The mango vendor
By 9:30 in the morning, Luz Maria cuts mangoes on Seventh Avenue.
She lops off the top and sticks a rod through the middle, peels off the reddish skin to the yellow fruit beneath.
She wears a plastic glove to hold the fruit, cuts the cleaned mango into pieces. Eight slices to a Ziploc bag, laid out as offerings atop her cart.
Luz Maria carries with her the lemon flavoring, the hot sauce, and the salt to add to the mangoes at customers’ requests. She carries a stash of plastic gloves, which she returns to every time money changes hands. And she carries the two tickets she received earlier this month in the course of selling mangoes on the street.
The weather is getting nice so the mango sellers are back in business, hoping as usual to avoid drawing the attention of police.
Luz Maria, identified by her first name only because of her pending summons, said in Spanish translated by her daughter that she has to go to civil court soon to pay the fines. The pink slips are folded into small pieces and worn enough so that the pencil-written violation explanation is no longer visible, but there’s plenty of ways to get the low-level fines that grow with multiple street-vending infractions: a pushcart touching against a building, or selling within 10 feet of a driveway, subway, or crosswalk, according to rules on the city’s Health Department website. For not having a license, it can cost you $1,000.
But it’s not easy to get a license. The city caps them at a few thousand, and arguments for and against raising the cap have gone on for years. Add more so people can sell legally? Keep them limited to prevent crowding and protect landlords? The stasis has a price. On the underground market, the permits can go for $20,000 to $25,000 for two years, according to Matthew Shapiro, legal director at the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project.
“Vendors are not able to pay that price,” Shapiro says of the permits.
Luz Maria sells her mango slices for $3.50, bringing in maybe $100 a day if things are good.
Unpermitted vendors “take a risk because they need to work,” says Shapiro. Stats from the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings show that more than 80 unlicensed mobile food vendor citations were issued in the first half of last year, with others for more specific offenses.
Luz Maria, 35, is originally from Ecuador, where she learned the mango tradition, says her 15-year-old daughter, Niurca, who helps her mother when she’s off school.
Luz Maria had a job at a clothing factory but she was let go about a month ago. So she started buying mangoes from a market in the Bronx and cutting them up for sale.
“Mango, mango,” she calls softly to passersby rushing to or from Penn Station, standing next to (but not touching) a vacant storefront on the corner.
You have to be careful with the mango selling. There’s the potential fines, and then the produce. Some mangos are a little off, which you learn to tell by touch. Some people don’t want toppings, just the fresh slices. There tend to be more sales in the morning, says Luz Maria’s daughter. People grab them for breakfast. By a little after noon, Luz Maria had sold 10.
She says she hopes to get her other old job back sometime soon. But she needs the money. So at least for now, she’ll sell mangoes.