Big City: The Vendor Disappears, Leaving a Void

December 30, 2009

William O’Shaughnessy was strictly a three-bananas-for-a-dollar guy, which didn’t mean he was any less an admirer of the fruit vendor on the corner of 58th Street and Park Avenue than the society matrons who religiously purchased their pricier morning berries there.
The vendor, a warm Bangladeshi man who had worked that corner for 12 years, spoke broken English, but had built a devoted clientele, so devoted that socialites and doormen alike gladly worked the stand for him while he ran to use a restroom.

“I made six bucks one day,” said Mr. O’Shaughnessy, who owns two radio stations and has been patronizing that fruit stand since he moved to 475 Park Avenue about seven years ago.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy had noticed that the vendor, who worked 13-hour days in all weather, usually offered some fruit to a certain homeless woman who occasionally came around. He had seen the vendor leave the stand to help someone with a cane cross the street. Selling fruit for spare change just a few yards from Jay Kos, with its $35,000 alligator pants, and Seaman Schepps, with its $2,500 cuff links, the fruit vendor was one of those neighborhood fixtures that the guidebooks miss, but the people who live there consider a daily grace, as integral as he is anonymous.

The limits of that particular intimacy became apparent when the vendor suddenly stopped showing up, without explanation, one day this fall, and Mr. O’Shaughnessy realized he had no idea how to track him down — he did not even know the fruit man’s name. Concerned, Mr. O’Shaughnessy approached a few other vendors in the neighborhood, who were slow to warm to the patrician-looking man in a blue blazer beneath his overcoat. “Men in suits came and took him,” one finally said. Another reluctantly gave him the name of the fruit vendor — Nurul Alam — and told him how to reach his wife.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy soon learned that Mr. Alam, who came to the United States 17 years ago but had long ago been denied political asylum, had been detained by immigration officials early one October morning. The family’s lawyer told Mr. O’Shaughnessy he could help by writing a letter on behalf of his friendly fruit vendor; Mr. Alam could be released, if deemed a person of sound character, while his case made its way through the system.

So Tuesday’s frigid morning found Mr. O’Shaughnessy ducking into various luxuriously appointed lobbies within a few blocks of his own, explaining Mr. Alam’s fate and how his fans might help with letters of their own.

A middle-aged woman in a fur, sitting in a wheelchair in the lobby of 485 Park Avenue as she waited for her car, listened with concern as Mr. O’Shaughnessy spelled out the situation. She, too, had what she considered a special relationship with the vendor: She would peer at his wares from her apartment widow, with a pair of binoculars for help, call his cellphone to let him know what she wanted, then pay him at the door of her building. Her husband, who identified himself as an international lawyer — “a good one” — took a copy of the letter Mr. O’Shaughnessy had written and promised he would be in touch with Mr. Alam’s lawyer.

At the Ritz Tower on 57th and Park, a doorman took a stack of the photocopied letters, relieved that he would finally have an answer for the many residents who had been inquiring about the fruit vendor’s whereabouts.

NELSON GONZALES, a U.P.S. delivery man who had parked within a few feet of Mr. Alam for 10 years, said he had been the recipient of easily hundreds of free bananas over the years, usually when Mr. Alam learned that he had skipped lunch.

Mr. Gonzales admitted that as fond as he was of the vendor, who had warmed himself in the U.P.S. van many a cold day, he had never known him as anything other than “Nu.” Mr. Alam’s daughter had approached Mr. Gonzales for help about a week ago; before Mr. O’Shaughnessy got involved, Mr. Gonzales had collected 30 signatures, from workers and residents in the neighborhood, on a petition vouching for Mr. Alam’s respectability.

As is often the case with immigrants trying to build full lives while hoping no one will notice, Mr. Alam has no voice in this story. Largely unknown to his clients, he became a fully fleshed figure only in absentia, no longer a neighborhood perk, but a person, someone with children, a past life in Bangladesh, and now, a big heart’s worth of heartache.

“I just sense that this is a kind, sweet person,” Mr. O’Shaughnessy said. “We want to have him back.”

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