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By Steven Keiths

?Hey, Buddy, are these real hot dogs, ya? know, all-beef, and not those damn chicken-filled pieces of crap??

The customer was a sour-looking man with a protruding, round stomach and red face wearing plaid Bermuda shorts and a striped muscle shirt about a size too small for him. He had moved up to the hot dog stand in a way such that he?d cut in front of two other customers who?d been waiting their turn. That he?d moved directly to the front of a line of customers didn?t appear to concern him in the least.

?No, they?re all-beef,? said the vendor. ?Let me get to these people first, and I?ll be right with you.?

The hot dog man, his stooped shoulders, gray hair, gnarled hands and arthritic body movements bearing testament to each and every one of his sixty-two years, answered the man reluctantly, his manner clearly showing his desire to help the next person in line.

?Well, I?m in hurry,? the customer said with impatience.

?One sec, please, sir.?

?Oh, and I want everything on it too.? The man seemed determined not to be shuttled aside.

?Uh, all the fixins, are right there on the side, you can put anything on it ya? want. I?ll be with you in just a moment, sir.?

?Jesus, ya?d think at a buck seventy-five, ya?d get a little better service.?

The vendor ignored this remark and tended to the two people in front of the irascible customer. When he had served them, he used his tongs to pull a dog from the steamer, dropped it into a bun, wrapped it in white paper, and handed it to the irritated customer, somehow managing a smile on his wrinkled, weatherworn face. Then he turned to the next customer.

?Hey, Mac, ya got any of that spicy mustard, not this French?s crap that?s probably not even French?s, but some sort of fake stuff you poured into this bottle. I know how you guys like to cut corners on expenses.?

Pointing with his tongs, not even turning to look at the overweight and overbearing customer and with his shoulders slumping just a bit lower, the hot dog man answered, ?Next to the ketchup.?

?Hell, ya think it would be next to the yellow mustard, not the damn ketchup,? the man complained loudly and argumentatively.

Then an unmistakable sound could be heard. Phrillurp!

?Oh, great, the damn thing?s run out and now I got mustard splattered on my shirt. How long have you been in business, anyway??

?Sorry, sir, let me wet a napkin for you. It?ll help get the mustard off your shirt. It should wash out when you do your laundry. Oh, and here?? The hot dog man reached into an ice chest at his feet, retrieving a new bottle of spicy mustard and handing it to the fuming fat man.

The customer grabbed it without a word, but then asked, again interrupting the vendor as he tried in vain to help his next cutomer, ?Hey old man, are these onions fresh? Don?t want to be catching no damn salmonella.?

?Diced this morning,? replied the vendor.

?Well, if I get sick, you can bet your damn ass, I?ll be back,? the man threatened. He gave the hot dog man a withering look, then turned and walked away.

The old vendor watched him without any change in his expression other than a slight wrinkling at the corners of his eyes. It took him a moment, but then he turned to the next person in line. The person waiting at the counter smiled, a little tentatively, showing his embarrassment and not sure just what to say. The old man shook his head, dismissing the moment. ?What can I get for you, sir?? he asked, showing nothing of what he was feeling inside.

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