ocean breeze, sand, hot dogs, music, cutoff shorts, swimsuits. I felt warm and happy. The guy in front of me finished ordering and I stepped up to the window. The coffee cart man smiled down at me, and I told him I just wanted an orange juice. He asked me if that was it and I said yes. He told me it would be a dollar and 25 cents. I started digging my wallet for the extra quarter and he seemed to sense that I wanted a bag for my lonely little OJ, and I told him that no! I didn't need one. I fished out the quarter and laid it on the counter as he handed me the OJ and smiled warmly.

As I walked away, I felt filled with an unexpected joy and contentment. In that moment, I felt the city wrap around me for the first time in a while, protectively cuddling me from all sides. I looked around and saw the New York I had first seen in 2004: that energy, that life, that art pulsing through everything. No matter how many chain coffee houses there are, or how much money gets poured into meaningless capitalistic pursuits in this city, there will always be that feeling of endless possibility, that freedom, like if you just believe in it and want it bad enough, you can literally be anything you want. That feeling, that uniquely New York feeling, is something that everyone who ever came to New York to pursue a dream has experienced and can speak to, whether it was in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, or beyond; and as I walked the block to my office from the coffee cart - which, by the way, was set up right across the street from a Starbucks - I felt it pressing on me in the most comforting way.

Despite everything I've been through, and all the uncertainty that continues to face me, I heard the city telling me it's going to be OK, and I believed it. I put my hands in the pockets of my trench coat, smiled to myself and walked on.


  1. Now that's a cool food cart...btw do u have coffee kiosks? those are our drive thru coffee places...

  2. You've certainly filled me with great images of New York. That's what I love about your blog, you're not afraid to post about the good and the bad. But I love posts like this when you highlight the best parts of living in NYC.


  3. You know one thing's for sure i enjoy reading your blog especially posts like this, about living in New York.


  4. Your experience isnt complete until you see one of the food cart guys urinate behind a car and then serve someone without using gloves. Ah new york city....
    Oh! dont forget the carts that serve the roasted nuts. You can smell the carmelised sugar a mile away. It smells so nice!

  5. I felt the same way yesterday as I left Eat Here Now after devouring a plate of blueberry pancakes. NYC is so poetic and complex, and you're right the energy never dies! I love this place :)

  6. I love finding other blogs about New York. The food carts around here are crazy - you can literally find anything. I still don't really trust the cleanliness of then though, haha!

  7. I live in Denver where we have like, 2 food carts. But the skiing is great!

  8. It always surprises me the ways that NYC is so refreshing.

    Great description of that. :)