(For those of you who aren’t aware, “Lucky Dogs” are the hot dog street vendors in New Orleans). I wrote about this experience when I was living in the Big Easy.
The smell of steamed hot dogs permeates the air; a dozen Lucky Dog carts line the front room like sentries waiting to stand their posts. To the right, a few carts lie in various stages of disrepair, waiting to be renewed and returned to duty, like other “urgent city services”, Lucky Dog carts are on call virtually 24/7. Vigilantly posted at street corners through the French Quarter, they are charged with the mission of dispensing steamed tubes of animal meat by-products, and complementing cold beverages, to minions of tourists that walk Bourbon every night, most of their brains clouded with an alcohol-induced haze that doesn’t object to the highly excessive $4.25 price tag.
A small office in the back, stacked with racks of plastic-bagged buns and bottles of soft drinks is vacant. Classic rock plays in the background as I make my way around the corner, past the cart graveyard, and spot a wizened, pony-tailed man sitting astride an overturned five gallon plastic bucket, smoking a cigarette, nodding his head to the music.
“Who do I see about work?” I ask. He replies, “she’s not here, she’s out for awhile, don’t know when she will be back – best to come in around 4:30 in the afternoon or 9 in the morning.”
“What’s the deal?” I ask him, inquiring, in my mind, about the financial remuneration on offer.
He says in a “duh” tone of voice, “We sell hot dogs, haven’t you ever walked around the French Quarter at night and seen our guys?”
“Well, sure,” I respond.
“Well you got the general idea then,” and he goes back to smoking and listening to the rock and roll. “Just because you see me smoking here, doesn’t mean you should think you can. There is a right place and a wrong place. This is a wrong place. Right place is the front door, or outside. But I know how to not get caught. I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble, tho, cause you don’t know the rules. They don’t know I smoke here.”
“Yeah, right,” I think, as I looked at the crematorium-sized pile of ashes scattered over his shoes and the floor… “they’ll never notice that.”
I repeat my question about the financial structure of the transactions, putting it more basic terms.
“Oh, well, you get 16% of everything you sell. Course you don’t get the best corner right away, so it might take awhile to work up to a living wage, but if you do well on the corner where they put you, they’ll notice, believe me!”
He nods off for a second again, lost in the music. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was a junkie, but 60s rock seems to be his only opiate.
He says, “You know Bob Seger?”
“Sure, Flint, Michigan, Rambling Man,” I quickly retort, reeling off a bit of trivia gleaned from my years in rock and roll radio.
He’s duly impressed, but challenges my assertion of the city. “Flint, huh, coulda sworn it was Ann Arbor. Hate to be the one to break this to you, put a black cloud on your day, but…. (he puts his hands up around his neck)…..throat cancer…dying.”
I assume he’s referring to Bob Seger and not himself.
“Why oh why would ‘they’ burden someone like him, with something like that? I mean, make him go blind, but throat cancer? Oh my god!” he says.
Doesn’t’ seem like he and Bob are close, but I act properly reverential at the news, and this opens him up.
He extends his had and says “Jack.” I extend mine and say “Peter.”
“Great music,” I say, “great shit.”
“Yep, those were the days,” he said. “I even saw Bill Haley once.”
“No fooling,” I respond. “Buddy Holly was my idol.”
“Another tragedy,” offers Jack. “You know who else was great? Bo-fuckin-Diddly. Saw him down here once a couple years ago.”
“He’s pretty fuckin’ old, ain’t he Jack?”
“Old?!?! Hell, he’s fuckin’ ancient!”
Jack and I have bonded, surrounded by empty ketchup and mustard containers, and piles of “invisible” cigarette ash.
“So who’s the greatest, ever, you think?” I ask him.
“No fucking question about it, John Fogerty,” he says, referring to the former front man of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
I think to myself it would make sense the CCR would have been a mega group around these parts. I don’t know how to label their music, but they played a kind of “swamp-rock”, surely the most original stuff of that time, and unique in the short history of rock and roll.
“Fee-fuckin-nominal,” he says.
Can’t say I disagree, they were the first major group I ever saw live in concert, back in the days when packaged music came on 12” vinyl platters, selling at less than $3.00 a unit. CCR were my heroes for a time.
“Seems like I could find you an application,” Jack said as he got up from his five-gallon throne, and we made our way back to the office side of the room.
“Number one rule here, is wherever you put something down, it moves in between that time, and the time you go looking for it again! Ah here they are, got your own pen?”
“Yep.” He hands me the application, it’s six pages long, and spells out the where’s and whys of being an independent contractor, and the rules for being a Lucky Dog vendor. There seems to be only one – you must wear your official Lucky Dog shirt and cap from the moment you leave the building until the moment you return. Has to do with the “historical status” of the company. (Translation: monopoly). It’s tied to the reason that they have the exclusive hot dog vending license in the Quarter. Tourists “expect” to see the familiar red and white shirts and caps when they visit New Orleans.
The rest of the employment agreement has to do with the financial split, and how unaccounted for inventory must be paid for, all money is collected daily, each vendor must pay $2.00 a day cart rental, and another paragraph about the 16%.
I do some rough mental calculations. Let’s see, $6.40 minimum wage, 16 cents on the dollar, $4.25 unit cost, .68 cents commission on each unit, have to sell about ten per hour to hit minimum wage.
Seems difficult. “How many weenies to they send you out with?” I ask Jack.
“Not too many the first few days, til you ‘prove’ yourself. After all, you’re a total stranger!”
“Yeah, but they are just hot dogs,” I saw, “I mean, who cares?”
“Food is money,” Jack says.
I decided not to argue with him that I had always heard that it was “time” that was money, not “food.”
“Anybody ever get mugged?” is my final question of the day.
“Mugged, hell be jesus, guy’s gotten shot before!”
And he tells me a tale that could have been easily reduced to “mind your own business and you’ll be OK.”
“So I should come back at 4:30 today?” I ask, as I finish filling out the application, supplying my usual vague answers.
“Yes, I hope you do,” Jack says, and extends his hand once more. “We could use more good people like you.”
Yeah, me and Bob Seger.