Climbing Off the Edge

Veteran Richard Smith co-owns a food cart in midtown and strives to improve his business. (Daniel Mescon/NY City Lens)

Veteran Richard Smith co-owns a food cart in midtown and strives to improve his business. (Daniel Mescon/NY City Lens)

Richard Smith knows about ups and downs.

Since emigrating from South America close to 40 years ago, he has jumped out of military planes, but has also been told he would never walk again. The 62-year-old Army veteran has bounced from financial success to food stamps and back.

Today, Smith supports his family in part with a food cart he co-owns at the southeast corner of Central Park, and in part with government disability payments. Vending on the streets of New York can be a competitive business, but it’s one in which Smith has been able to succeed. His intelligence, entrepreneurship, and his country have all played roles in helping him battle back from a time when he described himself as “penniless” to one where he says his potential is limitless. But whatever his hardships, Smith is an optimistic man at heart.

“I’m not a quitter, because I’ve always learned that quitters never win,” he says. “And I grew up with that mentality. It might be difficult, but there’s always…a possibility that you could do something different to make it better.”

Smith says he spent 10 years vending souvenirs around the city before becoming a co-owner of the food cart. The years were difficult; paying his $1,400-a-month mortgage in Brooklyn was a regular anxiety. But he remained optimistic even on slow business days.

Smith now receives government disability payments stemming from his time in the service, and the income helps with expenses like his mortgage. As a result, he can devote more attention to improving the roughly year-old food cart venture. Six or seven days a week, he manages operations at the cart and steps in if customers have complaints. An employee does the actual vending. With its quick and steady income, Smith calls the business “the icing on the cake.”

“I’m not a quitter, because I’ve always learned that quitters never win.”

– Richard Smith, Army veteran

But getting to this point hasn’t been easy.

Smith was born in British Guiana (now known as Guyana) on the northern coast of South America in 1951. His father, an American, worked at the U.S. embassy in the capital, Georgetown. After his death, Smith’s mother moved to New York City, and in the mid-70s, he followed. Smith wanted an education, and had read about free school for military recruits. After getting married and receiving his green card, he enlisted in the Army.

Smith became a unit supply specialist and – finishing his training early – attended Airborne School, learning how to rig parachutes and jump from planes. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Washington State University while serving in Germany, and, for the Army, supplied medical equipment to a hospital just west of Frankfurt.

In 1980, Smith was attached to the ill-fated attempt to rescue 53 U.S. personnel held hostage in Iran, and says he suffered a severe back injury when his helicopter crashed. He spent more than three months in the hospital under the care of a British doctor who, coincidentally, shared his name. Smith says he was unable to move a muscle. On his 97th day in the hospital, he says, he felt movement in his feet. But no one else could see it.

“The next morning, I got up and walked to the nurse’s station,” he says. “And let me tell you what happened, though. That nurse actually passed out. I swear. She said, ‘Smith,’ and she just collapsed.” He says it took him a year to fully recover from his injuries, but he eventually went on to serve in Grenada, Panama and Iraq.

Smith has tremendous respect for fellow veterans, and sees military service not only as the most honorable thing an individual can do for his or her country, but as a place to pick up skills valuable in the civilian world. In his case, after being discharged in 2002 and returning to the New York area, he transitioned to a non-military job that suited him perfectly: overhauling the inventory and shipping system for a medical equipment and supply company. “That’s the first time I earned $100,000 a year,” Smith says.

Aided by his knowledge of logistics, he says the company’s sales grew, but then his good luck soured: he was let go after another company acquired the firm, he went through a divorce and he saw an investment in the stock market go south around the same time. He was out of work for a year.

“I couldn’t meet my expenses,” he says. “All the things that I had done, I had accomplished during that time, I saw it all slip away because I wasn’t able to pay my bills on time.” Smith says he did get some job offers, but realized he didn’t want to once again work for a company where he served at the whims of someone else.

He says he ended up spending about a year on food stamps living with his mother and decided he’d only regain his former financial success if he became independent and owned his own business. He learned about a New York state law that allows disabled veterans to work as vendors, and began selling souvenirs around the city; originally for another vendor, then on his own.

Smith’s business acumen is evident in some of the decisions he made. For instance, while others were selling commemorative T-shirts after the September 11th attacks, Smith found success selling crystal prisms engraved with the images of the Twin Towers.

“There was…this plastic base that you set the crystal on, and had a light in there,” he says. “And you light it up, it looks so beautiful.” Business was good, though others soon duplicated his success, he says, and he saw his sales figures drop.

Years later, attending a Dora the Explorer show at Radio City Music Hall with one of his six children, he noted the high prices being charged for souvenirs. He purchased two cases of Dora the Explorer dolls from a supplier in Connecticut; set up his souvenir table across the street from the theater; and promptly sold out. However, competitors moved in once again, and his volume dropped.

But he managed to make it work – with the souvenir business and now with the food cart – and has begun sharing his success with others. About three years ago, he says he started sending money to children in Guyana. Now, Smith says he helps support several dozen teenagers and pre-teens in his homeland. He hopes to eventually construct a self-sustaining home for disadvantaged children; he envisions support coming from farming and livestock.

“I just want to set it up and just give it to a foundation,” he says. “If I can do that, my job is done.”

Still, Smith faces his share of downs – he says business at the food cart was tough last winter. Ever the savvy businessman, he’s considering transitioning from sodas to healthier drinks, and has thought about adding salads to his menu. The idea, he says, is to be different.

However, if he falls short, he’s likely to respond with trademark optimism, and by simply trying to make things better.

“I’m not even worried about failure that much,” he says. “I worry about having my health intact, my faculties…because if I have those, I think the sky’s the limit for me.”