I Have Come to New York to Eat a Hot Dog
I exit the subway at Lincoln Center and walk east, entering Central Park at 65th Street. I make my way past what my map calls Sheep Meadow and stop at Bow Bridge. I have located four pushcart vendors so far, but I am scared I could make a mistake if I buy too soon. I finally decide on the cart at the corner of 78th and Fifth Avenue.
"One," I say, pretending that I eat this same hot dog every day, pretending that I know this man and tipped him last time I was here. He never looks up.
"Ketchup or mustard," he says. The way he says it makes it clear it is not a question. Ketchup or mustard — a statement. I had planned to choose both, but I can see that would anger the man. I panic. This moment has been too long in coming to spoil it with a poor decision about condiments.
I let him in on my secret. "I have come to New York to eat a hot dog," I say.
"Mustard," he says, "just mustard," and hands me the dog and three quarters. I look at my lunch and see that the mustard he uses is not the mustard I use. It is spicy and brown. I wonder about the ketchup and what surprises might have found me there.
I do not sit to eat because I have seen men in the movies eat their hot dogs while they walk. I desire to do the same. I cross 79th Street, and next to another pushcart hawking its wares — hotdogs, $1.25; pretzels, $1.25; water, $1.25 — there stands a man with a white paper sack in front of his feet. His hands are in his pockets, so the guitar hanging from his neck swings gently in the sharp November wind.
"Can you please help?" he asks over and over again. It is my first day in New York, so I make the mistake of looking at his eyes. He knows this, singles me out and says, "Can you please help?" holding the please until he is almost out of breath. It is the closest he comes to performing.
"What are you going to play?" I ask. He looks genuinely shocked, as if he has never heard the question before.
"My fingers are freezing," he says, never taking them out of his pockets to show me. I put two of my three quarters in the sack.
"Can you do a bill?" he asks.
"Bought this hot dog with my last two ones," I say, holding up my last bite as evidence. "I have come to New York to eat this hot dog." His vacant stare tells me I have overstepped the line between artist and audience.
I keep my third quarter for a phone call to tell my wife about New York and my hot dog — no, for something to rub as I put my hands in my pockets, lick the mustard from the corners of my mouth, and walk north to the museum.