BY DEREK SIMONS
Most school buses transport fresh minds, but one in Upper Manhattan carries fresh fruit instead.
Francisco Belasquéz arrived from Santo Domingo in 1983 and worked for 10 years selling fruit from a tiny, midtown booth, its footprint carefully marked out on the sidewalk. When he earned enough money to set up his own business, Belasquéz decided he was done with working in restricted spaces—he wanted more freedom, even if it meant leaving his high-traffic spot behind.
He bought a dilapidated bus and then found his perfect location on the corner of 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue next to an empty lot and across from the High Bridge Park swimming pool.
“Papo Frutas” was in business.
Sometimes, when people seek their fortune far away from their native country, the bouts of homesickness can be terrible. Belasquéz has avoided this danger by recreating his own little Santo Domingo on a corner in Washington Heights. He averages anywhere from 50 to 100 customers per day.
“I don’t care if I make less money,” he says. “Here I am at home and among friends.”
A huge tree makes his corner one of the rare shady spots in the neighborhood, offering some protection from the summer heat. Belasquéz ties a large awning from the bus to the lot’s fence and another to his minivan parked behind the bus.
“You could never do this downtown,” he says. “They measure every inch you occupy.”
Local residents bring their own stools and talk with him for hours at his open-air juice bar. But Belasquéz still needs to make a living, so every morning at 5 a.m. he shops for produce at the 150th Street and Wales Avenue market in the Bronx. He buys guava and mangos, pineapple and tamarind, limoncillo (or “quenepa”) and tiny bananas.
“I want people to get the real tastes of the Dominican Republic,” Belasquéz says.
While Belasquéz explains his business philosophy, his assistant, Leandro Cruz, is nearby, shaving and chopping 8-foot-long staffs of sugar cane into manageable pieces. Some will be used for juice, some for idle gnawing.
Belasquéz picks up a large metal peeler and starts preparing oranges for the day’s clients. The rinds come off in unbroken narrow strips that he deposits on top of other fruit to keep it fresh.
“Now they can be eaten like apples,” he says. “On hot days, people come from the pool for something fresh. In my country, you see people everywhere eating oranges on the street.”
José Cruz (no relation) has been bringing his fold-out stool to the fruit stand for more than 10 years. He said the mornings are good for conversation, but the afternoons are his delight. That’s when the baseball debates begin. José clearly considers himself an expert as he holds court among the other regulars.
It’s not difficult to guess which team he roots for. The 60-something gentleman is wearing a New York Yankees shirt. He also has on a Yankees cap, carries a Yankees lighter for his cigars and wears a watch with both face and wristband covered with the team’s logo.
“I get the best of both worlds here,” José said. “I have my culture and my team.”
Belasquéz said a few years ago the bus started dying on him and couldn’t make it to the market anymore, so he was forced to buy the minivan. Now, it’s difficult even to move the bus just across the street for the twice-weekly street cleaning. On the positive side, by using the minivan for awning support, he now has a larger shaded area for his friends.
The men who gather here each day don’t provide income for Belasquéz—they provide company.
Remo Icente is among them. He doesn’t have great English skills, but the thrust of his argument for frequenting the fruit stand every day can be summed up easily with three words: dominoes, dominoes and dominoes. Belasquéz obligingly translates the rest.
“Friendship and food from home are good,” Icente says, through Belasquéz. “The shade is even better.”
Belasquéz sells fruit from the beginning of April until November 15. Then he returns to his farm near Santo Domingo for the winter and visits his sister and three grown children. At 52, he hopes to retire there soon.
“I have been saying for a long time ‘only three more years’—maybe I am close.”
Photos – Derek Simons