Weiner Takes All

Want to make a little easy money? Whatever you do, don't go into business hawking hot dogs on the street. It's a jungle out there.

If a hot dog peddler manages to park in a busy location -- on Flagler Street, say -- the investment can pay a return of more than $100 a day. But competition is stiff: Henry Johnson acknowledges that on any given day, up to 90 percent of the designated vending locations are taken. The remainder are marginal spots, where a vendor might have trouble giving away his wieners. And despite Johnson's assertion that he tells peddlers the locations are all up for grabs on a first-come basis, every day of the week, he admits that the law isn't always obeyed, and he acknowledges that many vendors trying to survive in the no-man's-land between theory and practice often end up in turf battles with their competitors, regardless of what time of day they set up and open for business.

Amado Yaber bursts into his bodega, rattling off a dozen questions in less than a minute, demanding that a mechanic show him what exactly is wrong with one of his ice machines, and gruffly deflecting questions from a young Argentinian man in jeans and patent leather shoes who has come to pick up a used cart he bought the day before. The man is accompanied by his sister, whose intense blond hair and pink hot pants light up the bodega, and an older man in more subdued safari leisurewear and old tennis shoes. The Argentine wants to know how to light two old, rusted burners under the food trays. "You have to ask my wife about that," Yaber snaps, briskly waving the man off. "She's the one who knows about those things."

But Nelly Yaber is in back, answering a phone call. Unaware that his wife is on the extension, Yaber picks up the receiver from a wall phone and begins dialing. "Amado!" Nelly Yaber shouts, "I've got a call." Yaber stops pushing the buttons, and instead listens in on the conversation. A moment later, a series of loud bangs startles the bodega's inhabitants. Yaber is pounding the receiver against the wall mount, which somehow sustains the violent blows, angering him even more. He tears the entire apparatus out of the wall and throws it to the ground. With two hands, he grabs the cord and swings the phone into the air, bringing it down again and again against the concrete floor. Her phone call thus interrupted, Nelly Yaber laughs nervously.

"Go ahead and laugh!" Yaber screams as he strides toward her, past the mechanic, the startled Argentines, and a Brazilian vendor who rolls her eyes and turns away. "Laugh a lot!"

When he storms out, Nelly explains that the phone call had been from a vendor awaiting delivery of hot dogs downtown. "He called earlier, but I forgot to mention it to Amado," she says with a frown. "He's like that -- very explosive. He's very tired, not sleeping very well at night. We recently spent fifteen days in Guatemala. It was his first vacation in fourteen years."

Adds Yaber's assistant, as he hitches another cart to his boss's old Impala: "He's a tough guy. But this is an even tougher business."

Azucena, who won't give her last name, is parked on West Flagler Street near First Avenue. It's a prime spot, and she knows it. Yet even as she pulls a large wad of cash from her pocket, she refuses to say how much money she hauls in, working her mother's cart in exchange for 30 percent of the take. "What else do you want to know, what kind of underwear I have on?" she asks with a wink.

There is little time for conversation. Customer after customer steps forward from the steady stream of pedestrians. Azucena serves them all, shuffling her compact frame along a curved axis around the cart, and engaging in small talk with those who speak Spanish. The four-wheeled contraption itself is a triumph of form dictated by function A in this case efficient wiener preparation. A four-foot-high box of metal, it includes a small sink and water-heating unit, which are required by the Division of Hotels and Restaurants. A recess on top holds two gas burners, which warm a pair of food trays that hold hot dogs and sauerkraut and onions. To the left a sliding door opens over a large cooler packed with drinks and ice. To the right is a small grill. Above the metal top are glass-enclosed shelves packed with condiments and other tools of the trade -- napkins, metal tongs, and ruffled paper hot dog holders.

Location alone, Azucena maintains, does not guarantee success. "I've been here six years and worked very hard to get to know people," she says. "Somebody new comes, they have to start from scratch." Another trick of the trade: mind your own business. "I don't get involved with all the other people on Flagler," she explains. "I don't even know most of them." She points to another vendor crossing the street to gossip with a friend. "Just look at her," Azucena scoffs playfully. "You think she's going to sell anything? Hey! You think you're going to sell anything with your skirt billowing up like that?" The other woman turns and laughs.

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