Spring, With Relish

Because it was spring, I was craving the sort of home-improvement supplies you need at this time of renewal, when outdoor projects seem not only possible, but inevitable. I was considering scraping and sanding decks, cobbling together outdoor furniture, laying down swaths of concrete, maybe even wielding a tube of caulk (despite all the silly-putty-like evidence of the last time I'd had that idea). In line at the big-box hardware store, faces around me shone with the same sort of hope. A lumberyard in springtime is a charmed place.

But the real charm, I soon realized, emanated from a very specific space in that place: a hotdog stand in front of the store. The steam table emitted an aroma that worked subtly on our minds, more straightforwardly on our stomachs. Abandoning my spot in line, I ran outside to buy a dog.

A young, blond, St. Pauli-like girl was dispensing brats and Polish sausages. Both her appearance and her offerings were so enticing that I had to ask: She confirmed that she'd received a number of marriage proposals while on the job. Not only that, she said, but she belonged to a ring of beautiful young hotdog girls who manned stands at various branches of the big-box store. She'd tell me all about it if her boss agreed.

"Thanks, but no thanks," her boss told me over the phone the next day. "People in our business have nothing to say to people in your business. In the past, it hasn't worked out. I'm not interested in the publicity, honey."

Publicity, honey? Did his attitude hint of hotdog scandal? Or did he truly believe that there was no way hotdogs and journalists could happily co-exist? Carefully avoiding the stores controlled by the St. Pauli cartel -- I'd been warned, after all -- I began researching the competition.

"No, no hotdog cart," a cagey HomeBase manager told me. "We make them go two doors down. They set up in front of the furniture store."

"Nope, nope, nope, sure don't have one," said Hugh M. Woods -- or his spokesman. "No hotdog man. Not yet. Not that I know of. Don't know when we'll get one."

"Hotdog person? Why would we have a hotdog person?" barked the Ace Hardware manager.

"Isn't it a springtime tradition?" I asked. "Where else can busy contractors eat?"

"Who cares?"

A good question -- and I found the answer at Lowe's, which occupies the old Eagle Hardware space at I-70 and Wadsworth Boulevard. "We absolutely do have a hotdog guy," said assistant manager Jeff Winegard. "And he's so good that a lot of contractors come by here just to eat. I've eaten almost everything he's got, because as you walk out of the store, there he is. And you get a good smell and you're, like, 'I'm hungry,' and it doesn't matter what time it is. You get yourself a breakfast burrito or a Danish or a snack cake. Or a hotdog, of course."

I wasn't wearing a watch, but somehow I knew it was lunchtime.

Jeordon Little's hotdog cart is strategically located between two sets of glass doors leading from the Lowe's cash registers to the exit -- not to be confused with the contractors' entrance.

"They actually have free coffee over there in the morning," Little tells me, "but I've never tried it. I'm not sure I would. You get more bang for your buck with cappuccino, is my feeling."

Because the St. Pauli girl had taken all of her beverages from a Styrofoam cooler, I'm stunned to discover that Little's operation includes not only an elaborate coffee machine, but a soda fountain, a lighted hot-pretzel display case and a Good Humor chest stocking only the finest Good Humor product -- the Strawberry Shortcake bar -- in addition to offerings from Ben, Jerry and the original Klondike corporation. His steam table gleams stainlessly. In the light streaming in through the plate-glass windows, this hotdog stand feels like a sanctuary -- a Woody's Chicago Style shrine.

"But this is just what you get when you buy the franchise," Little explains. "Woody's are all over Hawaii, in the airports and Pearl Harbor and all that. I bought in three years ago, got the training, got the place here at Lowe's, and learned how to keep my dogs hot and my drinks cold. It's pretty difficult to screw up. Simple devices, simple tools."

In going with Woody's, Little made a commitment to the Chicago -- as opposed to New York -- school of hotdog construction and consumption. "I didn't know any of this at first," he admits, "but with the Chicago hotdog, you have to have everything born and raised in Chicago -- the buns from the St. Mary-Anne Bakery, the artificially bright green relish, the celery salt, the kraut, the kosher pickles. The New Yorkers rip on Chicago style, the people from Chicago rip on Sabrett's. The New Yorkers get a little hard that I don't have a pickle spear and chopped tomato, but I made my choice."

Since he made that choice, his cart has become a fixture at Lowe's, seven days a week, eleven hours a day, serving everyone from employees to customers to customers in the middle of an argument with employees. "If they're having a problem with a customer, they sometimes send them out here and buy them lunch," Little says. "My job is to settle them down by giving them food. It works because I'm not the problem, I'm just the hotdog guy."

As if shot by a cannon past the cash registers, a hungry couple appears. He's wearing a "Future Lottery Winner: Start Sucking Up to Me Now" T-shirt. She's pregnant. The contents of their cart indicate they're not only expert plumbers, but are building a California Closet.

"Aren't you hungry, hon'?" she asks. "Don't you want anything?"

"I had breakfast thirty minutes ago. I dunno. Gimme a cheese dog."

"And a jumbo dog with kraut," she adds. "And a large Pepsi."

"Chips with that?" Little asks, already knowing the answer.

"Sometimes you can tell," he explains after they've walked away. "You remember types. I try to establish if the person walking toward me is the extra-large-Pepsi-with-meatball-sandwich. Or is he the small-diet-hotdog-no-chips-herbal-tea? I also watch how people dress their dogs -- are they sloppy with the ketchup and mustard or artistic?"

Not only does Little know what they want to eat, but he senses what they want to talk about.

"Building cabinets?" he asks the man with the pencil behind his ear and a lower-back support un-velcroed for comfort. "At least that's fun work. Fun, if exasperating -- am I right?"

The all-purpose "Are you getting toward the end of your project, or is it a never-ending battle?" can be customized, say, with "a never-ending goddamn battle." But the question is just a springboard to whatever conversational plunge a customer wishes to take.

"Boy, you should get you a new microwave," enthuses a young man whose huge belly is almost covered by a science-fiction T-shirt. "They got stuff in the back in boxes they have to sell because it's got a ding or something. They got a nice microwave you should buy. I got a new fan back there for the bedroom. It osculates!"

"Isn't it nice when a fan can do that?" Little agrees.

His chat is so diplomatic that -- after hearing him clarify a passing teen's algebra homework, sympathize with an older woman over the price of lightbulbs, and cell-phone in an order for extra beef brats -- I finally ask, "Why are you a hotdog guy instead of a senator or something?"

"I love to learn, but I hate school," Little replies. "I think I have mild learning disabilities -- never diagnosed. I was in college for a long time to be an engineer, but I finally realized that when all the schooling and licensing was done, I'd be working with the crew who designed the cover plate for the screw on a satellite. So I quit. I'm a slacker, I guess."

In true slacker fashion, he spent two decades working at strip clubs, liquor stores and casinos. "Babysitting adults," he remembers. "'I'm sorry, sir, I cannot serve you another alcoholic beverage, as you are currently drunk.' I don't suffer fools gladly, so I finally bought a cleaning service."

On his way to an early-morning job, he stopped by a Boulder 7-Eleven, where he reconnected with Rene -- a woman who'd punched him in fourth grade, which meant she liked him. By sixth grade, they'd been an item; by seventh, the romance had fizzled. Rene had been working the 7-Eleven cash register for fourteen years when Little reappeared in her life. "We started talking," he remembers. "My alcoholic girlfriend had just dumped me. Her alcoholic had just dumped her." Reunited, the couple married; today they have a nearly two-year-old daughter.

"Rene pulls a shift here once in a while," Little says. "And she trains the sixteen-year-olds. She's more patient than I am." She's also handier: Little no longer carries a credit card to work for fear he'll be tempted to buy power tools for Rene, who enjoys remodeling.

Little takes a break from his life story to sell several soft drinks, an iced tea, an Italian beef sandwich and a Danish, and to chat with a customer about Charo, who is a hell of a classical guitarist.

"My brothers are a sheriff's deputy and a fireman," he soon resumes. "My father is a computer database jockey, and everyone in my family was so worried about what Jeordon was going to do with his life. And when they found out it was a hotdog stand -- oh, boy. But they had all stood in line for hotdogs at the lumberyard, so they began to think I might be okay.

"And I am okay," he decides. "I've looked at a half-dozen harebrained schemes, and this is by far the best. In this case, the moron who tells me to do something is me, so I tend to understand how his mind works."

Now the lunch rush begins in earnest -- the men from the cabinet departments, the women from the cash registers, the stay-at-home moms on a Martha Stewart binge. To every one of them, Little says, "May I help you?"

In every case, he can.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff