The Hustler


Mohammed Abdou gets paid.

It’s a bright September afternoon, and the sun shines through Mohammed Abdou’s aviators as he sits outside a Harlem barbershop, where the West African regulars smoke and talk smack, and allows himself a rare indulgence: he just chills.

At seemingly every other moment of his life, Abdou moves and makes moves. Sometimes he can be found on the southwestern edge of Central Park, near Columbus Circle, where the pedicabs hawk romantic rides to tourists and passers-by. Most of these pedicab drivers, like Abdou, are from Mali, and others are from elsewhere in West Africa. Isaac, an Ivoirian immigrant who did not want to give his last name, said last week that he knows “Mo,” but that he hasn’t shown up to rent bikes for a month. This, despite the fact that “Mo” said just the day before that he would be in the park all week.

Mohammed Abdou

Malian immigrant Mohammed Abdou holds down four jobs and speaks seven languages. Photo Credit: Seth Maxon

Abdou, a 28-year-old Malian immigrant from Timbuktu, is always hustling. Where he’ll be on any given day depends on where there is money to be earned. He holds down no fewer than four jobs—He imports jewelry and sells it to storefronts on West 47th Street, near Rockefeller Center. At out-of-state auctions, he buys damaged cars, fixes them and sells them in New York, or if there is an order from Africa, ships them to his brother to be sold in his home country. All of this on top of the bike and pedicab gig. Abdou speaks seven languages—including English, French, Arabic, Songhai and Mandinka—and he is trying to learn an eighth, Spanish. He works in Harlem and in Midtown, in Pennsylvania and in Port Elizabeth, N.J. He has a tendency to scan his surroundings as he talks, as though he’s on the lookout for opportunity.

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” he says. “People just need to think and focus.”

Abdou’s own sturdy focus results in little patience for his friend Abdul’s job woes. Abdul, a Guinean immigrant in his late-30s who did not want to give his last name, was laid off from his retail job recently. Since then, Abdou has started bringing him to 47th Street to help make some money. When Abdul starts to complain about needing steady work, Abdou accuses him of not wanting success.

When he’s not selling the bling his brother sends him, Abdou helps others on West 47th Street buy and sell their own jewels. He serves as a middleman between shop owners and people on the street. On a rainy day last week, as he talks about this business, he examines the sidewalk with his gray, intent eyes. Occasionally, he steps away mid-sentence to approach someone who appears to be browsing or who looks directionless.

“Selling, buying, shopping today, sir?” he asks.

The other salesmen on the street are more obtrusive, less friendly and less natural than Abdou. He has the tone down pat, and before long a young man in a blue bubble jacket and a flat-brimmed Chicago Bears cap takes his bait.

“I’m trying to buy a band, for my girl,” the buyer explains.

Abdou’s appeal to this guy, and to any of his jewelry customers, is that he is confident, and he knows the business. He promises to get the buyer multiple options and to negotiate the best price for them. For himself, he’s out to find which salesmen will cut him the biggest percentage in the deal.

Though Abdou says he met Abdul a year and a half ago in a restaurant on 116th Street, when Abdou walks off with the ring-buyer, Abdul says that Abdou had the story all wrong.

“Me and Mohammed know each other just since this past summer,” Abdul says. “I go to Central Park with him and hang out over there. It was around Ramadan, so we all broke fast together.”

Abdul says that he needs something steadier than chasing jewelry buyers near Rockefeller Center, or couples in Central Park, or exporters back in Africa. He wants a 9 to 5.

But 9 to 5 would never be enough for Abdou.

Abdou was born in 1984, in Timbuktu, to a Songhai family of businesspeople. His father is a lawyer who has given up his practice, and Abdou says that his family members have run businesses since 1972. He says that in 2002, when he was 18, he received a scholarship to study at a university in Nice, France, where he says he earned a bachelor’s degree in “international penalty justice.” He came to the United States in 2008, and since then, he has found creative ways to make ends meet. He wants to make enough money to move back to Timbuktu and live with his aging father. The current violence in Mali—a three-way fight between Tuareg separatists, Islamists and the Malian government—presents a problem, too, since the disputed northern territory surrounds Timbuktu. Though there are many roots to the conflict, Abdou sees it essentially as a battle for resources.

“Now they find gold, riches, diamonds…that’s why there’s all this fighting,” he said.

Once the war is over, Abdou plans to return home. With the business savvy he has learned on the streets of New York, he’s confident he could thrive there.

“If you have people you know…you just need to talk to them. A business is like a family,” he says.

Back on 47th Street, as Abdul and Abdou shield themselves from the rain, people stop to chat with them. One, a Korean website developer with thick black glasses, gets a ribbing from Abdou for being Christian.

“You missed it, Christ already come and go. He came back as Muhammed,” he says.

Although Abdou insists it’s a slow day because of the downpour, within 10 minutes he has another customer, a heavyset African American man in a black cap and a camel-brown leather coat. While he’s off trying to make both of them money, Abdul thinks about how he would describe his friend to someone who had never met him.

“Mohammed…is a highly motivated person,” Abdul says.

He pauses, appearing to search for more to say, but seems to decide that he has already said enough. He nods, looks east, and scans the sidewalk for his friend, off somewhere making a sale. When the two come back, Abdou has more motivational talk for his friend.

“If you come here, you have a job,” Abdou says. “You have a choice; you can do what you want. Here—it is a very good thing.”

Abdou turns his head, and before Abdul can respond, his friend is approaching more pedestrians.

“Buying today sir? Selling? Buying? Are you shopping today, ma’am? Are you buying?”



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