The Man with a Hotdog Cart – A Short Story

The streets of the city were loud with calls for taxis, cars honking at one another, and the general and expected business of a city’s mid-morning. As the sun lazily took it’s place in the sky, and the haze of exhaust and dust passed through the sidewalks and floated upwards, the man with the hotdog cart strolled to his consecrated place between a financial firm and attorneys’ office. 20 years of hot dogs, of relish, ketchup and mustard, between these two buildings, on the corner of 4th Ave and O’Connor street.

He would show up between 9:30 and 10 AM, every morning. Every morning except Sundays, when the man with the hotdog cart would stay at home with his grandchildren, and hear about how well they were doing with school, attend church and pray that he would have years ahead to continue this routine.

This gray Tuesday morning was entirely unremarkable. There were young lawyers with the sort of aggressive eagerness newly christened lawyers have briskly walking past, being suspiciously eyed by the old lawyers. Nothing notable was passing through, but the man with the hotdog cart noted everything. He would watch every morning and afternoon pass with a delicate eye; these people that moved past him every day saw him in fleeting awareness, but he grew to know them as if they were intimate friends of his. The young man who had only been working at the financial firm for half a year, for instance. This man had fairly recently donned a gold band on his left ring finger, and carried a briefcase shinning with newness; it likely was a graduation gift, or perhaps a congratulations present after the passing of the bar. His phone was always against his ear, and he would talk to his new wife, or a client, in a deep, soothing voice that would tame a viper or calm a screaming infant. He had a mantra; No, everything will be fine. You’re worrying far too much, I can absolutely handle this.

The man with the hotdog cart never quite believed this constant reassurance, but the other ends of the phone calls seemed to.

Another young woman, with well-tailored suits in more colors then one would expect suits to come in, would pass by about 20 minutes later. She didn’t talk on the phone, though it would often ring. Her youth was apparent, but deceiving. The aged determination in her eyes and her mouth set to a purposed purse relayed an openly received message to anyone looking that she was not to be bothered and any who dared to try would be reckoned with harshly. There was a less-immediate softness in her smile, that did cross her face only when an occasional message would cause her phone to beep. The smirk would cross her face so briefly as she glanced down and read, that someone witnessing it would wonder if they hadn’t imagined it.

Of course, it wasn’t only the young business people that kept the streets busy. But, the man with the hotdog cart payed particular attention to them simply because he knew the older ones far too well. He’d watched them in their youth and saw as they eased into middle-age. He learned their spouses and children’s names, what vacations were upcoming and which friends they held less-than friendly opinions about. He knew which ones wanted relish and mustard, and which would ask for One brat, plain.

Despite the constant motion of 4th Ave and O’Connor Street, most things were static and regular. It was routine; what appeared to be a constant pulse of excitement and newness was an accidentally constructed illusion, hiding the absolute clockwork of the motions.

Tuesday, 10:30. People with afternoon meetings or who ate breakfast too early, or not at all, slowly begin to file towards the corner. The man with the hotdog cart would say very little as they ordered and handed over money. The transactions were brief, and conversations were briefer. Some regular customers made an effort at daily rapport  but the success of the attempted comradery was hindered by in inequality of familiarity; the man had nothing to ask them about, and they had nothing they sincerely cared to ask him about. The relationships were balanced too far on one side to have any relative success. Some accepted this very quickly, and others would brightly smile a How’s the family? Good, good. My usual- actually, no ketchup today. The Mrs. says I ought to be limiting my sugar. Do you have any idea how much sugar ketchup has? I didn’t. I read an article on it recently; obesity in America would drop by 12% if everyone stopped eating ketchup. But then, the ketchup factories would go out of business and unemployment would rise… so it’s probably better that we all stay fat. Say, why don’t you put some ketchup on my hotdog after all, pal? I ought to do my part to keep this economy running.

The man would smile along with the conversation, nodding and answered with a quiet friendliness that was bred from the secret intimacy he shared with the people that stood in his line every day. It was a part of the clockwork routine, albeit a beloved one. They tried to care, to acknowledge that the man who fed them was a part of the same humanity they were themselves. It was sincere, if nothing else.

12:30, and the crowd of hungry corporate hopefuls grew. As the lunch rush swelled to full capacity, the man with the hotdog cart noted a familiar face that was new to his line. The man with the soothing voice had opted to finally join the big-city cliché of grabbing a brat from a sidewalk cart for lunch. After ordering, he walked decisively across the street to a bench and sat, not eating, but looking through his phone, quickly swiping his finger up the screen over and over again, his eyes intently reading.

12:45; the brightly-suited woman hesitates in front of the cart, pausing for a few, lingering seconds to breath in the scent of processed meat. A glance across the street to wear the man and his hotdog were quickly overtook her attentions, and she strode confidently to join him on the bench. They conversed in a guarded way, not lacking familiarity with each other, but there was a distinct air of hesitance settling between them on the bench. He looks at his watch, starts and in one motion stands up and begins eating, while she watches him and slowly rises. A brief smile and goodbye, and they part. He to his own building, and her to hers- after another hungry breath in towards the hotdog cart.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. There was a new routine within the overarching old one. The colorful woman and young lawyer now met every afternoon. Sometimes he would eat; she never would. They did, however, become more comfortable in their conversations. The ends of the bench slowly lost their occupants to the middle, and the budding friendship of the two became one that radiated a giddiness that could be felt across the busy street. The man with the hotdog cart would always glance their way a few times while they talked and laughed, curious to see what this new development would grow into. Friendship is never a static thing, he learned. Even things that become a constant don’t stay the same.

Monday, and now again Tuesday. A week had passed since the clockwork had received its addition. Tuesday morning was greeted with the well-spoken lawyer passing while his phone rang, with a scowl on his face that read he was decisively and determinedly not answering the ringing. The man with the hotdog cart was aware of the cycle of those new to the lawyers career- the shinning newness of the excitement and money eventually break down under corrosive stress and unrelenting workloads. This young man would regain his footing, no doubt; nearly everyone who falters does.

Wednesday morning, however, was perhaps too soon for the deep-voiced man to have recovered. 12:30, and the same scowl was painting his face as he ordered his hotdog and sat himself with weariness in the middle of the bench. Within minutes the woman, in a tailored scarlet suit joined him. Her delight in his company revived his smile. They were quickly laughing and gazing at each other, their eyes lounging in a secret that brought both their cheeks to a flush.

But, another woman is walking towards the bench. A new face, a young face; she dressed in an understated way suiting corporate middle-management. She would have been pretty if she smiled, but her furrowed expression communicated nothing joyful. The new woman approached the couple on the bench, in both a surprised and expecting way. The women in her scarlet suit stood up and smiled, her eyes radiating distaste, while the man stayed seated as he desperately tried to talk over the new woman, who was speaking slowly, but determinedly.

The young man glances at his watch, and in a fit of surprise and frustration declares he is late, throws his hotdog in a nearby trash bin, and half runs, half walks, towards his office. The woman in the suit simply smiles and the new woman and strides off, while the new woman collapses on the bench and holds her head in her hands.

Thursday morning, and the young lawyer passes by the man with the hotdog cart in his usual way; his left hand pressing his phone against his ear, reassuring someone about completed paperwork. There is no gold band.

As the early lunch eaters beginning to filter down the sidewalk towards the man with the hotdog cart, a new young man in a suit and a happy, naive smile plastered across his face asks loudly for a hotdog with everything.

The man with the hotdog cart looks up slowly, and then across the street to the bench. Looking back at this bright face, containing all the hope and determination that can be held in a grin, the man with the hotdog cart says, “I’m sorry. Everything won’t fit on a hotdog.”

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