Dog Fight


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Any morning, any day of the week, I can tell you exactly where Frankie is and what he's up to. He's inside Manhattan's Astor Garage changing into his work clothes?top hat, white tie and tails. Notice I only gave you his first name. Other than relatives and a few close friends, hardly anyone knows Frankie's last name. I know it, but only because he swore me to secrecy. So before I tell you, I have to swear you to secrecy. It's Sassone. Frankie Sassone. You can't tell anyone. Know why he's so tight-lipped about it? Because people shorten it to Frankie Sass. "By itself, there's nothing wrong with Frankie Sass," he says. "But you get wise guys. They get tongue-tied on purpose, and Frankie Sass comes out 'Frankie's Ass.' Like I'm supposed to think that's funny. You know, cute." Frankie's an unusual guy: a proud man with low self-esteem. Keep his birth name to yourself, but don't worry about spilling his professional name. Any hungry man, woman or school kid walking through Midtown Manhattan already knows it. It's Swanky Frankie. Every morning, in the role of Frankie Sassone, he leaves his mother's Brooklyn apartment, subways to Eleventh Avenue and West 48th Street and strolls into the Astor Garage where he stores his hot dog cart. By 11?looking like Planters' Mr. Peanut minus his monocle?he's transformed into Swanky Frankie, a living trademark steering his cart across town toward upscale Fifth Avenue. Notice I said steering. A lot of people think he's pushing his cart. Your modern-day cart runs about eight-and-a-half feet long. Fully loaded, it requires a small motor to move it. Sure, Frankie's a big guy with muscle, but nobody, least of all the elegant Swanky Frankie, would be seen actually pushing a hot dog cart. Tucked into his regular street corner, he raises his fringed umbrella, clips on his Swanky Frankie sign, tosses a dozen high-quality franks on the grill, and lays out the mustard, ketchup, chili and onions. "I'm thinking of cutting out the onions," he says. "It's not that people don't want onions; it's my mother. I don't like to see her chopping them up in our apartment. She sheds enough tears over my not being married. What? I'm gonna watch her cry over onions, too?" When it comes to family, Frankie has this sensitive side. He's also very sensitive about the image he presents. Working behind his grill, he relies on his stylish appearance to make himself look different from the other shirt-sleeved vendors strung along the avenue. "The look brings the customers in," he says. "But it's the franks that bring them back." He buys his franks from a Brooklyn butcher, an aging German who claims he's the only guy in New York with an old-world recipe. Frankie has this knack for converting the old German's franks into crisp, delicious hot dogs. You could be facing bankruptcy, but when he smiles and hands you one while he's tricked up in his top hat, white tie and tails, he makes you think you're dining at the Waldorf. While waiting for the Brooklyn butcher to go to his eternal reward, I'm trying to convert Frankie to my premium franks. Notice I said premium. They're made according to the highest Department of Agriculture standards. Sure they contain binders?cereal, for example. What frank doesn't? Nitrates and sodium too, but today, everybody is so health-food conscious, we keep that stuff to a minimum. Because Frankie is my biggest potential customer, I spend more time around his cart than I do around my regular customers. This morning, an hour or so before the lunch trade lines up, we're sharing our usual street-food gossip when I see his eyes narrow under the brim of his top hat. He does not like what I'm telling him. A few blocks south, a competitor has set up a new hot dog cart. Nothing threatening in that; competitors come and go. But Frankie's face darkens when I tell him this new rival has a fancy cart and is selling under a glamorous name, "The Umbrella Room." "What's he wearing?' I duck his question. "The sign says GRILLED GOURMET HOT DOGS." "What's he wearing?" Frankie's repeated question carries a tension that tells me I'd be smart to keep cool. I slip under his umbrella so we're both in the shade. "A maitre d' outfit. Kind of formal?like a tuxedo" "Hey, I invented that image," he says. "If he's gonna do a Swanky Frankie knock-off, tell him he may get knocked off. Tell him to find some other gimmick." I'm wondering how I can say this to a customer?someone I depend on to meet my sales quota?when something dawns on me. My customer isn't a him. It's a her?a thirty-something gal who seems like a decent lady. She tells me she enjoys being her own boss. It allows her to leave a little later in the morning and get home a little earlier in the afternoon. She claims it means more time with her kids. But before I can explain to Frankie that his new competitor is a woman?and nice looking, too?he steamrolls me. "Look," he says. "My cousin Paulie works downtown at the Board of Health. Paulie knows all the inspectors. They find something wrong with your cart, they lay a big fine on you. Close you down, even. Know what I'm saying?" A few days later, I drop by Frankie's cart. Before I can tell him how upset I am, I spot his new sign: OUR HOT DOGS SERVED ONLY ON ROLLS MADE FROM THE UPPER CRUST. He doesn't say it, but I know this is his answer to his new high-tone competitor. I come right to the point. "Frankie, what's going on? The Umbrella Room lady says the health department came by and fined her for failing to provide a customer with a receipt." "Umbrella Room lady? What do you mean, lady?" Frankie says. "You never told me she's a lady." "You never gave me the chance," I say. "You cut me off before?" But I don't want to start an argument. So I smooth-talk him. "Frankie, there are 3,000 food carts in this town and not one of them hands a customer a receipt. Sure, it's a city law, but an inspector has to be really looking for trouble to pick up the Umbrella Room lady on a technicality like that. Now take your cousin Paulie, he wouldn't be involved in this, would he?" Before Frankie can answer, a little guy shoulders through the circle of customers and dips under Frankie' s umbrella. He identifies himself as a health department inspector and starts machine-gunning questions. "Where's your license?" he asks, holding up a plastic ID the size of a credit card. Like a teacher talking to a first grader, he says, "You punch a hole here, thread a leather thong through it and hang it around your neck." His message is clear: You got to have your license dangling before the people at all times. Frankie looks embarrassed. He pats down his shirtfront. When he doesn't find his license, he pulls out his wallet and flips through it like a wild man. Several customers, looking impatient, break away. Filled with suspicion, I duck out with them. Frankie's been selling dogs for years. Why is this license business coming up now? The next week?during some friendly talks with the Umbrella Room lady?I put the story together. Turns out, Frankie isn't the only one who has connections in the health department. The Umbrella Room lady also has a few downtown relatives. This explains everything. The inspector didn't just happen to stop by Frankie's cart to check on his license. Someone put him up to it. When I figure enough days have passed for Frankie to cool down from his no-license embarrassment, I swing by his cart for a pre-lunch talk. Right away, he rips the inspector who singled him out for a fine. "Everybody downtown knows I have a license," he says. "That SOB caught me on a technicality." "So Frankie," I ask, "are you seeing a linkup here?" He looks at me like I'm speaking Chinese. "Well," I say to him real slow and soft, "did you notice that right after The Umbrella Room lady gets fined on a technicality?no receipt?you get fined on a technicality: no license?" "What the hell are you talking about?" "I'm talking about rabbit hunting, Frankie. It looks like a safe, easy sport. But when the rabbit has a rifle, it's not safe and easy anymore; it's dangerous. Face it, the Umbrella Room lady has as much firepower downtown as you have." Frankie puts on his old narrow-eyed look below the brim of his top hat. He whispers so low, I can hardly hear him. "You shoulda told me it was a lady sooner." Later that day, I decide this hostility can't continue. Someone has to declare a truce. If these two ruin each other, they'll take me down, too. I fall short of my sales quota a few times and boom, there goes my retirement?which is not that far off?and with it my little cabin up in the Catskills. I got too much invested in this business to mess up now. So I resolve to step in and get the warring parties together. First, I find out she parks her cart at the Knickerbocker garage, just a block south of the Astor garage. Next, I use all my persuasive powers to convince both of them to meet me halfway between the garages. When the meeting day rolls around, I'm a little surprised to see them show up at the designated spot. Frankie looks startled when he hears the Umbrella Room lady has a real name: Carol. Not a hint of a smile passes between them. We set off across 48th Street, their carts weaving through traffic. The street noise?blasting car horns and whistling traffic cops?makes for a very stressful trip. I feel silly walking between two foreign dignitary look-alikes, but that doesn't stop me. "You can't get anywhere fighting," I yell, urging peace. They respond with straight-ahead stares. By the time we reach Fifth Avenue, all I have to show for my bellowing is more deadpan looks. At the end of the day, I'm filled with so much tension I hardly have the strength to go home and flop into bed. Next morning, I wake up convinced I need a vacation. Driving to the Catskills, I rack my brain: How can I put an end to this dog fight? It takes a few days of fishing, but an idea finally hits me. So first day back on the avenue, I lay my idea on Carol: Why not a merger? Big corporations do it every day. She looks skeptical, but when I mention the chance to hike her income, she perks up. "Well, I got kids. Money counts. But I don't think he likes me." "We can overcome that. See, Frankie has this sensitive side about his family." "He's got kids, too?" she asks, wrapping a hot dog in a napkin and packaging it with a cold soda for a customer. "No kids, it's his mom. The way to Frankie is through his mother." I keep talking until I figure I've got her on my side. Then, I tell her exactly what to do. After waiting a whole week, I drop by Frankie's cart. I arrive well before lunch?a line of hungry customers can be a distraction. Before I can ask him what's new, he greets me with a big smile. "Look," he says, holding up a plastic bag filled with chopped onions. "Where'd you get that?" I ask, wide-eyed, like I'm surprised. "Carol. She came by while you were away. It was real awkward at first. But we got to talking family. You know?her kids, my mom. Since last week, she brings me a fresh bag every day." My plan is working, and I jump on it. "Looks like the surprise attacks from the health department are gone forever." "Yeah, I showed the onions to my mom. She says, 'She chops so fine, Frankie, she gonna cook you some nice dinners.'" I push my advantage. "Looks like you and Carol are getting along pretty well. What do you think of combining your talents? A merger, like. Sell your hot dogs under the same name." "Nah, What's she gonna see in a guy like me?" I ignore Frankie's familiar self-esteem whining. "It's easy. Carol hangs a Swanky Frankie sign above the Umbrella Room sign on her cart. You hang her Umbrella Room sign below the Swanky Frankie sign on your cart. This gives you two carts at different spots along the avenue?each one with the same name. I can see it in lights," I tell him, "Swanky Frankie's Umbrella Room." Then I add the punch line, "Naturally, you're each wearing the same Swanky Frankie get-up." Waiting for his answer, I lean over and notice something different on his grill. I can't believe what I'm seeing. He's cooking a completely unrecognizable kind of frank. "What happened to the old German's franks?" I say, in a state of shock. "Didn't I tell you? He died while you were up in the Catskills." This is one hell of a bombshell. Sure, it's what I'm waiting to hear. But now, after working so long, I can't believe Frankie's buying product other than mine. "Frankie, how come you never called me?" I say. "My franks are my bread and butter." I can see by his silence he's embarrassed. So I put on the old full-court press. "You're about to become the first chain of hot dog carts on Fifth Avenue, Frankie. That means you got to serve the same franks at both locations. Take McDonald's. They don't serve one kind of burger uptown and another kind downtown. Be consistent. That's the secret. Carol serves my franks and you should serve my franks, too." From here, it's easy. I pull out my cell phone and announce, "I'm punching in an order for two gross of our best premium franks." "Two gross?" "One for you and one for Carol. Same company, right? By the way, anything going on between you two?" "Anything going on? What are you talking about?" "You know. Like romantic?" "Aw, c'mon. You're just like my mother. Now that she doesn't have to chop onions anymore, she thinks Carol is Martha Stewart and the Virgin Mary all in one. What's Carol gonna see in me, anyway? I'm no Broadway star; it's a business." "Just wondering, that's all. Sometimes one kind of merger leads to another." Then I place the cell phone in front of him and say, "Punch here. That'll confirm your order." -- Bob Natiello is a New York native, born and raised in Brooklyn. After a career as a Madison Avenue advertising and marketing executive, he retired to Sedona, Ariz., where he now writes award-winning fiction and non-fiction.


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