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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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?"