the meaning of america

I found a batch of old Proximity essays — things I hadn’t seen in years — and I thought it might be fun to post some of my favorites here…

The Hot Dog Guy will stand on this square of sidewalk from 10:30 a.m. until the sun sets halfway over the Jamaican restaurant, until the warming tray sits empty and his pockets burst with coins. He will stand with his back to the sky, leaning over his metal cart, counting sausages and straightening the mustard jars, and thinking about the way the world has come to be.

The Hot Dog Guy will sell you a Polish sausage with everything on it for $3. A footlong for $2. A Tofu Pup for $1.75. He will grin at you when you walk by, his two front teeth capped in gold, and on sunny days you can almost see your reflection smiling back at you.

You will ask for a dog with pickles and onions. The Hot Dog Guy will nod and wipe his hands across the front of his T-shirt, the one that says, “National Guard: Wisconsin, You Can DO It.” Then he’ll snap on a clean pair of rubber gloves and reach for his tongs, like a surgeon reaching for his scalpel. He’ll turn to the warming tray, swimming with the slippery, brown-gray bodies of hot dogs in all sizes; he’ll dip his tongs into the water, saying, for you, I’ll find the best one. He will transform, before your eyes, into an artist, frankfurters as works of poetry; this is sustenance, he will tell you, and I only sell the best, otherwise the white people, they won’t come.

As he works, the Hot Dog Guy will tell you that he moved here from Cuba in 1975 because he hated Communism. He was 29 then and wanted to be a teacher. Now he sells hot dogs on a city sidewalk in front of a thrift store. But it’s the most popular thrift store in the city, with people coming from every corner–people who need to eat, so he is here to feed them. I picked this spot, he will tell you. I’m the only vendor here. I’m smart–I don’t like competition.

He’ll wrap the dog in white bread and tuck it in a napkin, cradled in the crease of his hand. But he won’t hand it over. Instead, he will look at you, over the top of his sunglasses, and he will ask, Do you know the truth about America? I don’t need to be selling hot dogs. I could be teaching geography if I wanted, at the university.

The Hot Dog Guy, whose real name is Paul Pablo, is fluent in Russian and German. He’ll prove this to you if you look skeptical, asking you questions in languages you don’t understand. The Hot Dog Guy wants you to take him seriously. I been around long enough, I know how this place works.

Then the floodgates breach, and he will tell you all about politics and the importance of multiculturalism and the meaning of freedom. The Hot Dog Guy is a tall man, and he will tower above you, nodding his head so vigorously you’ll wonder if he thinks he can hammer his thoughts directly into your brain.

He will lift his voice to the sun, lost in his own pontification, unaware of the line of customers waiting their turn. The woman behind you will shift uncomfortably and look at her cell phone to check the time, but the Hot Dog Guy won’t notice. The melting pot is coming, he will say, in a voice at the edge of hysteria, in a way so caught up in the emotion of things that he will forget to breath, his words punctuated by an impassioned spray of spittle. You’ll wonder at this point if he forgot your lunch, still waiting in his hand. Ah, he’ll say. Did you want mustard with this? But the Hot Dog Guy won’t wait for your answer. Do you know the history of the Native Americans? he will ask, jabbing the air with your food.

You’ll catch the eye of the woman with the cell phone and give a little shrug, because by now you’ll realize you’re not in control here, and that really this is a gift, a window into the life of a stranger, someone who can so easily strip himself of the protective layers we had come to think permanent and necessary, the defenses the rest of us offer the world that keep us safely unconnected. All for just a $1.75.

So you’ll put your hands in your pockets and nod and listen, the way people do when they have nowhere better to be, nothing waiting for them but the earth turning on its own axis, the movement of the sun across the end-of-summer sky.