Miguel Santos runs a fresh enterprise from his wheelchair in Union Square Park
“On the good ground are they, who in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” – Luke 8:15
There are many types of hustlers in Manhattan’s Union Square Park – from artists to chess players, from book sellers to fortune tellers. Miguel Santos’s operation is unique among them. The 56-year-old Puerto Rican does a roaring trade in freshly squeezed orange juice. But a lack of competition is not the main reason he wears a big smile – he’s happy he’s found something he loves to do.
Miguel was born in Puerto Rico and came to New York when he was 18. He worked in a pillow and mattress factory for 11 years before a new owner took over the business and tried to lowball him on wages. He left there and worked other jobs, including as a night-time security guard for various banks in the city and also in Union City, New Jersey, where he lived for a few years.
“I was having great jobs,” Miguel said. “But in 1996 I have an accident and for that I’m here in a wheelchair.”
Miguel initially injured his left leg falling out of a sixth-floor apartment window while trying to install an air conditioner. He endured multiple complications during his recovery and was the victim of botched surgery performed by a student doctor in 2008.
“They tried to fix my ankle – they put 15 screws in there – but they messed it up. For that I become in a wheelchair. I tried to sue the hospital but nobody wanted to take the case.”
“So now I can walk in my house but if I walk more than two blocks the screws are gonna start pinching me and I’ll start bleeding and end up in the hospital. I have to be careful; I have to take care of myself very well. But I am happy.”
A deeply religious man, Miguel started his entrepreneurship five years ago by selling bottled water but switched hustles after God guided him to the juice cart.
“I sold water for years but this year the Holy Spirit came to my mind and told me to do this,” he said. “Praise the Lord, hallelujah, this is what I’m doing because this is what he command me to do. I’m not crazy, I’m serving the Lord. The Lord always takes care of me. Since that day I’ve done this, and I love it.”
It was astute advice from the man upstairs because not only is bottled water a saturated market, it’s basically a summer-only deal, whereas juice could work all year round.
Miguel bought his juicer from Burlington and clamped it onto a shopping cart, which carries the oranges and also supports a chopping block on top and an ice chest on the side. He keeps a plastic bag on the side of his power chair to dispose of the skins. He has rubber gloves to handle the produce and a fanny pack to collect the cash.
“Selling orange juice is easier to do than water because [with water] I would have to push around three big ice buckets on a cart and it was hard for me,” he said. “Look how I’ve set up my cart here. It’s not a big cart, I can push it with my wheelchair, and I have everything here – the oranges, the [juicing] machine, the cups, the lids, the water to keep everything clean, and I have my ice cooler on the side.”
Miguel buys his oranges by the box from a market in The Bronx, which he said is the cheapest place to get top quality fruit. Every day he wheels his operation the four blocks from his home down to Union Square. He squeezes the oranges to order and charges $4 per cup of juice.
“I started at $5 a cup but people would complain, but they don’t know what I have to go through for all this,” he said. “So I lowered it to $4 but still some people don’t understand. These are Sunkist oranges from California; they’re number one, very sweet. Each box costs $35. Sometimes I use six oranges to make one cup, sometimes four, it depends how much juice is in them.”
Considering the challenges that Miguel has faced, he is not the least bit bitter. He loves his family, he loves his god, and he loves his hustle.
“I like to sell juice because it means I’m not in my house, getting depressed, watching the TV or computer, which is nothing but sex, crime, drugs, nothing interesting,” he said. “This is like a hobby. I am not doing it to get rich; it just means I’m not at home getting depressed and getting bad things in my mind.
“I’m very happy, and I love it. I hope I can do this all year. If in winter I can do it, I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna try.”