by Dan Hinton
At 5 a.m., the sky shifts to a gray-blue. A green 1995 Chevrolet Astro AWD turns right onto West 4th Street with a cart half the size of an RV hitched to its back. The van drives up to the west side of Stern’s Gould Plaza, stops, and reverses to push the cart over the curb and onto the sidewalk.
The driver’s name is Muskerjee. He has driven the same van with the same cart, from Queens in the pre-dawn, back from NYU in the afternoon five days a week for the past eight years or so. An approximation because the repetition in Muskerjee’s daily life makes distinguishing the years difficult.
Also indistinguishable is his coffee-and-breakfast car, no different from the hundreds seen along New York’s avenues and streets. Like the others, Muskerjee serves coffee, tea, donuts, muffins, pastries, and egg and bacon sandwiches from the grill on the quick ‘n’ cheap.
Within a two-block radius, there must be at least five other identical carts to choose from, but for some reason, Muskerjee draws in most of the customers. All good people, about 100 every day.
“Most of them are regulars,” Muskerjee says. “All of them look friendly and are very nice.”
A few years ago, Muskerjee took charge when his brother opened up a mini-mart on Long Island. It’s a tedious job, a job of routine. And the same routine is repeated Monday through Friday, 12 hours a day even through some of the shortest, darkest days of winter and the melting-hot days of summer.
It’s a constant flow, and Muskerjee doesn’t seem to mind riding the wave.
“Most people come from university – workers, security guards, teachers, students, a whole mix,” Muskerjee tells me. “I like the university because I’m here a long time.”
I ask him more questions as he works, but Muskerjee can’t afford to pay me much attention. Another customer has stepped up. Most transactions last a minute or less. Egg and bacon sandwiches, slow him down and the line lengthens along the red-brown wall around the plaza. Coffee and donuts are a hand-off, easy. But before every deal, Muskerjee makes sure to politely and respectfully greet each customer.
“How are you today?” he asks again.
A young student with large black headphones orders, pays, and grabs the paper bag off the counter. Muskerjee takes another order, pours coffee, frys an egg and bacon sandwich, receives a few payments, and takes another order. The student with headphones returns, saying Muskerjee forgot to give him coffee.
The drink’s in the bag, he says. In the middle of a whirlwind of tasks, Muskerjee keeps track of every detail. The young man with heaphones thanks him and walks away and another student steps up to take his place.
But despite all the busyness, business hasn’t been great.
“There too many carts,” Muskerjee said. Another coffee cart sat on the opposite side of the plaza. A couple falafel carts and food-trucks were parked on the same sidewalk.
“I am just living, what can I do?” Muskerjee said. “Some people give me tip.”
In December, in the middle of the “Season of Giving,” the tips get larger. On several occasions, Muskerjee admits, “Some give me cards with money at Christmas time, five dollars or ten dollars.”
Not there yet.
At the end of the day, he drives off in his van with his cart trailing behind, back home to Queens where he’ll see his wife and child, and probably go to sleep before most people eat dinner. And wake up the next morning before the sun.
For now, Muskerjee continues supplying people their caffeine addictions and pre-baked goods, while receiving little in return. He’ll be back the next morning, and so will they.