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Spring, With Relish

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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.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff