San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

When you hear those bells go ting-a-ling,...
There'll be a hot time in the old town to-night.
--Joseph Hayden (1896)

He wasn't there. I don't know why I thought he would be. Six years is a long time for anyone to be standing on the same street corner. But he impressed me as the kind of guy who would do it, like one of those fifth century Stylites perched on his pillar for thirty or forty years, growing more artistic and celebrated with each passing year until finally he becomes just another landmark.

Six years ago Paco was a boy of nineteen with long, thin segmented limbs and a wispy, thin segmented moustache. His hair was very dark and he wore a perpetual grin, as if life, in the unfolding of its principles before him, had accidentally revealed its underwear. His movements were quick and yet filled with restraint. I had the impression if he ever completely let himself go the resulting frenzy would be impressive enough, but entirely unproductive. Even as it was, the boy barely managed to keep ahead of the game. He clumsily knocked over lids and spilled sauces across the top of his cart.

Paco was a hot dog vendor. On the night we met him, he was the only hot dog vendor.

In those days San Felipe, in the northeast corner of the Baja Peninsula, came alive only on weekends and holidays. That was when the tourists from the north streamed into the little town with their Winnebagos, dirt bikes, Hobie-Cats and dune buggies. During the rest of the time the town was a sea anemone. When the shadow of evening touched it, shutters and doors snapped shut with quick panic, only to slowly open again when dawn coaxed it with warmth and light. Weekday evenings saw barely enough traffic on the Mar de Cortez to keep a lone hot dog vendor occupied.

It was a Tuesday night. Terry and I had arrived in town earlier that day, eager to sample the local beer. Terry had never been in San Felipe before, so I was giving him careful instructions on how not to notice a clock or calendar. It is a difficult skill to master. The Mexicans are experts, but it must be understood that clock and calendar ignoring began in Mexico. They've had more time to practice than the rest of the world.

Well, I'd made such good progress with the lesson that Terry and I missed supper completely. By hours, in fact. And during that time we had been steadily drinking the local beer. Of course the anemone had contracted by then, but the beer made us hungry so we walked into town anyway and were delighted to discover a hot dog cart almost immediately. One without a crowd around it.

When he saw us approaching, the young vendor linked the long segments of his limbs together into a kind of rigid dignity. He looked like some sort of bronzed hero of the Revolution with an ear full of oration and a heart full of pluck, manfully prepared to defend his little ejido, his one three thousanth of an acre of carefully tilled buns and wieners.

There was a Mexican customer standing near the cart. Now that he had more of an audience, the preparation of a hot dog became a magniloquent affair, seeded with wonderful flashes of surrealism.

Terry and I watched as the vendor removed a heated bun from under a lid on the cart. Holding wooden tongs in his right hand, the young man rolled a bacon-wrapped wiener gingerly across the sizzling surface of the griddle. With his left hand, he spooned out sauces from three jars and flung them with deadly accuracy onto the open face of the bun.

"Picante?" he asked the waiting Mexican, who nodded. A deft motion with a squeeze bottle laid a neat red worm of sauce inside the bun. Then the wiener leaped across the cart like a tiny circus dachshund and fell into the bun. The Mexican took the hotdog from the grinning vendor and walked to the side of a building. Under a canopy of San Felipe shadows, we could hear him noisily enjoying his bocado.

"Cuanto cuesta dos hotdogs?" I asked the vendor.

"Dos mil," he said, bothering a charred piece of bacon with the end of his tongs. Two thousand pesos for two hotdogs.

I took a one thousand peso note from my pocket. "Un mil para dos." I offered. The young Mexican nodded and drew out two wieners, already cooked, from under a lid. He left them hushing at each other on the griddle as he spread out two steaming buns and spooned sauces into them.

"Picante?" he grinned.

"Si," I said gamely. Terry nodded, not so gamely. Within moments I was biting into my first Mexican hot dog. Let me tell you what it did to my taste buds. Then my soul. My mouth beat like wings against a spectacular omnibus of flavors, became filled with a brilliant garden of sensations. If I had an acre of colored balloons and a stadium of white doves, I would have joyously released them at the instant that first heavenly gobbet surrendered its essence. It was a miracle. It was a revelation. And it was a disgrace that Americans continued to palm off indigestible tripe to the ball park crowds with fraudulent shouts of "Hot dogs! Get your redhot hot dogs!"

Six years ago, in that dark corner of a Mexican fishing village, I had found the real thing. After long years of selection and reselection, the humble hot dog had evolved by Darwinian attrition into a new specie, a glorious, magnificent leap toward the golden Kingdom of Absolutes, a metaphysical triumph of nature.

"Dos mas," I said to the vendor, even before I had taken my second bite. Terry nodded enthusiastically, leaning away from a squirt of salsa that spattered onto the pavement. Two more wieners were produced and the vendor carefully wrapped each with a long strip of bacon, which he secured by skewering it with several toothpicks and then breaking off the ends so the wieners could roll easily along the griddle.

The Mexican who had been standing in the shadows stepped out, called Paco by name and ordered another one. Two locals crossed the street and joined us. The vendor rattled lids importantly and clinked a big spoon inside a jar. Terry and I, in a kind of blind ecstasy, received our hot dogs. I spit out a piece of toothpick and ordered two more.

"Este vez, saca los huesos," I said, instructing him to remove the bones. Everyone laughed. The young Mexican doffed one of the lids and stared at the empty foil-lined cavity. Then he threw open a door at the end of the cart.

"ĦQue verga!" he cried and his arms marionetted comically then clattered to his sides. He was out of hot dog buns. Suddenly he darted down a narrow alley, his long legs stroking the ground like hockey sticks. I watched as the darkness gradually swallowed him, his white T-shirt finally fading into the shadowed recesses of the decrepit, chock-a-block old shanties, like the last white tooth of a disappearing Cheshire grin. I thought it was a pretty impressive act of contrition, but the Mexicans hardly appeared concerned. They just stood there and talked pleasantly among themselves.

In a few minutes the gangly vendor reappeared, his piano key smile intact. Far down the alley I heard a car engine give a Gregorian growl. I looked at the vendor. There were no unanswered tragedies in his life, I thought.

"Por favor," he said to his audience. "Esparas un ratito." And he held his hand up, showing us with a sliver of space between his thumb and index finger how little we would have to wait. Shortly a low rumbling echo crawled out of the shadows and a rattling, one-eyed, punch-drunk Monte Carlo with a levitating trunk lid shuddered up to the curb alongside the hot dog stand. A Mexican wearing a backward baseball cap rolled out of the driver's seat and ran to the back of the car. He flung open the trunk lid and began tossing bags of hot dog buns to the vendor, who relayed them into the open door of his cart. Then, without uttering a word, the delivery man jumped into his car and sped away, sounding like a bass fiddle gargling shower water.

The hot dog vendor opened a bag and tenderly interred several buns under a lid on his propane-powered crematorium. Then he ceremoniously wrapped and skewered a half dozen hot dogs and began rolling them across the sizzling griddle. My stomach threw a baton in the air, did a cartwheel, then caught the baton. Terry said he thought he might have reason to live after all.

We ate two more. Then another two. The Mexicans ate until the sidewalk looked like a battlefield. Three more people joined the celebration. Mexicans are interesting. The conduits of their perception have a funny kink in them. By the time information reaches the processing part of their brains, it's been given a wagging, dancing motion, kind of like a car with sloppy shocks going over a speedbump at an angle. This movement affects their reactions to information. They respond with uneven, often surprising constructions. Because the world seems to dance for them, they think it is a game. And the only rule they have been able to discover is that everybody must have a good time. And immediately, right here and now. Foundation and planning have little meaning to a Mexican. For example, among those of little influence and wealth, premeditated murder is virtually unknown. Of course when you get into politics, it is a different story. But then politics is always a different story.

As I stood there, slowly yielding to the influence of this extraordinary drug, the Mexican hot dog, I thought back to a young woman I had met several years before. Her name was Maria and she worked at the local bank. Soft spoken and bright-eyed, I well remember my first heart-fluttering impression of her, the smooth, even features under a cascade of black hair, her clear tawny skin and flashing white smile. She was a Dulcinea, I thought, a Spanish Legeia or Beatrice. As it turned out, she was all those things --behind her desk. But when she stepped away from the furniture it was enough to break your heart. This pretty Mexican girl was saddled with an ass the size of a grain hopper. I thought it must have been a birth defect. I couldn't imagine anyone towing a trailer like that through life when it wasn't absolutely necessary. The poor girl looked like something from the Galapagos Islands.

Amazingly, Maria's unsightly appendage did not in any way inhibit her social life. Over a period of months we became good friends and she once showed me a photo album stuffed with pictures of her amigos norteamericanos, her American boyfriends. I thumbed through the pages, amazed. It was an autobiography in pictures. And there was quite a gallery.

Maria had a little hand-held Spanish/English electronic translator and we used it to encourage our attempts at communication. One day she came to the counter and handed me a folded slip of paper. "Eez theez correk?" she said. I unfolded the note and read "I love for fuck." It seemed she wanted another pictogram for her collection. But I was camera shy.

"Correct for you," I said. "But not for me."

Her face reddened and she went back around her desk, looking very pretty the moment she sat down. I turned to one of the Mexicans at the hot dog stand and asked about Maria.

"Maria trabajaba al banco todavia?" I said.

The Mexican, a compact youth whose face reflected his Aztec heritage, stared at me blankly. His friend reached over and slapped him playfully on the shoulder.

"Maria!" he cried, holding his open hands near his buttocks, as if he was facing Gary Cooper at high noon. He bounced lightly on his legs a few times to show his friend there was some weight involved.

The Aztec displayed an ugly mortise which I took to be a grin. "Maria!" he cried, grabbing the seat of his pants. Then everyone broke into cries of "Maria!" and clumped about in circles on the sidewalk, hands clutching imaginary globes behind them. A few made me gifts of obscenely lurid gestures and clapped me on the back like a fraternity brother who's managed to steal a garter against heavy odds. I had a feeling Maria kept another photo album in her desk, one she never showed her amigos norteamericanos.

The Aztec explained that Maria no longer lived in San Felipe. She had made a run for the border with a middle-aged married American who was rumored to have had a trepanning scar on the back of his head. I was sure his decision to run away with Maria was connected to either the scar or the marriage. But they were stopped at customs and Maria was sent to the immigration people, who put her on a bus back to San Felipe.

The bank had frowned on her behavior, not because she had run away with an American, but because she had missed four days of work during the busiest time of the year. They decided to remove her from temptation. She was transferred to Mexicali. The American hung his head and returned to his wife, who promptly threw him out.

This had all happened years before, but the telling of it by the Mexicans, enlivened as it was by their candor and showmanship, had an extraordinary and immediate effect on the young hot dog vendor. He became excited and desired to know more about Maria. In fact, he wanted to know everything about her. And of course the group of Mexicans, sensing the boy was a little enamored with the colorful heroine of their tale, began to heap wild and excessive superlatives upon her memory.

As the catalogue of Maria's virtues went into a second edition, the vendor's eyes grew luminous and dreamy. It was easy to see he had found his soulmate, his spiritual other-half. Maria rose up before his eyes part nymph and part myth, a Venus or Aphrodite. Or maybe the patron saint of hot dog carts. But what Paco didn't know, what he was too young to know, was that his feelings for Maria was really just an exercise in self-love.

"Dos mas," I told him, trying to break the spell. I watched him prepare the wieners. The Mexicans decided they also could eat more. The boy's thin bamboo arms flew over the griddle. It looked like he was slowly coming out of the spell.

After a minute of frenzied activity, the vendor asked one of the Mexicans to open the end of the cart and take out a bag of buns. But as soon as the door was unlatched, a huge flame unrolled like a bolt of yellow fabric and tried to wrap the man's head.

"Chinga!" he cried and leapt back.

The vendor's rhythm was completely undisturbed. He glanced at the flame with mild interest, reached his foot over to the door and kicked it closed, hands still expertly ladling sauces into open buns. The little Aztec broke away from the group and raced down the road. He returned almost immediately with wet shoes and a plastic pail filled with water. Someone threw the door open and the Aztec stepped back and gave the pail a fine heave, as if he was throwing a drunk out of a bar. The cart retaliated with a ball of flame that forced an ignoble retreat on the Aztec.

The hot dog vendor watched all this without pausing the preparation of the hot dogs, his face a bivouac of inner calm. Maybe he was thinking about Maria and merely reacting to the cart's nearness with a kind of tropism, an automatic hotdog-maker's response to the heat of the griddle, like a flower moving its face to follow the the sun. Or maybe he just had the nerves and dignity of a British Admiral.

Personally, I was worried about the propane tank. They have a way of complaining about flirtatious flames. I didn't especially want to be around when this one spoke up.

The Aztec, rubbing the singed fuzz that were his eyebrows, ran to get more water and never returned. The others saw the wisdom in this action and also left to find water, preferably on the Pacific side of the peninsula. The vendor accepted this mutiny with peaceful stoicism. By now the flames had climbed out of the cart and were investigating a painted picture of a hotdog. Terry and I made noises about joining the rescue team, seeing it as our only hope of rescue. I prematurely paid the vendor for our last two hotdogs and regretfully declined to eat them. I told him we were stuffed, couldn't handle another bite. But Paco was a highly principled young man and insisted we stay and wait for them.

Only a few moments more, he said. His unfortunate choice of words triggered a note of concern from me. I warned him about the propane tank, which he dismissed with a sputter and a wave of his hand.

As Terry and I climbed the hill on our way back to the camper, I stopped to look at the fire. The young vendor was standing back from the flaming cart, watching with his hands crossed on his chest. I saw him glance at the shanty behind him then step over to the cart and gingerly roll it into the middle of the road. He watched for a few minutes more then turned and walked away.

On the day Terry and I left town, we saw the boy on the same street corner, cheerfully assembling his hotdogs on a shiny new cart. We stopped and let him make an early breakfast for us. He proudly gave us a tour of the cart and boasted the paint was barely dry.

We left Paco scraping a spatula against the griddle, trying to absorb the sense and feel of its newness, reflecting the dignity of a man who has been reborn. I fully expected him to be there forever.

Over these last years, whenever I think about the hot dog vendor, I think of Maria as well. I remember the extraordinary effect she had on the young man's face as the surrounding Mexicans liberally applied their sauces and spices to the pot-luck of her description. It was an effect Maria would have approved, the very response she strove to create. And her commodity must have been at least as refreshing as the young vendor's hotdogs. After all, she had an album filled with the smiling faces of satisfied customers.

In my own oddly peopled internal landscape, the young vendor seemed to be the kind of man Maria needed. Someone with unflappable dignity and style who held the reins of his destiny firmly, even while his world burns down around him. But always confident that something new and better will rise up out of the ashes.

I can't help feeling that one day the two of them will meet and recognize each other as the missing half of a circle, the mystical, holy circle that grows out of nothing to eventually encompass a world. Wherever Maria is now, I'm sure she is still hawking her ware, adding new pictograms to her biography and wondering if there is really a place as good as the fairyland she holds in her head. But being patient, as Mexicans are, she'll always wait for that newer and better dream to come along.

And young Paco, wherever his is, undoubtedly shakes his reins and clomps with great aplomb along the road of life. I would like to be there when they finally meet, when their eyes interlock with recognition and the old habits of their showmanship have them address their mutual patronage with a grin and the usual question of how they want it. "Picante?"