the hot dog man

Posted: August 22, 2020 in Traskland
Tags: , ,

Winter officially ended when Luke materialized with his hot dog cart. He pushed the old wagon down 4th street, staying as close as possible to the parked cars. He paused when a car approached to let it pass. Drivers dramatically swerved and honked their horn in frustration. Every so often he received the one-finger salute. Luke didn’t appear to care. He kept to the street. The sidewalk was too risky, too full of potential mishaps. It was narrow, uneven, and dangerous. One false step, one small crack in the pavement, and the wagon would surely topple over. When it hit the ground, it would burst like a water balloon. A few angry gestures were nothing compared to that.

not Luke

It was easy to understand Luke’s caution. The cart looked incredibly fragile. The wheels screeched like they had never heard of WD-40. The body was heavily dented and disturbingly rusted. Duct tape was everywhere. The chrome finish was matte, no longer shiny. The yellow Sabretts umbrella tilted too much and threatened to ruin the wagon’s delicate balance. If he unexpectedly hit a dip in the road Luke’s grip tightened. He grimaced as he struggled to keep the contraption upright. The whole thing was held together by a kind of pork byproduct magic, a Rube Goldberg of cheap eats.

His destination was the large food processing factory with its big lunch time crowd. His path took him past the boy’s kingdom. If the wheels or umbrella didn’t announce him, the unmistakable waft of wieners marinating in greasy water did. None of the boys knew where Luke started his daily journey or anything about his non-hot dog selling life, although gossip was thick. Some said he lived near the eastside tracks in a small ramshackle house, a real dump. Others claimed they spotted his cart tucked in an alley at night behind one of the local pizza joints, partially covered by an old tarp. A few boys insisted he was secretly a millionaire, a millionaire who just liked selling hot dogs. The rumors were wild and unfounded. He was happily married with kids; his wife left him for a slick talker in a Cadillac. He was a vet who killed enemies with his bare hands; he was dishonorably discharged for vague reasons. He once owned a big restaurant in New York; he got fired from a late-night diner for spitting in the food. He was a devout church-goer; he was a defrocked priest. He could be anything.

One thing was certain: Luke was a grownup, somewhere between 30 and death. His eyes were red and glassy, his sandy brown hair untethered with a spit curl looped just above his left eye. His shirt was rumpled and untucked. He often shouted a small encouragement to the boys engrossed in the high drama of punch-ball. “Watch for the fluke, Billy!” “Don’t get hit by a car, Mike!” “Hey fellas, remember that hot dogs make you stronger!” If his eyes were especially glassy, he didn’t say much.

Street games ignited fierce hunger, so occasionally the boys yelled for him to stop. Money was pooled, orders placed. Luke liberally doused the dogs with sauerkraut or relish or sweet onions swimming in a mysterious red sauce. On a good day these were accompanied by cold bottles of Yoo-hoo. Yoo-hoo went with hot dogs like Felix went with Oscar. It was inexplicable, but it worked. Luke popped the caps, passed out the bottles, collected his quarters, and continued to the factory.

Luke stayed in the neighborhood until he sold his last dog. Or at least that was the intent. Most days he stuck to the factory hoping to finish there. Other times he moved to the concrete playground under the bridge. Sometimes he ended up on 1st Street near the baseball diamonds and water. He clearly had a slow day at the factory if he trekked that far. It was a good location, but those extra blocks were daunting when negotiating an unstable and heavy storefront. Finding Luke there was a sad surprise, like opening a box of Cracker Jack and getting a broken prize.

Luke appeared on 4th Street every day for several years, always emerging in the late morning. By 3:00 he was done. He lumbered in the opposite direction with his umbrella folded. A folded umbrella was his “Closed” sign. No one asked him to stop. He was going back to his ramshackle house or his loving wife or the millions tucked in his mattress. It really didn’t matter. What mattered was the small measure of stability he gave a bunch of over-stimulated kids awash in adolescence. Some might say it was ridiculous to find stability in an unkempt man with glassy eyes and a rickety hot dog cart. Maybe it was. But it was also beautiful.

  1. Geri Lawhon says:

    Wonder story of simpler times. Thanks


  2. Lee Erman says:

    Near my high school, in Hyde Park, Chicago, in the mid 60s, we had a hot dog stand guy, who could have been Luke’s twin brother. When you ordered one, he would always say: “I’ll give you a gooner one!”.
    Thanks for the bit of nostalgia via the great, evocative writing!


  3. rangewriter says:

    Great story. I love how you bring places and people to life. This was particularly good: The whole thing was held together by a kind of pork byproduct magic, a Rube Goldberg of cheap eats.


  4. Cathy Garufi Hurley says:

    Some days, he appeared like a mirage on the corner by Sam’s! Beth called him LUKEY. She would be so excited! She’d order hers, and I’d order mine: one hotdog, sauerkraut, hold the hotdog. He’d put that dog on the bun, and take it off, so the juice would remain. Then we’d giggle like 5 year old do… all 3 of us!


  5. Dave Ventre says:

    Sweet essay.

    Luke must have been just before or after my time on Trask and the surrounding ‘hood, because I don’t remember him at all, although I know all the spots you referenced. I am sure that when Luke went to the food processing plant, he did his Best.


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