I work in a hot dog spot, though I am not quite sure why. I fell into it. Needs Must.
Everyone here is kind of sick. They cough and whinny on the buns and the franks. Their consumption of oils and fats cannot help, nor can the cold, nor the fumes from the fryer.
Currently, I live and work in the lower part of the city, not far from the port. Today, the port is near empty, holding only a few barges and scows. They have fires burning, which send wisps of smoke over and across the fens. Here it is thin chilled air with a brackish sea-watery atmosphere. I shiver in the sunlight, even now in the mid-afternoon.
Buildings rise out of the salty earth like jagged squares of fudge, and not much happens here. Things drip. I sell over a hundred hot dogs in a day. Together we make the cheese sauce. Slice and fry; fry and slice. Dice onions amid the same perpetual flow of trivial things and cut the vegetables.
My boss Dennis comes in after a street fight, bleeding from the temple, and some of his blood blots, pools, and mixes with a streak of ketchup as it soaks into a food-soiled napkin he gingerly holds up to his head and face.
‘Here, take some ice for that, Dennis.’
‘Cheers, kid!’ Dennis says.
Dennis stands at the door, blowing on his hands, no doubt feeling the cold.
Everyone eats an awful lot of fries. To keep warm, I imagine. Coldblooded creatures. Above our bit of sidewalk is a neon hot dog with the sauce a cartoon-squiggle of light. Despite what people say online, this place is not a truck nor a cart nor a shack nor an illegal operation; it is an old restaurant, and there is nobility in that.
You have to make the hot dogs well. One has an obligation to the hot dog.
I wash the sidewalk out front most mornings, using a hose to get it wet and a broom with plastic bristles to do the scraping. Sometimes small plants grow in the cracks in the cement. I try to leave them be. But sometimes they get rasped and torn.
There is seating. The booths are plush and comfy. The stools less so, but they are more sociable. Different people like different things. Although it is not large, some parts of the restaurant are darker than others, which is natural.
The cleaning has to be done but I do not find it enjoyable. So, when I sweep or vacuum, I leave some crumbs. I hope the mice get them. Some of the dirt here is so thick it is like sediment. We consider this a part of the place, like the foundations.
I don’t eat salad since I found a slug on a lettuce leaf I was about to put in my mouth. I don’t like how salads look like jungles, layered and confused. They don’t sit well with me. Things conjoin but fail to interlink properly and make full sense. There are always missed connections: I missed my bus this morning.
I watched an expensive car croon on the street corner. A suited man got out and collected takeaway from a hotel restaurant known for its innovative fusion food. Another man slept on the warm-air ducts at the side of the street. That evening I give him a free hot dog (we can give away one free plain basic hot dog per day).
For fun? For fun I go hiking, where dead-looking grass bayonets sabre my legs dryly.
We are located at the intersection of 14th and Charlotte Street. Close to Greek Street. The staff have white uniforms. The uniforms are washed-out with stains and age-old discolourations (denim blue from leaking pens, muted red and saffron orange from sauces, but mostly grey. All stains turn grey eventually). My uniform has a patchwork continent of a stain in faded grey-brown and pea-green across the chest. We also wear small red plastic name badges, and, if you (the worker) so wish, a hat. I alternate with the hat, depending on the day and the weather. I enjoy this freedom.
The chili for the chili dogs is cheap and stinks of spicy hot toothpaste. Maybe that’s why people get sick and sneeze particulates on the diced white onion and the pico de gallo.
My uniform is starchy and itchy. The label rasps at my side.
The crinkle-cut pickled cucumber slices reek in the cloudy vinegar they sit in. All the jars in the back look like they contain the preserved parts of humans and beasts. Some of the jars are ancient and swampy, especially when the sun hits them. Dennis got a good deal on a job lot a few years ago. I don’t know how many years of pickles are left, but there are a lot. There is one window in the back of the kitchen. The sun can be so huge through this window. It lights the pickle jars up so green and luminescent.
People on bicycles with great blue insulated bags come to pick up takeaway orders from us. I hand them tinfoil cartons which become, temporarily, in transit, theirs. I like the thought of these people racing through the city with this warmth on their backs. It does make me sad however that they are made to wait in the rain until they get an order and that the company that uses them has an endgame where it uses only drones and driverless cars to deliver food, rendering the people obsolete. I wonder if the company cares if they get run down in the road or crushed against an embankment by a bin lorry. I doubt it, but smile extra hard at them when they come to pick up the food, in case they are crushed as they are delivering structurally stable hot dogs with just the right amount of relish per dog (and perfectly toasted buns), but I bet the smile comes out wan and weak and deathly and gives them a tummy-sinking sickly ruminative morality premonition as they cycle off in horror, only increasing their inattention and chances of getting crushed.
When it rains, the cellar of the restaurant floods with water that smells foul, I think because it was dug out two hundred years ago, and because there is a small cave down there. The cellar is made of crumbly red brick and a lot of mould and seemingly a bit of wattle and daub. The air down there is corrupted.
My hair is wet and greasy at the end of a shift. But there is a great sense of relief, so I don’t mind so much.
Most people who eat here look ill. They come from the intersection.
We can sometimes be fun and goofy. Dennis baked a big cake for a lady’s birthday. We each had a slice. He had baked a lot of coins into it as gifts. I hurt my tooth on one. Dennis thought it was hilarious. He clapped me on the back and told me to ‘go boil the dogs’.
Dennis is part Greek, Macedonian, and Albanian. And he is in a love rivalry. I worry about him. The other man in the triangle-shaped rivalry has connections to organised crime.
‘Hey, Sugar,’ a woman said to me. Then ordered fries. She smelled of fresh cigarette smoke. And she had nice hair. I stood speechless for what might have been a full ten minutes. Then I fetched her fries.
A standard no-frills hot dog costs $6.49. When I started working here a standard no-frills hot dog cost $4.49, plus we used to put more sauerkraut in, and the sauerkraut was of a better, fresher variety. Likewise with the mustard. So things have been inflating, or deflating, depending on how you look at it.
On my way home from a shift, I play music through the unbranded earphones I buy direct from Chinatown to keep costs down.
We split the hot dogs for the chili dogs sometimes. We sizzle them split-side-down on the flat-top. It makes for a crispier experience. Inside a hot dog it is all emulsion. If so asked, we sometimes deep fry them.
But I have plans bigger than all this. I would like to go to Japan.
Oh yes, I get sick a lot. Eating hot dogs too. Too many of them. The bun dipped in gravy. And I know how the gravy’s made, from powder and bones. Not good for your intestines.
Down the street from my work is a sushi place. It is much fancier than the Hot Dog Spot. I pass it coming to and going from work. Men in black headbands slice raw fish and grill thin steaks over charcoal. Each and every piece of wood in there, from the doors to the tables, is large and beautiful and has an intricate woodgrain which is deeply waxed to show it off. It has a philosophy, I read on their website: the restaurant is a place of holy human connexion where the coal-griddled meat imparts knowledge (they cook using the methods of ancient Japanese fishermen) and hand-crafted drinks share vegetable wealth, all in the warmth of an all-embracing energy surround. I see the maître d’ occasionally. She is young and beautiful and has incredibly long red hair. I would say it looks like a fire or a phoenix or dragon’s breath or an exclusive nightclub. She smokes cigarettes out in the street and fumes immensely.
Yesterday a man came in and asked for two chili dogs. I tried to warn him off but he did not decode my hints. He ate both then drank his 7UP looking out of the window, sadly, at the onyx night. Shock horror, it all got to him quick, the terrible sensation, and I directed him to our capacious bathrooms. It must have just poured out of him.
I live in a small flat. I moved into the flat a number of years ago. For some reason the landlord has not put the rent up. It is in one of the blocks of jagged fudge but with red and brown brick too. Rent has gone up all around me, and yet I keep on living here. It is small and neat and precise in the apartment. When you open the door, you can see my bed. The TV and my games consoles are stacked by the wall, right in front of the bed, so I can perch at the end on the soft duvet and play my favourite video games and have a good time. Move across a small space into the kitchen and you can see the ends of a sandwich. I have left a corner of it uneaten. Two crusts, the seam visible. I enjoy moments like these, when things add up. The flame from the hob is blue, and complex as azurite.
There is a spider plant in the northwest corner of my bedroom. It shivers in the wind. Streams of air coming from the river into my district ensure that there is a constant breeze flowing down my street, as if a god had ordered it to be so.
I absolutely refuse to have anything to do with hot dogs in the house. I keep my work and my home life separate. No ketchup or mustard, relish or finger buns. No sausages of any form. Nothing German really, if we’re talking about foodstuffs. I’ve no problem with other German things. Honest. Recreationally, I do not outlaw hot dogs. Say I am in the park with friends and a hot dog tender in a cart comes along and it is generally agreed that we will get hot dogs and people are excited by this proposition, I join in without even a murmur. I have even had some good conversations about hot dogs, learned some things, and this way have made a couple of friends.
Making dinner, I cut a runner bean at an angle. It shows a cross section. A small and viridescent bean is visible in the now-spear-like pipe and the thing looks like an ovipositor. The knife slightly nicked it, so the whole thing bleeds greenly.
On the corner a man in a duffel coat smokes half a cigarette. I greet him as I pass. ‘Hey Bill, how goes it?’ Canvas awnings flap and crack wickedly overhead.
To get to Japan will be expensive. It will equal hours and hours of boiling hot dogs, splitting rolls, stirring the raisiny curry-paste bit of the currywurst into a workable sauce. Today, I begin my working day by slicing onions. The knife I am given is dull, and the onion juice and vapour make my eyes smart. So I cry. I am told that by using a sharp knife you avoid this problem and don’t walk around all day with red puffy eyes.
To purchase: one sharp knife.
My mood rises like a balloon. I have finished chopping all the onions. I have to turn them into a sort of brown jam now, by cooking them for ages and ages. Dawn twinkles at the steamy windows. I can watch the street from where I am frying all these onions, a lumpen wavy oozing sea of onion rings and quads and half-moons and severed slices of onions melting all over each other, morphing together. I think a lot of empty-headed things when I fry vast amounts of onions. It all ends up as a bright brown sticky mess.
Dennis has a bandaged hand today. He claws the spatula from me and dampens the burning onions with water from a squirty bottle—a great wall of steam is conjured up—flipping wads of them as he goes, swearing.
‘Damn food,’ he says. Then, ‘Damn fool, I mean.’
On leaving work a sort of aqueous fog occludes a clear picture of the park. It is dusk and there are organic noises coming from its woods and fields.
The next day is a weekend day and I go into the park. The fields are green, almost yellow. The wind gets in amongst the trees and a buzzard lands daintily in the branches of an oak. My friend Jim has sold me some hash, so I smoke a little in the field. The tree line musses. A man sells hot dogs from a stall across the park. While I am high, I get a text from the only cool friend I made at school. Her name is Dylan. She is coming back to the city after four years at college during which she became even cooler, and an anarchist. She hopes to see me and hopes that I have been well.
‘Can I have a couple of coneys please, my man,’ a man says to me at work. He looks to be affecting a certain detached, relaxed cool in his dress and manners, but he seems to me an awkward and anxious person.
A coney is a special kind of dog: chili, mustard, white onion, sausage, steamed bun. A classic combo. You get a feel for how to make a good one, the ratios; one has to respect the art. I want to boost his self-esteem, so I reply with a cheery ‘coming right up, my man,’ but my eye twitches noticeably and on pronouncing ‘up’ my voice reaches a needly pitch, which totally maims and kills the ‘my man’. As if I had battered it to death then dug it a grave. The guy looks deflated at this, as if everything had all gone wrong and that he had really needed the boost of it going all right. I think he might have practised his line, like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, but with a hot dog order. I sometimes do that. I like to think no one hasn’t done that. This guy needs to get a grip if that kind of thing can ruin his day. It used to be able to ruin mine, but I have techniques now. Ways of dealing with pressure and sadness. He seems kind of desperate, so I go all out on his coneys. They weigh in his hands the weight of small babies.
Coney, as in Coney Island, comes from rabbit. Something to do with the Dutch. It must have been so busy with rabbits on the island, the titchy things careening round like a fairground ride. Disappearing into burrows. Zipping out again. He had asked for two coneys. It would have meant something different if he had said the same order in the medieval or early modern period. I wonder if he or I would have been rabbit hunters back then.
‘Bye now, bud,’ I say kind of plaintively, with an accidental sorrow that just pukes out of me, but I also intentionally inject the words with as much kindness as I can without them seeming inauthentic to the guy as he shuffles away. He cringes when the words hit him. I must have got my tone wrong. Oh dear.
A seagull catches a rock pigeon to eat its heart and I see its mushed-up horrible mixed-up insides poor poor thing.
A man with only a few cadaverous teeth propels some mashed hot dog around his mouth. He tips his baseball cap back, like he is playing sports and needs a better view, shoots in a gulp of water, and it all goes down in one great mass, so that, for a swift moment, his Adam’s apple protrudes, beaklike. He takes another bite and begins all over again. I think he is lonely. I think he wants to touch someone, or something. Maybe his gluttony is just a way to touch. To touch something that was once alive. To escape isolation. Maybe just for the enjoyment of it all. I might be wrong, and it is just to eat, nothing more meaningful than that.
I get home, put some soup on the hob to boil, watch the flames for a while, then go switch on my video games console and kick back, finally.
‘Where the hell is my food?’
I was staring into the street. Someone had parked a real slick car there. So slick. Red and slick with a shiny yellow badge.
The man came closer to my face, leaning across the counter.
‘WHERE THE HELL IS MY FOOD?’
While I was waiting to see what I would say, he threw several small packets of condiments hard at my face, the corners and triangle-crenelated tops and bottoms hurting, one shaving my earlobe like a tiny toothed saw would if thrown like a ninja star at an ear, and then he walked out.
‘Don’t mind him,’ Dennis said.
‘I just want someone to love me,’ I murmured.
‘What?’ Dennis said. Then, ‘Clean the fryer, would you; you daft kid.’
A cool young guy came in. He was dressed well but drably: olive tones and muted greys. He seemed pleasant but was not particularly polite and was talking to a friend who joined him and was dressed like him, but differently in some of the minutiae: more of his socks showed, like eight whole inches of pure sock fabric from ankle up to highly rolled trouser bottom, and they were a brighter colour; the second guy was in general more colourful than the first guy. They ordered, then stood chatting. While I was preparing their meal and refreshments, I heard the cool, drabber guy say to the cool, brighter guy:
‘So I was going to this party, yeah, and it was right across the city, so I took the bus the whole way there, and I was reading Beckett on the bus going to this party, right, and it really fucked me, and fucked up my mood and buzz, just its whole tone and vibe was super fucking weird and trippy and mind-bending and dark, and yeah the party was really good, and I knew it was good, I just couldn’t enjoy myself for some reason, the Beckett kept repeating on me and confusing the hell out of me, and I think right at the back of my mind I knew even in the moment that my strange wobbly mood was directly Beckett’s fault, and there was this hot girl Celia (you know her, yeah? Hot, right?), she was there and I hadn’t seen her in a long while, but I had always had this nuclear-meltdown-hot crush on her, and she was like newly single, and I fancied her back then as much as I have fancied anyone in one hell of a long time, maybe ever, but this incredibly good and intense moment, practically a realisation, like something holy, was then immediately ruined by the horrifying Beckett coming back into my head, and so I naturally messed it all up, probably irreparably, I mean I was super fucking weird, and it must have seemed to this girl like I had lost my mind, and I am never going to be able to explain myself to her even if she could bear to be in the same room as me ever again for more than a second without taking immediate flight; anyway, I left the party after that hideous moment in a great flash of tears, all thanks to bloody Beckett, and now she’s got a totally loving boyfriend who she loves and he looks just like me, and I missed this whole excellent party, which was like the best party in a million years, and I’ve never forgiven Beckett and I never will, he should come with like some warning, man, like, THIS WILL MESS WITH YOUR LIFE AND WILL MAKE YOU LOSE THE GIRL OF YOUR DREAMS.’
I asked who or what Beckett was, but the cool guy just grunted at me like I had been rude listening to his story, and slid his dog into his rough, pretty mouth.
I went to the movies. It was something good about a battle. I liked it. Yeah, I liked it.
On the way home from the movies, I sat at the very front of the top deck of the double-decker bus. A girl in flared trousers sat across the aisle from me. She spoke into her headphones to someone—a bit I thought was just for connecting, all wires—but she must have had a speaker in there; she said in a pink, rosy cutest of cute guttural voices: unintelligible German unintelligible German unintelligible German I don’t feel good unintelligible German unintelligible German unintelligible German.
A sports car zipped past the bus and smashed into some bins. I saw the guy get out dazed but excited. He exited into a swish stainless-steel-plated sushi restaurant.
Dennis’s love rivalry got worse. He was eating a slice of pizza nonchalantly on the street corner abutting the forest in the park. The sun was passing gently over the world. The pizza was good, and it crunched in his mouth. He liked especially the blistered black spots, their dark crunch. He told us all this. It was a good day in a rarely warm month and ‘one hell of a good slice of pizza’. He was enjoying everything so much, and the sound of the birds! Some pizza oil had slipped past the greaseproof paper sheath and dripped messily onto his shirt with a few crushed leaves of dried oregano and basil and molecules of red sauce, so he was dabbing it with a napkin when the squirrels and doves stopped making their pretty babbling noise in the glade and it was filled instead with the metallic scraping-slapping noise of a van door opened and slammed with the brunt brute male force of someone who spent a lot of time picking up heavy things and putting them down again. Silence. Dennis stood still, feeling the soft summery breeze blow against his face, the softly sharp tingle of chili flakes on his delicate lips, heard crisply a round of pepperoni soggily slip from his pizza onto the cracked concrete. Steps followed and someone bellowed.
The love rival threw down a gold ring, an embroidered silk scarf, and a royal-blue sports cap.
He said: ‘Dennis, I return these terribly shit gifts you gave me over the years! Given with your deceitful hands, they mean nothing now to me and turn my stomach submarine-cold.’
A holly bough shook in the wind.
‘All those days hunting in the city together, sharing slices (at this he pointed declaratively to Dennis’s slice of pizza), chasing girls… But nobly, Dennis, with a heart full of honour. Now all that time, all those years, all those places, turned to waste, my history murdered, the innards of my mind and memory slain. Every moment with you spoiled; and my life was so full of you, old childhood friend.’
Dennis snorted and shunted the fallen pepperoni slice around with his white leather trainer. Like a slug, it left a trail.
‘Get ready, Dennis.’
Like the love rival, Dennis pulled out a sharp switchblade and adjusted his baseball cap. His heel slipped, squelching slightly on an unusually mossy crag in the pavement.
It was all emerald green in Dennis’s eyes for a flashing moment when they closed the gap and the love rival’s knife sliced into Dennis’s stomach to make a gruesome wound. Dennis twisted so the knife didn’t go deep, but still his vision blurred like a scene reflected in a smoked gem (or so he says).
Dennis staggered to the side then with an almighty effort as the love rival came towards him with a victor’s swagger. He clicked his snickering knife alive and brought it across the love rival’s leg, slicking both denim and flesh. The love rival tore his leg back with a jerk and stumbled with an ogreish grunt.
Like a boar that is slashed and hurt but not yet mortally injured, the love rival was now ragingly dangerous.
I think he still could have had Dennis. But with numerous further flourishes and a sequence about battling down a side alley and into Main Street, Dennis said the love rival only ended his pursuit after being clipped by a street-cleaning vehicle. Dennis said he left the man there in the freshly swept gutter, bleeding lightly from the head. He claimed victory and told the story with too much derring-do even for him: a joyful liar and exaggerator.
He was holding a bundle of waxy tissues to his side. Dennis skimped on the tissues and they were almost all wax they were so thin, and they rolled into tiny cocoons across his sweating brow as he wiped away sweat driplets, tears, blood. The tissues held almost nothing: it was tragic, though by now his wound had at least stopped bleeding.
‘You should go to the hospital, Dennis,’ I implored.
But he wouldn’t go. He just sat there at the counter drinking beer after beer. I think he was very very happy. I think he felt alive like an animal.
I sat by the mouth of the estuary and watched a few great grey freighters come into the city. Some were moored out at sea, waiting, their anchors deep down in the water and the dark silt. I don’t know when the ships were made, but they seemed like they were from another century, like battleship destroyers.
My anarchist friend Dylan came by the restaurant. At this time, I was experiencing long bouts of tearfulness, so it was good to see her. She wasn’t much of an oblivion-savourer and experienced little to no plain old chokingly-deep-in-your-lungs sadness, which I found impressive. As she spoke, my will to make hot dogs wilted, and I just listened as the chili burned and began to smell foul.
She was a utopian-style thinker, which I think gave her hope and made her happy. Even at school she had made the place more harmonious and collaborative by undermining and generally softly fucking with the apparatus of the place to the point where crueller, more individualistic and dominating staff left or were forced out. In the city, she now helped organise rallies, and could give a good tub-thumping speech. She was a real hero-style person, a woman of action plus a poet plus an orator, a mix that gets things changed through saying plus doing. People liked the ideas she published in artsy online magazines. But now she had a Big Plan, a plot cooked up out of theory and practice that she said came out of being an artist and spending an awful lot of her life in small-time anarchist circles.
‘I have this idea we’re doing,’ she said. ‘A sort-of politics-cum-art concept. You must have noticed all these exotic cars in the city nowadays? How at night, they’re driven uptown to the flash hotels or cross the bridge downtown to get to these hip, grungy new sushi spots that have opened here, near the port, for its industrial and down-and-out authenticity. These showy drivers come for raw fish and rice wine and to be seen.’ Her eyes filled with expanding pupil, and her voice was irradiating. ‘But they leave a bitter, bitter taste, of toxic fumes and gentrification. These cars are pure, perfect, aesthetic specimens of inequality. You must see things this way?’ She laid her hands palm-up on the counter in front of me, theatrically imploring. I nodded. ‘Good!’ she said. ‘Sadly, most people still don’t, and instead pose for photos with the cars, congratulate their owners. But people should disagree, apply pressure, critique, do something, to these, I don’t want to say, symbols of structures of oppression, but…’ she cocked her head, ‘you see, I want people to rasp knives and keys along their sides.’ She smiled. ‘And spit on their windows. Just get engaged, for fuck’s sake. They’re the enemy.’
Here, she paused.
‘I, too, dislike them,’ I said, enchanted.
‘What I propose is this,’ she said, ‘and it is grand.’
I raised a finger to ask if she wanted a hot dog, but she said, ‘Shh, it will all come clear as I tell it. In a month, a number of people in an exotic car club are going to cross the suspension bridge over the river together. (I know this because I have someone on the inside.) When they do, we’ll create a traffic jam, slow things down. Once the cars are stuck snugly in the middle of the bridge, we’ll strike with two vehicular obstacles, like buses or trucks (we know people), and block in the cars. When they’re trapped,’ she grinned, ‘WE appear with bats, wrenches, and crowbars. Those who don’t flee immediately will do when we start smashing windows, threatening weak jawbones. For our purposes, we only need four cars. All others will be torched, beacons to illuminate the installation. With strong but flexible steel cable and a number of power tools, we’ll work quickly to bend and affix cables through the broken windows and around the chassis of the cars. The cables will be looped over a tall girder, and each car hoisted upwards by a powerful vehicle of our own, perhaps a big tow truck (remember, these expensive cars are light as air). And in this way each battered supercar corpse will be sent heavenwards until they hang together from the bridge’s great girder in the low firmament. Some choice welding will affix each cable to the bridge, to make things stick, and there they will sway in the wind over the black water of the river. Think of the pictures. People will be shaken, disabused of their automotive illusions, and outside sushi restaurants everywhere cars will be aflame.’