Five years ago, Paul, a New York City newbie, moved into a Hudson Yards luxury rental building that was next door to a garage where halal street food carts—the kind that serve chicken, rice, and salad with red and white sauce—were stored for the night. Initially, the garage was a headache that disrupted his morning routine, threatened his dog’s health, and freaked out his girlfriend. But gradually the three learned to co-exist with, and even appreciate the food cart workers. Here’s Paul’s story.
Admittedly, I was moving to my far West 37th Street apartment sight unseen. My primary concerns were a) would my one bedroom be spacious enough, b) have enough light, and c) have welcoming neighbors, or at least not annoying ones.
I had done a quick check online: The area seemed relatively safe and nothing screamed to be a “red flag,” and we moved in with little drama. But the first time I walked the dog in the new 'hood, she started pulling maniacally towards the small, open garage to the right of my new building.
[Editor's Note: Brick Underground's series “Living Next to” features first-person accounts of what it’s like to have an iconic or unusual New York City neighbor. Have a story to share? Drop us an email. We respect all requests for anonymity.]
There was a plastic curtain in front of the entrance, like what you would see at a carwash. There were small bits of food on the ground, and my dog started eating them. She is obsessed with food, and is already overweight and suffering from pancreatitis. I’m supposed to be very careful about what she eats and not give her any human food at all.
I soon figured out this garage was where many of the city’s halal food carts are stored when they are not being used.
It became a daily fight with the dog to steer clear of the garage entrance and walk in the other direction—it made my mornings a pain in the neck. She’d tug and cry and end up eating errant grains of rice and bits of chicken no matter what I tried. When there was no food, she licked the dirty ground instead.
But the daily battles with the dog were not the only problem.
My girlfriend was nervous about coming home late at night because there were often groups of men gathered near the entrance to our building after their workday was done. They were usually engrossed in their own conversations and paid her little attention.
They smoked as they congregated outside our building, and while the smoke didn't permeate our actual living space, walking through a cloud of it when we exited or entered our building was annoying.
Still, we tried to look on the bright side. At least there were no food smells coming from the empty carts.
The carts themselves kept me on my toes. In early mornings, when I took the dog out and hadn’t yet really woken up, I had to dodge carts that were being pushed down a ramp to the sidewalk. More than a few times I found myself facing a cart head-on and had to run and pull the dog to safety. There’s nothing like a 500-pound cart rolling straight for you with no warning to wake up your reflexes.
It’s funny. I used to love getting food from those carts. But I saw the grills being cleaned on the dirty sidewalk each night, and I permanently lost my taste for street food. Just thinking about it makes my stomach turn. To this day I can’t pass a cart without feeling a bit queasy. Those grills were on the same sidewalk where I saw rats, and the utensils were sometimes right on a patch of concrete that my dog liked to pee on.
My girlfriend and I talked about halal carts all the time. But neighbors in the building didn’t seem to care, nor did anyone on the block that I mentioned them to. It wasn’t worth talking to management about the smoking—they hadn’t been helpful about more serious issues.
As time went on, after seeing the same men day after day, I began to recognize them. It became somewhat comforting to see the same, familiar faces.
They began to recognize me too, waving a hand or saying a gruff “hey,” as I walked by, with the dog straining at her leash. While initially, they made my girlfriend feel unsafe, knowing they would be outside our building when she got home late at night made her feel protected.
We left a year later, for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with the halal carts. I look back on it as a cool, NYC experience. I’m pretty sure my dog does too. If we go anywhere near that block, she frantically pulls me down the street in the direction of the carts.
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