Working for Peanuts -- Downturn Hits the Streets of New York

NEW YORK -- On a recent afternoon, I passed by one of the nearly ubiquitous Nuts 4 Nuts roasted peanut carts on a Manhattan street corner near Union Square. An older woman was walking away from the cart angrily, grumbling about "these prices". Investigating, I saw a sign posted on the cart, billed as an "explanation to our customers". It turned out that after 20 years of selling hot honey-roasted peanuts for $1 a bag, the price was going up to $1.50.

The vendor behind the cart was still laughing and shaking his head at the old woman, so I asked for an explanation. "Hey, man. Everything is more expensive," he explained while pointing at his supplies. "The peanuts, the sugar, the propane. Whatever. It's 50 cents! Come on."

I shook his hand and tried to find out some more about the peanut business. Carmello, I learned, moved here from Uruguay six years ago and has been working this cart for most of that time. His brother, the only person he knew in New York, got him a job at a Mexican restaurant when he first got here. It was hard work for not a lot of pay, so he asked around for options. A new friend said he could make up to $100 selling peanuts on the corner, so he went for it.

New York City is ripe with reminders of our current economic disaster.

Last Thursday night, The Plum, a popular and carpeted dance club for the young, ambitious and beautiful on 14th street, sat nearly empty as 2am approached. Any other time I've been there (most other Thursdays), it's obnoxious how many boisterously dancing and high-fiving finance boys spill your drink or step on your feet.

Last week, though, it was embarrassing how loud the music was for the few dozen mopes assembled to drink vodka and pose for pictures. My friend hosts a weekly party there and generally provides a few bottles of alcohol for his guests. This time, most of those bottles sat neglected and full in buckets of melting ice on tables in the red velvet room.

Even staying home for a night will offer some reminders. If you watch enough television, you'll eventually see the E Trade commercial with a talking baby, making trades online and talking about his "major coinage". The message seems to be that even a baby can make money in the market, trading online. That, in fact, may be the problem: greedy and uninformed babies passing risk upward and onward to greedier but well-informed old men. In my favorite (and suddenly apt) version of the commercial, the baby throws up on himself while talking on his blackberry, behavior I generally see from the kids spilling my drink in The Plum.

The reminders come from home over the phone, too. I got a message from an old and dear friend, a young father of two children who has been searching for a job for quite some time. "Dude, I got a job! I'm hella happy right now. Line cook. $10 an hour."

I don't mean to take away from his accomplishment, but it seems sad that in 2008 a young, able bodied and gifted young man, supporting a family of three, finds his excitement in a nearly minimum wage job as a line cook.

Back at the peanut stand, Carmello tells me he works 6-7 days a week for ten hours a day and says he averages about $600 a week. At the end of each day, he turns over his cart, takes a bus home to New Jersey to sleep and comes back in the morning. Even though it's demanding, prices are going up and business is slowing down, Carmello doesn't mind. "Anything here is better than what I had in Uruguay," he tells me with a smile.

As we talk, he works, stirring two copper bowls over flame. One of the bowls has the syrupy mixture of honey, sugar and water and requires constant stirring. The other bowl has the nuts: peanuts, cashews or almonds, and he transfers a little bit of the syrup to the nuts every few minutes and takes it off the flame.

Business may have slowed down, but he has a relatively steady stream of customers in the time that we hang out, many of whom initially pay the wrong amount for their peanuts. He has to remind them: "fifty cents more." Some look confused, but pay anyway and others just nod while they hand over two quarters.

Carmello tells me that people will adjust, business will pick up and he's optimistic, especially since his boom time is coming: the winter months. For now, he's coming off a sticky New York summer, when very few want a snack of hot nuts and then a wet September, when most people scurry from work to the subway, not stopping for anything.

He says that on rainy days, he prefers to stay home. "Why am I gonna come here? I'd rather stay home, drink my beer, watch a movie." A moment later, a pretty girl walks by in a short skirt and Carmello raises his eyebrows. "If I had something like that at home, I'd never leave." He laughs. "But not yet."

Carmello is very much a bachelor with no regrets. He's making enough money to pay rent and enjoy his life.

Those who are hurting and panicked right now are the ones enmeshed in a marriage, children, a house and a career: "the full catastrophe." There is an associated freedom in only being responsible for yourself.

I see working men on the train every night, picking their ears and cracking their necks, getting ready for home and whatever awaits them there. On many of these subway cars, there is an advertisement with the image of an ant carrying a comparatively enormous peanut on its back. Above the image is a question: Need energy to do the impossible? Below that, in much smaller print, it reads "a friendly reminder from America's Peanut Farmers."


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