Dog Days

Buffalo, New York, sometime in the mid-'90s.

I was briefly between jobs — having just told one owner (of a ginormous Irish restaurant/pub/banquet hall/ hotel operation) that he could go fuck himself and his nine dollars an hour if he thought I was going to run his entire floundering food operation myself in the sudden absence of his chef, sous chef, chef de partie and bar manager, and not yet re-employed. But my girlfriend at the time was working enough to cover the rent on our un-air-conditioned, un-ventilated, un-lovely apartment off Hertel Avenue, which left me responsible for covering beer, gyros from the diner, food for the cats and bar tabs.

For whatever reason, that summer our group of friends had taken to drinking at a fairly skeevy, dim and dank bowling alley called Voelker's that attracted a mostly geriatric clientele of hard-core bowling enthusiasts, shaky winos and old-neighborhood Polacks who fought for their turf of stools on one side of the bar like this was the Falaise Gap and the war was still on. The bartenders would crack an egg in your beer if you asked, pulled drafts into old, wide-mouthed, footed goblets like the kind Archie drank from on All in the Family and stocked the worst cactus juice known to man: Tequila Rose, a kind of fruity, cream tequila that my girlfriend drank like it was strawberry milk until she'd had enough to start smacking those (usually me) who made fun of her for it.

Anyway, I loved this joint. The normal order of business would be for all of us (me and the girlfriend, Gracie, Brett, Nick, Liam and Sarah, assorted hangers-on) to gather in the parking lot, walk through the door in a tight pack and start drinking fast the minute we hit the bar. Usually, we could put two or three rounds behind us before the regulars started getting openly hostile, at which point we would order a couple buckets of beer, settle up and dodge out through the narrow door/hallway that led to the bowling alleys proper. There, for like two bucks a game, we could spend the rest of the night getting epically hammered, throwing balls around and making loud, boisterous assholes of ourselves without anyone caring. Gracie and I would sometimes bring micro-recorders so that we could make tapes of our evenings out — the grumble of balls, crash of pins, raised voices, arguments, jokes, occasional splashing of piss on ceramic when we forgot to take the recorders out of our pockets when we went to the men's room, occasional worse things when we forgot to take them out of our pockets when we headed for the alley out back.

These nights would run late. Bars in Buffalo shout out last call at around a quarter to four, and I can say with authority that finding yourself staggering drunk long after midnight in an otherwise deserted bowling alley is not just discomfiting, but straight-up Twilight Zone creepy. No matter the hour, leaving Voelker's always felt to me like escaping something — as though some ancient horror living behind the pin-setting machinery was just beginning to stir hungrily and that we'd made it out in the nick of time.

I don't recall whether or not Voelker's served food. I imagine it probably did, but I know we never ate there. Instead, we hit the diners, the neon-lit after-hours places and takeout joints that did more than half their daily business between the hours of 3 and 5 a.m. We'd go visit the Greeks at Tom's or the Olympic for souvlaki and bricks of fried onion rings (the hangover preventer and/or cure I swore by at the time, washed down with a pot of coffee and two white crosses). Sometimes we'd stop in at ETS for what passed for a burrito in those days, in that place. But every now and then, somebody would mention having a taste for hot dogs, and we'd be off in search of 4 a.m. street dogs wherever we could find them, not stopping until we were satiated — because once you get a hankering for a tubesteak with slivered onions and mustard, maybe a squirt of Ted's dog sauce, nothing else will do. And woe be to they who reached for the ketchup in my presence. I had very particular ideas of what constituted a good dog, and ketchup played no part in the equation. Depending where I was on the spectrum between happy, singing Irish drunk and sour, miserable, foul-tempered prick on the come-down, that kind of thing would either get you a roaring, slurred, befuddled lecture on the preparation of a proper hot dog or a punch in the neck.

Hanging out at the Wazee last week (see review) got me thinking about my good old days back at Voelker's — of the long nights, the smell of sour beer, the tricky physics involved in bowling while intoxicated and, most important, the hot dogs. As noted in my review, I love cheeseburgers with a strong and pure-hearted passion, and love a great cheeseburger bar (like the Wazee and My Brother's Bar, which I visited for this week's Second Helping) the way I do my own home. My infatuation with hot dogs, though? That comes from a somewhat darker and dirtier place, a midnight enthusiasm for quick, satisfying and somewhat sketchy nourishment of the same sort that drives me to all-night diners and taquerías, guys who sell burritos in doorways and places where I can get pigs' ears or barbecue at three in the morning. The hot dog is a cuisine of both desperation and obsession, the thing you pick up on the run when you're hungry and in a hurry, but also the thing you fixate on when you want one very badly and there are none near at hand.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan