There was a chill in the air, but I was prepared for it. I had learned early on that standing on a sidewalk on a December night was no fun if you couldn’t feel your fingers or toes. Even with a grill in front of you. It was bound to worsen in the coming months, but tonight was okay. I’d arrived around 8:30 p.m., and with everything prepped and stocked in coolers, I roll the large metal structure out of the alleyway, up the parking lot, and set up shop in full view of the four bars that, at that time, comprised all of Trade Street nightlife. Around 9:30 was prime time for opening, and I wouldn’t be done until after 3 a.m. Those hot dogs sell themselves, with me as the intermediary.
Awhile back, a friend and I had bought a hot dog cart, due the dearth of late-night food in Downtown Winston at that time. I had recently left a job as a GM at another local spot and I had absolutely no idea what direction to take. I worked events, private parties and the streets of Winston-Salem on the busy bar nights. It wasn’t terribly difficult to get legal, but at the time, onerous city regulations were in place to dissuade any Johnny-come-lately from just popping up anywhere they pleased. Red tape aside, it was worth it.
I stood on the streets with hand warmers, wool socks and my face covered up to the eyes with a scarf, like a strange, out-of-time nomad observing modern society.
I was the owner, manager, cook, server and dishwasher all in one. How do you carry yourself when the only person answerable to is yourself? There’s a definite stigma attached to working the streets, especially from drunk college kids and “young professionals” who probably work at their fathers’ firms. Some people looked right through me as they ordered extra jalapeños for their brats. They never saw me.
I got used to the subtle insults towards my life choices. One guy standing in line was talking to his companion about Eagle Scouts as I prepared his chili-cheese dog.
“Did you know that Eagle Scouts get a free college education?”
I hopped in, “That’s got to be BS, I wish I had known that when I received mine.”
He paused a beat, “Yeah, maybe you wouldn’t be selling hot dogs.”
Little digs like that were okay, I had a steady business from regulars, door guys, bartenders, taxi drivers, and the like. They made it worth it as we stood to watch “Chandler” get arrested for trying to punch security when they wouldn’t let him in at the bar across the street.
This being New Year’s Eve, it was different. Still the same shitshow, but everyone was dressed up, the remnants of Christmas still upon them, and people who don’t usually come out, and those who do, relished in the idea of the final blowout before the slow winter months came upon them. An end, a new beginning, followed the next week by the old David Byrne adage: “Same as it ever was.”
But I was witness to something rare, only seen on New Year’s Eve at the hot-dog stand. Most people were moving around, going from bar to bar, smoking outside, back and forth. I saw crews making their way to a new location. Music echoed up the street. People stopped, placed orders and moved on. The night was going well.
Until 11:57 p.m.
The sidewalks emptied, doors closed and a strange rapture-like feel enveloped the streets. It was quiet for a moment. It was so quiet that I heard the gas hiss through my burners.
And then the countdown started. From all four bars around me I heard the simultaneous, “TEN, NINE, EIGHT,” begin its inevitable march towards 2016. I took a breath and looked around, got introspective and wondered if I was where I should be in life. The countdown finished, and the bars erupted in cheers. I looked through the window at the crowd hugging, throwing their hands up in joy, shaking hands with strangers like a church social, even the bartenders were taking a beat to celebrate the new year.
Slowly, the night resumed. Cars emerged, people started to wander outside again, moving on, perhaps going home, perhaps another bar. Orders were made.
By the end of the night, taxis were lined up, women carrying their heels as they ran to the next place before last call; someone was sitting on the curb scarfing down a hot dog sobbing between bites.
Just another night.
When the last taxi had left, and the door guys were sweeping up the tinsel and those glasses that are shaped like the recently-ushered-in-year were in piles by the door, I finished orders for the bar employees and started breaking it down. We said our goodbyes and well wishes, and I rolled the cart into the back alley and threw a tarp on it, ready for the week ahead.
Happy New Year.