Magdy Shahin sized me up as I emerged from the hole that leads to the Rockefeller Center subway station.
I was scoping out a line of food carts on the corner of 50th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
"You want something?" he asked.
Shahin, 51, has been working this corner since 1995, selling chicken over rice, Italian sausage, gyros, grilled vegetables, french fries, falafel, cheeseburgers, and cheesesteaks. He is the founder of King Tut Halal Food.
He parks his cart across the street from the Saturday Night Live studio. So I thought of the song comedian Steve Martin performed on the TV show in 1978: "King Tut--Buried with a donkey. King Tut--He's my favorite honky."
Why'd you name your food cart King Tut? I asked.
"It's something from Egypt to tell people where I'm from," Shahin explained.
Steve Martin had complained it was a national shame the way Americans exploited the boy king, just to sell merchandise at museum gift shops. But then Martin was exploiting King Tut to collect royalties.
Currently, the Discovery Times Square Exposition in New York City and the Denver Art Museum have King Tut exhibits running through early January.
Shahin, at least, is from Egypt. He grew up the son of a textile engineer, went to Alexandria University, came to America in 1986 to pursue an MBA in accounting, got married, had children and needed to make a good living to support them.
"I got stuck working in a restaurant for two years," he said. "I studied under an Italian chef. He taught me everything. He said, "You gonna be good chef.'"
Shahin went to cooking school for 18 months. He runs a grill and a fryer and a gyro spit in the street.
"I love this business," he said. "I love to serve the people. I love to cook."
Don't all accountants love too cook?
"Here, you have to be honest," he said. "The most difficult thing here: The health department. Believe me, my push cart sometimes gets inspected two times a day. They inspect everything. In the restaurant, you don't see how they cook the food. Here I cook in front of you. Everything is clean."
Have you ever had an oil spill like BP? You know, maybe dump out your fryer grease on the sidewalk and tell everyone it's just a little glob in a big ocean?
"No. No. No," Shahin insisted, as if maybe I were an inspector. "It's very safe. It's got to be clean all the time. Or too much trouble."
The economy is getting to be too much trouble as well, Shahin said. Food prices are going up. Customer counts are going down.
Don't believe every government economist, Wall Street analyst or TV talking head who says the economy is better. If you want to know what's going on, you've got to get down to street level. And while you are there, have yourself a tasty King Tut gyro.
"Since Lehman Brothers out of business, my business go down, little by little," Shahin said. "Now it go down by more than 50%."
He nods toward the tower most immediately looming over us: "One year ago, this building, for example, all the companies work here in this building was my customers--a lot of companies, investment banks...
"The companies give employees $10 for lunch...They go down, spend the money, eat, drink, smoke, take a break for half an hour and go back to work...
"Now? No! They can't afford to pay $10 every day.
"Most of them bring a little food from home, and they come to me once a week. That's it. So the business go down.
"The building here is very expensive. Most of the companies move from here because they raise the rent.
"Just today, one of my customers from a Japanese bank, say January 2011, they gonna move to Jersey because the rent is cheaper than here...It's about 50 people. Half of them is my customers."
Shahin's homeless customers, meantime, show no signs of abandoning him anytime soon. Shahin said he won't turn them away no matter how hard times get.
"Anybody hungry you have to feed them," he said, though he draws the line when they ask for cash.
"Money? No! I don't know what they are going to do. Maybe drugs...Money? No! But you are hungry? Eat!"
And so it goes from Shahin's vantage point on a busy Manhattan corner. He's not sure when times will get better: "They say the end of this year. I wish it's gonna be true. I hope."
Meantime, he's got a lucrative trade name. At least according to Steve Martin: "Now if I'd known they'd line up just to see him; I'd have taken all my money and bought me a museum....Funky Tut."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)