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Meet the Vendors/Kingpins of a mobile food emporium sell falafel, gelato, wursts, and more

THEY start appearing about 10 a.m. Hundreds of them. They push, pull, and pedal their rattly carts to almost every street corner from 34th to 57th Street along Fifth and Sixth Avenues. They're New York's ubiquitous street vendors. Although these friendly vendors are as open and appealing as the foods they sell, most would rather be known by their first names only.

For the past five years, ever since he and his wife, Aviva, immigrated from Israel, it's been the same routine for Moshe. He gets up early, dresses in jeans, stretches a mustard-yellow T-shirt emblazoned with ``Moshe's Falafel'' over his expanding midriff, and tops off the whole outfit with a blue ``USA'' cap.

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After hitching his spit 'n polish, quilted, stainless steel cart to a beat-up, faded-orange, 1977 Chevy station wagon, Moshe and Aviva head for the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 46th Street.

There, with the help of three men, Moshe and Aviva unfold their cart and start popping jawbreaker-size balls of falafel into bubbling hot oil and wait for the masses to break for lunch.

``Five years now, I do this,'' says Moshe, in a distinctly Israeli accent. ``My wife's family in Israel has been selling falafel for over 40 years, that's how I got into the business.

``You like falafel?'' he asks.

``What? Never had falafel?'' he yells to the amusement of his grinning crew. ``Try one. The best in town,'' he says, pointing to the small print on his T-shirt that confirms his point. ``Here,'' he says, thrusting a single hot crisp ball wrapped in a napkin in my direction.

Falafel, he explains, comes originally from Egypt. ``Simple food. Peasant food. You take ground chickpeas, add a little garlic, some spices -- Mideast spices, everything fresh. The oil I change every day. My falafel is 100 percent natural. Kosher, too,'' he says, nodding with approval.

Moshe comes to this corner spot every day. ``It's a gentleman's agreement,'' he says. ``This is my spot. The other vendors, if they see someone come here, they won't let them stay. See that man over on the other corner? He's been on the same spot over 10, maybe 12 years. It's seniority.

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``This is fine for now,'' he continues, ``but someday I'm going to open my own Middle East restaurant. Somewhere here in New York,'' he says, as he and his crew busily stuff pockets of pita bread with four hot falafel, topping them with lettuce, tomato, and dressing.

``Best part of the job? -- the money. Definitely, the money. The hardest part's got to be the cleaning! Takes three hours every night to clean the cart,'' Moshe says with more pride than drudgery as he wipes a few spots of oil from the counter. ``Got to keep it clean, looking good. It cost me $2,000 to build.''

``I like the work and the people, and we work hard. Every day I work here with Moshe even when I was pregnant with our daughter,'' says Aviva, who's practically small enough to fit into a pita bread pocket herself. ``But that's why we work, for our daughter. We work hard because we want to make money so she is able to study.''

Moshe excuses himself to load 100-pound sacks of dried chickpeas into his station wagon from a truck that just pulled alongside his cart. ``Today is easy,'' Aviva says. ``Nice weather. But come back in winter. You won't know us. We all bundle up. You see only the eyes.''

It's 11:45 and business is picking up. Aviva waves a cheery goodbye, drags out a box to stand on so she can reach over the counter, and starts waiting on the growing line of customers.

For Rolf Babiel, street vending has paid off. It's obvious by his absence.

``Rolf? No, he's not here. He's at his restaurant,'' says John, who with another helper, Carl, has just pushed Rolf Babiel's ``Hallo Berlin'' wurst cart under a stripling ginkgo tree on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street. ``It's not hot dog. It's wurst,'' says the menu.

``It's been a real American success story for Rolf,'' John adds. ``He came over from East Germany two, maybe three years ago. Now he has his own restaurant. He's working there today.''

John and Carl work as a team as a loyal line of patient people quietly queue up. ``Carl here's the cook, and I'm the maitre d','' John says with a laugh. Carl, in red shorts and a blue shirt, keeps four frying pans in motion and stirs two pots of sauerkraut as he cooks seven kinds of wurst. John takes the orders and the money and makes change.

``Sure people like to eat here,'' says John. ``It's good food for two bucks. They're not paying $8 in some restaurant, and having to wait 15 minutes to get a seat.''

The location is perfect, too.

Marika works across the street at Lufthansa Airlines. ``Every day I come,'' she says in a soft German accent. ``I get the same thing. Two veal white wurst, cut up already so I don't have to fuss, nothing on it. And no bread. Besides, the weather is nice. You watch the girls -- I watch the boys,'' she says, delicately licking each finger.

Across from the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue, nine wagons are lined up like a circus train along the sidewalk of East 59th Street. They offer ice cream -- Italian, Good Humor, and Dove Bars -- shish kebab, pretzels, souvlaki, Italian sausages, salads, knishes, hot dogs, and more.

These are mainly summer vendors, mostly students, who lease their carts and pay a $10 license for the summer.

Marcia, with strands of long black plaited hair ending in a single white bead, leans across her ice cream wagon. ``I'm from England originally,'' she says peering over her red-rimmed glasses. ``In September I'll be studying Art History of the Renaissance and majoring in Japanese language at Oberlin.''

Marcia already speaks French and Italian, as well as Swedish and some Japanese. So what's an educated, ambitious woman who speaks five languages doing selling ice cream in New York? ``This is great for the summer. I just love hanging out on the streets, I really do,'' she answers with a grin.

Aaron's cart is right beside Marcia's. Aaron's from Chicago. ``Originally,'' he clarifies, ``but I'm a registered New York voter, so I guess that makes me a New Yorker.''

Aaron will be a student at Columbia University come autumn. This summer he's happy standing under the shade of a ``Claudio's Fruita Fresca'' umbrella peddling Italian ices. ``The money's pretty good. I'll clear maybe $300 a week in really hot weather in July. That will pay for my tuition.''

Aaron is studying film and wants to be ``a film critic, or something.'' Like most of the other students who lease rather than own their own cart, he works by commission, and makes about 30 cents on the dollar.

``Ice cold frozen gelato. Great price, great taste. Have a free taste,'' he barks to the hot, drooping pedestrians trekking in the blistering sun.

Diagonally across from Radio City Music Hall, you can hear Allan's presence before you see him. ``I love that rock 'n' roll,'' shouts Allan over a blasting pocket-size black Panasonic radio nestled among 31 varieties of nuts, dried fruits, and candies. ``Used to have a big radio tied under the umbrella. Wind blew it off. Broke.

``I guess you'd call this a health food, junk food wagon,'' he says, weighing out a quarter-pound of M&Ms mixed with the same amount of salted peanuts for a kid who just pulled up on a bike.

Allan admits he'd rather be playing guitar in a rock band. But still, he likes ``the freedom of not working under pressure.'' And the fact that he gets paid in cash at the end of every day.

``The worst part is getting tickets from the cops. You have to be so many feet from the curb, and so many from a fire hydrant. Then the Board of Health and the Sanitation Department can show up and slap a fine on you. Like I have to keep a box of Handi-Wipes. They're here somewhere.''

Position along the sidewalk is important for business, and so is the weather. Allan even has it down to temperature. ``Between 50 and 70 degrees. That's when business is best,'' he says, swapping two M&Ms for a penny from a little boy who speaks only Spanish.

``Around Christmas and the holidays I can make maybe $400 a week. I charge a little more around the holidays, but people are willing to spend a little more, too. But then I don't work as many hours in the cold weather, and I have to make it through the winter like everyone else.

``I've been selling on the streets for four years. I have a kid now, a boy. Most of the money goes for him. The rest, I'm saving to open a store of some kind.''

Allan may not make the cover of next week's TV Guide, but loves to talk about his brush with show biz.

``They were doing this live street shot on the David Letterman show and I was in the background on one of the spots. Next week, this girl come up to me. She's from Chicago, never been to New York. Didn't know anyone here. `Hey, didn't I see you on the David Letterman show?' she says.''

Celebrities, too, stop to buy. ``Dr. Joyce Brothers bought some cashews off me once. And that guy that played Mr. Walton on TV bought some of this mix here. And that guy from `M*A*S*H' -- what's his name? Ya, Mike Farrell. Sally Struthers came by, too. I forget what they bought.''

While the occasional celebrity may stop now and again, 50 to 60 percent of Allan's customers visit two or three times a week, he says. ``Those are my regulars. Mostly they buy cashews and mix. About 75 percent of my business is in those two items alone.

``Got the whole world here on this cart. These jelly teddy bears are from Germany and these little fish here are from Sweden. The pistachios aren't from Iran, though. California,'' he adds. ``Dried mangos, banana chips, dried pineapple, things from all over the world here.''

Is Allan's son going to be a street vendor? ``Na, I think he's gonna be a drummer,'' he says.

On weekends, many vendors hang up their wheels. But not all. Mihalis (Mike) picks up his rented cart at 37th and Ninth, loads it with 100 hot dogs, 20 sausages, plenty of ice, and enough cans of soda to quench the thirst of the French Foreign Legion.

On this Saturday he parks a little too close to the crosswalk on Fifth Avenue and 36th Street.

``I should be 12 feet away from the crosswalk,'' he says in a heavy Greek accent. ``But then I'd be too far away from the pedestrian traffic. So maybe today I get a ticket,'' he adds with a shrug. ``I'm too close to the hydrant, too,'' he says, pointing to the fire plug a few feet away.

``My father quit his construction job in Crete and brought the whole family here so the kids could get an education. We came in 1978. The last day of '78. December 31. I guess that means I've been here since 1979,'' he says.

``Got a sister studying business at Hunter College, a younger brother in high school, and I'm studying airplane mechanics,'' Mike adds.

``I know I may get a ticket on this spot. Maybe it'll cost me $25, but there's a lot of business here so it's worth it. Got a ticket Thursday just because I had my license in my back pocket. Think that's fair?'' he asks.

``Then one day I got a ticket because the cart was leaking water. I told the sanitation guy, hey, it's not my cart, I only rent it. He says, `You rent it, you're responsible.' That's another 25 bucks! Do you think that's fair?''

Mike's been working the streets for three summers. ``Not enough money to save, just for school and my expenses.

``My parents are going back to Greece just as soon as the kids are educated. I may go back, too; I haven't decided,'' Mike says as he dashes off to hand ``new'' Coke to a customer who pulled up in a sleek gray Cadillac.

Mike says the toughest part is ``finding someone I know to mind the cart so I can take a break.'' And keeping a close eye on the merchandise.

``Every once in a while some kid will come back and grab a can of soda and run off. But what can I do? If I chase him, someone else will run off with the cart. It happens!''

1/2 cup fine burghul (crushed wheat) 1 1/2 cups crumbled firm white bread 2 cups canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 3 teaspoons finely chopped garlic 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon salt (kosher preferred) Ground black pepper to taste Vegetable oil for deep frying

Soak burghul and bread in separate bowls, with enough cold water to cover, for 15 minutes. Drain both thoroughly. Squeeze water from white bread until dry as possible.

Pur'ee remaining ingredients except oil in food processor or blender. Place pur'ee in large bowl. Stir in wheat and bread mixture. Shape into balls about one-inch in diameter, wetting hands when necessary. Set aside on waxed paper for one hour.

In a heavy pan or skillet, heat 2 to 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees F. Fry about 10 balls at a time in oil, for 2 to 3 minutes, until golden. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

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