Every evening around 6 o’clock, or, “when the day kisses the night,” as Moneer Azeez says, he puts the finishing touches on his elaborately decorated cart and switches on a light over his head. Azeez, who bills himself as New York’s only Native American street vendor, explains: “When the light goes on, people start coming.”
And it’s true. Within a few minutes, a small line of students has formed around the cart, which is almost as appealing for its colorful display of vegetables and fake flowers as it is for the wafting aroma of marinated chicken and sautéed eggplant. Azeez, who is generally known as “Michael,” can seem mystical and intense—he gestures towards an abundant spread of peppers, lemons, and red onions and says “All these things come from sunlight, the colors of the rainbow, and the glory of nature!” But a minute later he’s teasing an NYU kid whose nourishment he is probably wholly responsible for in the absence of his mother. “This guy comes here all the time. When he thinks he’s not hungry, I just give him a taste, and it tickles his intestines. The next thing you know, he’s emptying his pockets to eat.”
Azeez is careful to explain that he is not selling Native American food. He says that cuisine would involve elk, deer, and buffalo, which would probably not go over well with his customers. He describes his food as simply American, but points out some traditional elements, like corn and beans, which make it unique. When newcomers approach the cart, they usually glance around for a menu, but the only sign is a hand-painted one that reads “From Atlantis with Love,” which Azeez did not care to explain. He has grown accustomed to curious faces, though, and always greets the clueless with: “I make sandwiches—like wraps—for $5.” Like many street vendors, Azeez doesn’t cook any pork products on his griddle. He notes that pork is not native to this country (wild boar is), but his decision is simply based on smart business—including pig would drive away too many potential customers.
The most unusual thing about the cart—aside from Azeez himself, is the sheer number of ingredients to choose from. A popular sandwich consists of grilled flatbread smeared with a yogurt sauce (containing cucumbers, horseradish, and secrets) and piled with chicken, turkey bacon, tangy eggplant, raw red cabbage, sautéed peppers and onions (with garlic and ginger), three kinds of shredded cheese, carrot peels, chick peas, kidney beans, corn, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, lettuce, and tomato—or any combination thereof. This is one street cart where vegetarians can actually fill up. But beef sausage is another option—flattened and browned. Azeez has conducted what he calls a “silent survey” over the seven months he has been operating the cart, introducing different foods and removing them if they don’t sell. Scrambled eggs were not a hit, and bologna also came and went. But the New York hot dog tradition has been reincarnated very successfully: a turkey dog is butterflied and seared, then topped with yogurt sauce, cheese, a crumbled slab of turkey bacon, and barbecue sauce for $1.
Azeez, who used to clean the windows of high-rise buildings, has not actually had a lifelong dream of cooking professionally. “It’s more based on art than anything else,” he says. “And the theory of seeing and wanting. I just decided to take my art to the streets.”