Wednesday, January 15, 2014
It’s a shameless act to ask people out on the street for their money, and the only way to make up for it is if you actually trick them into handing over some money.
But my boss and I disapprove of this, still. “That’s why I opened my own business,” he said. “But I guess I’m just too proud to ask for money.”
From where we stood on the corner slinging hotdogs and asking for people’s money, we could see Homeless Huey begging people for their hard earned coin. Or “gas money” as my boss Pete put it.
Pete always compared money to gasoline prices. He watched gas prices all day and always knew how much it cost in case anybody asked him. And as the price of gas went up, my pay went up.
“You’re going to need this raise,” he’d say. “Or soon I’ll be hearing from you saying, ‘I can’t afford to come into work today because gas is too high’.” He’d look at me and shake his head in disbelief of what I might say.
That was another thing. He could always work calculations in his head faster than anybody I knew. On payday he would hand me my earnings and say something like, “You could get halfway to Holland with that.” His comparisons would be slightly off sometimes, but that’s probably because he calculated so fast.
We did especially well in tips one day and he handed me a little bonus and said, “This here oughtta get you across the Mississippi.”
Again, he was wrong, but I didn’t let it bother me because it rarely affected what I actually did with the money. I wasn’t going across the Mississippi; I was just going to pay some bills. On those occasions that I was going to drive somewhere all I had to do was mention it and he would look across the street at the price of gas and figure, “You’ll never make it halfway there, kid. Not with what I pay you.” And then he’d spot me some cash from the company’s funds.
He always had extra money, he said, because we worked a hotdog stand and people were always hungry. “And they always will be hungry,” Pete said. “The business model is a foolproof scheme. We don’t gotta be too savvy and business will always come our way.”
That’s why, with a buck being so easy to make, he despised seeing Huey’s handouts. “You won’t catch me out there asking for people’s gas money. That is unless I trade a hotdog for it.”
Pete, on his high horse, turned hotdogs into a commodity that people were willing to pay good gas money for. “Don’t use cheap carney tricks to grab people’s attention. Simply make conversation and hotdogs practically sell themselves, sometimes.”
He’d say, “You could get three or four hotdogs for the measly price of a gallon of gas. That’s enough to feed the wife, the kids and the mistress.”
Some people would get offended and say, “Mistress?”
“Woah, buddy,” he’d shrug in defense. “You’ve come to the wrong street corner for that. We only sell hotdogs.”
Pete never meant any harm by his words. He just liked to make conversation was all. Say a customer would leave a tip. Pete might peer into the jar and say, “Ha! I couldn’t even drive myself to the bus stop with that amount.” Or if it was good, he’d say, “Thanks! This is enough to get me to the park. I was going there after work anyway.”
But sometimes he’d have most of the conversation in his head which left his customer confused or embarrassed. “Ha!” He’d blush. “Why would you want to send me over there?” And he’d give a nod of his chin in some direction.
Sales started to slip that summer. We knew something in the business model had to change but we weren’t sure what. My boss had identified the problem when gas prices went through the roof. “People are spending too much on gas,” he said. “I can’t blame them since people need gas to survive.”
When walk up business got really slow, he handed me my pay and said, “I’m sorry, this isn’t even enough to get you through two states.”
I hadn’t a clue which states he was referring to and again, it didn’t matter.
One day he got to thinking out loud and he concluded that there were more important things than gas. “A person needs food too,” he said. “Sorry I can’t give you a little extra gas money this month, but here are a couple hotdogs to take home.”
Actually, gas prices did start to take a toll on my finances, so I took the hotdogs. And this is how I knew I was pinched for cash because I was grateful for the hotdogs and I hate hotdogs.
He knew I didn’t like hotdogs but he also knew that he didn’t have anything else to offer me. So he started to talk up the hotdogs. He made them sound like the most tasty thing in the world and that anybody was happy to have one.
I should have seen the warning signs. When he started supplementing my pay with hotdogs, I should have known the company was in trouble. He respected me too much, I think, to keep trying to manipulate me into thinking the hotdogs were greater than they were.
He told me, straight up, that I was doing the company a favor by accepting some hotdogs as a form of payment and things would turn around soon. After a while, though, he quit asking me to take hotdogs as a favor and he just started paying me in hotdogs regularly. He’d hand me an envelope with maybe half my wages in cash and there’d just be some hotdogs stuffed in as well.
But gas prices continued to rise and so did the number of hotdogs he’d give me to take home. I protested when my fridge actually started filling up with hotdogs I couldn’t eat.
He told me that the hot dogs were like money and I called him a liar. “No, they really are,” he said. “Hotdogs are like money in that they need to be circulated to be of any value.” He asked me what good was my money if it just sat at home in the fridge. “You need to turn your money into something you use, like gas.”
And that made sense to me, but I didn’t understand the conversion rate. Pete couldn’t clear up the conversion confusion either.
One morning during a particularly low point in the sales slump, we opened with no cash in the register and, sure enough, the first customer had only double what he owed for his hotdogs “With all the trimmings,” he said. So I felt bad about treating a high spender with such unprofessionalism.
Pete counted at the money and handed the man a handful of hotdogs fresh out of the cooker.
“What is this?” The man asked. “I don’t want more hotdogs, certainly not ones without all the trimmings.”
“It’s your change,” Pete smiled.
The man, less than ecstatic, said, “Keep it.” And he tossed them back in the tip jar and left.
Pete and I looked at each other excited at the generosity. “Say!” Pete said. “We can use these to sell again.” And he put them back in the cooking pan.
He slapped the counter, excited about the ideas he had running through his head. “We’ve been short changing ourselves,” he said. He had this idea that if the man bought two hotdogs and he gave us double the money, instead of giving him two hotdogs in return, we gave him a whole handful. And in his generous tip of all his leftover hotdogs, did we not, in the long run, stand to profit from such a model?
“Indeed,” he said. “It goes back to the old proverb that a hotdog in the bucket is worth two in the wallet.” I wasn’t sure that he didn’t lose his mind until he went on to explain. “Truth be told, the hotdog currency has taken a hit during this gas crisis. Hotdogs are now worth more as a consumable than as a currency. People just aren’t investing in hotdogs the way they used to.”
He was right. I took my bag of hotdogs to the gas station in the same way I used to take my cash. I asked the clerk exactly what the conversion rate was and they didn’t sell me any gas that day. It was going to take a while to get used to spending hotdogs, which surprised me.
In the meantime, the slow business wasn’t helping. And the customers we did have, I found myself haggling over hotdog prices. What was once an easy dollar to make turned exhausting. I fell asleep at the cart for what couldn’t have been more than two hours when I awoke to the cart on blocks. All four wheels were stolen.
I don’t know if it was all just coincidence or if that particular incident was just the beginning domino in a string of bad luck the hotdog company faced. But shortly thereafter, we ran dry on ketchup and he didn’t have the funds to replace it. That’s where my creative problem solving nearly saved our business from the red. We took our last bottle and started mixing in mustard to make our ketchup last longer and keep up appearances. As we needed to mix more mustard in our patrons took a liking to the new flavor because we saw a small spike in sales when our mix was running around 50/50. Of course Huey was doing better than usual at collecting handouts and was buying a lot more hotdogs, but we wouldn’t attribute all our success to Huey’s good fortune. “It’s a matter of principle,” Pete always said.
Pete’s lawyer stopped by the stand one day. “Hello,” Pete exclaimed and introduced me. “This guy has enough gas money to go to Europe, and still have enough to pick up hitch...”
The lawyer cut him off and started lecturing him on whatever he had used to pay his most recent installment. The lawyer said he couldn’t work for those types of payments, so he gave him a nickels worth of free advice. But Pete had no idea what a nickel was anymore. He had already started cutting hotdogs into little pieces and using that as change. The lawyer’s advice was to shut down the business.
Pete started lecturing the lawyer on how the price of hotdogs was about to skyrocket and what kind of business man would he be if he closed his cart on blocks right before the boom? But the lawyer wasn’t listening. Instead he was walking away slowly, doing things like checking his watch and awkwardly looking over his shoulder like someone might be waiting on him.
I didn’t really understand Pete’s lecture but I knew it was good because at the end I saw him do what I thought I’d never see anyone with so much hotdogs do.
He clearly had some complex emotions that needed worked out and I knew I was the only one in town Pete really trusted. So as he started to open up I left in the same way the lawyer did. With Pete’s voice growing quieter in the distance I picked up speed.
I went home jobless but having gained wisdom from the experience. I opened the fridge full of hotdogs and knew I had to liquidate my assets. I started selling – selling all my goods for hot dogs. I kept only a change of clothes and a duffle bag to keep my hotdogs. I didn’t trust them in a bank. My attitude was if a bank didn’t want my hotdogs they couldn’t have them anyway.
It is a little overwhelming to be standing with such a large bag of so many profits. Here I stand, with a big bag of hotdogs I once never dreamt I’d be holding. The only thing that doesn’t add up is, with no car and no reason to worry about gas money, why do I feel so broke?