On the Trail of Diaper Fish Wraps and Hot Hot Dogs

Larissa MacFarquhar’s “Busted” (New Yorker, Feb 1) opens and closes with dialog, a kind of journalistic Roddy Doyle: “Crrrcchh,” in which everything is revealed and nothing is resolved. The spool is running, and we are told that New York City’s Department of Investigation is on the prowl, overseeing those on the make. The DOI’s apparently a productive unit. They “arrested a group of sanitation inspectors…they arrested half the city’s taxi inspectors…they infiltrated a gang of parking-meter attendants.”

The central drama of the piece focuses on the sidewalk food vendor industry. Inspections and permits of the food carts fuel a thriving underground economy. And no wonder: “Food venders [sic] can make a hundred thousand dollars a year,” MacFarquhar says. Yet a permit cost only a couple hundred bucks, but since they are limited and distributed by lottery might be sold on the black market for thousands. Calling the vendors an industry is not hyperbolic: According to a Slate article (Simons, Aug 12) “A hot dog vendor was kicked from the curb outside New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last week for failure to pay his monthly rent—of $53,558.” So no surprise the vendors have organized into the Street Vendor Project, providing education, support, and outreach for some 10,000 street vendors working in the city.

I’m not thinking of opening a food cart, in spite of the obvious potential for profits, but I do occasionally, out on one jaunt or another, smell and contemplate the odd hot dog, sense the greasy-good butter soaking up a bag of popcorn, see the summer day in a spool of cotton candy. What would it be like to step up to the cart and order one, I wonder, and then to actually eat it?

The potential for profitable characters attracts the entrepreneurial writer. In Roddy Doyle’s hilarious The Van, the unemployed Barrytown Dubliners have purchased a used food vendor van with a fryer on board and have outfitted it as a fish and chips restaurant on wheels: “It’s not fish, said Bimbo. – …What is it? – It’s white, said Jimmy Sr. – It’s a nappy! The man told him. – Wha’!… – He’s righ’, Jimmy, said Bimbo – it’s a Pamper; folded up. My God, that’s shockin’. – Shut up! Jimmy Sr hissed at him. – I must have put it in the batter – Shut up! – What is it? said Sharon. The man wasn’t angry-looking now; he looked like he needed comfort.”

And then there’s John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius, the anti-hero of A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius works for a time for Paradise Vendors, pushing a hot dog cart around the quarters of New Orleans. But he seems to eat more hot dogs himself than he sells to customers. And having eaten his stock, he concocts a story about being robbed to explain the situation to his boss: “How much money did he get?” “Money? No money was stolen. After all, there was no money to steal, for I had not been able to vend even one of these delicacies. He stole the hot dogs.” Later, Ignatius is under investigation by the inspection board: “They seen you picking a cat out the gutter on St. Joseph Street.” “It was a rather appealing calico. I offered it a hot dog. However, the cat refused to eat it. It was an animal with some taste and decency.” 

The sidewalk food vendor business is full of characters and complicities; indeed, what business is not?