One of the delights of Manhattan is what you can buy on the sidewalks. As a midtown office worker these days, I regularly take half an hour off in the middle of the day and buy a snack lunch from a street vendor. Usually this is very quick, the vendors managing to dole out a steak sandwich, a shish kebab, or sausage garnished with onion sauce or sauerkraut and to juggle the bread roll, the paper napkin, dollar bills, and change in perhaps 20 seconds flat. Rarely do more than two or three customers form a line.
But last week near the corner of Vanderbilt and 46th Streets I found myself part of a line of some 15 customers at a hotdog cart. Bureaucracy had struck!
There, armed with clipboard, speaking in a harsh demanding tone of voice, was Mr. Inspector of New York City. "I want your license," he barked. Mr. Hotdog Vendor fumbled in his wallet and, among the paper paraphernalia that we all carry there, he eventually produced the wanted document. Slowly Mr. Inspector copied out Name, Address, Place of Authorized Vending, Social Security Number, and whatnot.
Mr. Hotdog Vendor tried to serve a customer but was constantly distracted from that by Mr. Inspector's demands for verbal answers to all these questions, as if to check that the rascal was not merely a frontman for the licensee. No chances was our Mr. Inspector going to take of being fooled about the identity of the culprit!
Five minutes having passed, during which only two customers were served, and the line having grown to some 20 persons, our Mr. Inspector came to the point. "I am charging you with a violation. You are not allowed to have the box there. The penalty for a first offense is $100. If you repeat the offense, you may lose your license."
Mr. Hotdog Vendor, I should have explained, was a recent immigrant—Greek, I would say, by his accent—and his command of English was poor. But downcast and overawed, he mumbled: "What wrong? What wrong with box?"
The "box" in question was one of those foam-insulated iceboxes, and Mr. Hotdog Vendor had it by his feet to supply thirsty customers with a can of soda if they wanted that in addition to their hotdog. "You only have a license for the cart. You are not allowed to have any other objects."
Mr. Hotdog Vendor did not understand the jargon. "What object? I no understand you talk about object not allowed." And tediously Mr. Inspector talked about obstructions to the sidewalk and licenses only permitting the cart and how all "materials" must be "contained within the cart." All the time, he was arrogantly oblivious to the growing line of would-be lunchers of hotdogs and drinkers of soda from that offending icebox. One or two people in the line moaned a little in protest; a couple of others simply gave up in exasperation and broke from the line to find their lunch elsewhere.
Suddenly, I lost my temper. I shouted: "Rubbish! You talk rubbish." Mr. Inspector swung around at me in amazement, for the first time aware of some third parties to his encounter. "Mind your own business," he told me.
"It is my bloody business. You've wasted 10 minutes of my time over some stupid fiddling complaint over the icebox." I knew I had to continue the offensive, so I let my pent-up emotions drive an indignant speech replete with many Australianisms and obscenities, probably only partly intelligible to this small Manhattan crowd. I called him a "leech" and a "parasite" bleeding an honest working man trying to make a living selling people their lunch. I told him he was "as disgusting as the Mafia" standing over a working man and "stealing his earnings." At some point I called him a "miserable wombat," his rotund figure reminding me of that ugly nocturnal root-eating animal.
I guess such mystifying language together with my strange accent distracted him from verbal retaliation, for all he could say in response to my tirade was, "If you got a bad hotdog, you'd come running to me to complain and ask for help." To which I responded with much more abuse than logic: "I wouldn't come to you for anything. You couldn't tell the difference between a turd and a hotdog."
A couple of others in the waiting line shared my impatience, if not my bad language, and started telling him, "Get out of here," and, "Go away." Which amazingly is what he did. He threw up his hands and disappeared into the crowds. And in haste he left behind his clipboard and its half-filled out "violation form."
Mr. Hotdog Vendor had watched his customers' verbal assault on the inspector in speechless amazement, and when he saw his tormentor retreat, his eyes watered in happy relief and gratitude. "You save me," he repeated several times. He insisted on free lunches all around. A nice ending to a bit of spontaneous libertarian direct action?
Peter Samuel is the US manager of Australia's largest magazine publishing group, Australian Consolidated Press. He writes a weekly column and occasional articles for ACP's newsmagazine, The Bulletin.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Dog Days for the Small Entrepreneur".