Saturday, 23 April 2016


Street Life Serenade

Yesterday downtown I met a man who runs a hot dog stand.

During the early 80s I managed to put myself through university by working part-time at an A&P grocery store. The shop steward was a butcher, a squat, randy, frighteningly solid and seemingly fearless alcoholic Scot. He would derisively dismiss co-workers, AFL/CIO brothers and sisters, with the same snarl, ‘They couldn’t run a fookin’ hot dog stand.’ I once, once, attempted to point out to my shop steward that unions perpetuate mediocrity by placing more virtue on seniority than merit. I lost the spittle-laden, incoherent counter-argument.

I’ve since worked in advertising in one form or another for 30 years. Subtracting my own expensively executed miscues on behalf of various employers, my dealings with certain agency or client marketing weasels, professional incompetents, so vapid and thick, have kept me awake nights for decades. None of those wee small hours of frustration were billable. Funny what you remember lying alone with your thoughts in the dark: ‘They couldn’t run a fookin’ hot dog stand.’

Operating a franchised mobile barbeque on an Edmonton city street corner is a lot more complicated than I imagined. Rod is a friend of Ann’s. They play in the same orchestra and have for many years. Rod plays the trumpet; Ann is usually first violin. Until very recently Rod’s work was air traffic control. Two weeks into this much less stressful venture he’s still trying to get a sense of his daily inventory requirements as his business expands; half of a hot dog is bread so the bun must be fresh. He’d like to shave a minute off a customer’s wait time but not at the expense of a perfectly grilled frank. Periodically Rod has to close shop to go and plug his parking meter. Setting up in the morning takes time. The close of business takes longer, there’s the load-out followed by the chore of washing, scrubbing and sterilizing everything from his tongs to his condiment containers.

‘I go to bed at ten o’clock and sleep straight through to seven-thirty,’ he tells Ann, smiling. He makes sleeping properly sound like some kind of miracle. ‘I’m getting more exercise too,’ he goes on, ‘bending, lifting and hauling. I don’t just sit anymore.’ And finally after many years, Rod now has time to play paying gigs with his wife, an accomplished pianist. ‘It’s great! I feel great!’

Rod’s cart is located on Jasper Avenue at the corner of 106th Street, this is his turf. ‘I could be here 24 hours a day if I want.’ Workers from the surrounding office towers have come down to say hello and sample his modest menu. The manager of a restaurant and sports bar across the street has dropped by to introduce himself and to offer Rod carte blanche if he needs anything. ‘The people around here have been great!’ Rod is beginning to recognize faces in the passing lunchtime crowd; we are predictable, habitual, slaves to our grinding routines. Edmonton’s newest live music venue is two doors down. There’s a large tavern across Jasper. The 104th Street downtown farmers’ market will start up in May as will the touristy tram which runs between downtown and Old Strathcona during the summer. Incremental opportunity abounds.

Ann orders a jumbo dog with cheese and bacon on brown. I opt for the spicy Italian sausage. Rod apologizes because its casing has a slight split. That’s fine, that’s the way I like ‘em. I dress it with sauerkraut, Dijon and a squirt of sriracha. There’s a squeeze bottle of something salmon coloured called Korean mayonnaise that I’m afraid to experiment with. The street food is delicious.

Rod asks us to mind the store and his cash box for a few minutes, his meter time is due to expire. We stand behind his cart listening to his amplified iPod mini: Nazareth pummeling Joni Mitchell and then Dylan knocking on heaven’s door and I hoped that wouldn’t come to pass anytime soon because 2016 has already been an incredibly tough year on music fans. And I hoped Rod wouldn’t be too long because if someone wandered up wanting a hot dog we’d quickly descend into a Monty Python skit: ‘May I please have a smokey?’ ‘No.’ ‘But they’re right there on the grill.’ ‘No they aren’t. Ann, do you see anything? I don’t.’ Fortunately Rod returned before I was given the chance to kill his burgeoning business. I couldn’t run his hot dog stand.

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