My life as a hobby: Angels and hot dogs

By Joe Hobby

It’s funny how our brains associate things. For example, I recently read an article by a dog expert who suggested that using “high value treats” helps with dog training. For my pups, Reese and Roscoe, that means little hot dogs. And every time I cut a nut into them, my mind goes back to the time when hot dogs were such a precious food to me.

Joe Hobby, Tribune Columnist

Let me clarify. It couldn’t be just any hot dog – it had to be Pete’s Famous hot dog. For decades it was a Birmingham culinary institution. This little slice of heaven was squashed between two downtown buildings. It was only 7 feet wide and 20 feet long. But size didn’t matter. Because for 63 years, people have walked under that iconic neon sign and pressed up against that counter in lines three deep just to order a hot dog from owner Gus Koutroulakis.

Oh, Gus. Calling him a chef is like calling Michelangelo a muralist. This man was an artist – a conogist, if there is such a word. I never got tired of watching him make one “all the way,” place it on wax paper, then place it on the stainless steel counter. The first bite of that hot dog was a spiritual experience. Perfectly cooked with cabbage, onions and that sauce on fresh bread. Now I can close my eyes and still remember the taste of that wonderful sauce. It has often been imitated but never, ever duplicated. And it won’t. Unfortunately, the recipe died with Gus when he left this world a few years ago. I’m sure all the hot dog connoisseurs in heaven rejoiced when he walked through the pearly gates. But I’m sure he still has the recipe for that sauce.

My mom and dad introduced me to Pete’s Famous when I was about eight years old. It was love at first bite. In a few years, my niece would pay me to babysit her son with those hot dogs. I took all my children there. After my father died, my mother and I used to make pilgrimages to the city center from time to time. Bigger hot dogs, better memories.

One of those Saturdays, as we were coming out of Pit and turning a corner, the man stopped us. He didn’t look homeless, but his rolled-up jeans, faded flannel shirt, and disheveled hair wouldn’t have landed him on the cover of GQ. In his right hand he had several books. I knew what was coming. But surprisingly, it wasn’t your standard panhandler line.

He said, “I don’t want to bother you, but I have a little problem and I need your help. Can I borrow $20 for a bus ride to Decatur? Before I could say no, he continued. “This morning my wife woke up with a terrible headache and passed out. The paramedics said it was best to get him to UAB Hospital in Birmingham as soon as we could. So without thinking, I jumped in the ambulance with him and off we went. When I got here I realized I had forgotten my wallet and credit cards. Not to mention my truck. So if I can get to Decatur, I can get home, get what I need and come back.”

Unfortunately, I usually suspect someone on the street asking for money. So while I buy food and gas for people who say they need it, I rarely give anyone cash. But it was a good story. But not good enough for me.

“Have you tried the Jimmy Hale Mission?” I asked. “They are close.”

He waved the papers in his right hand. “That’s all I got out of there. They gave me all kinds of brochures to help me get to heaven, but now I have to get to Decatur.”

“I wish I could help you, but I have no money. Just credit cards,” I lied. “You might want to try the Fire Department. It’s about two blocks west of here.”

He nodded, turned and walked away. My mother and I crossed the street in silence and got into my car. As soon as I turned the key in the ignition, he spoke. “Joe, I don’t know what you think about what that man just said, but I want to ask you something. Will you miss that $20 in five years? It didn’t seem like a story he made up.”

I looked across the street, he was still walking with those brochures. Interestingly, he was heading south, away from the bus station, toward the UAB hospital.

I thought for a minute, started the car and said, “I guess you’re right.”

He replied, “I know I’m right. I am your mother.”

I made a quick U-turn and we headed south, driving parallel to the man. I rolled the window with it.

“Hey, um – I found a twenty in my car. You can buy. Do you want me to take you to the bus station?

Sincere gratitude shone on his face. “Could you please take me to the UAB Emergency Room? I have to tell my wife what to do.”

It was a short drive, but our new friend took us to the emergency room as he had been there before. I started to feel less cheated and that I was doing something good.

He came out, extended his hand and said: “I can’t thank you enough. Give me your address and I’ll send you a check.”

“No need. There will come a time when you can pay it forward to someone. Just do it, okay?”

He nodded and walked through the automatic doors. I never saw him again.

The next morning I sat in my usual seat at church, sang a few songs, said a few prayers, and settled in as our minister began to deliver the message in his usual manner. Opening the Bible, his voice filled the sanctuary.

“Today’s reading is from Hebrews 13, verse 2. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

I hardened. If it wasn’t church, I’d say something not very churchy. My hair turned dark. Believe me; I had no problem staying awake through this sermon.

After the service was over, I cornered our speaker in the narthex and told him every detail of the story. Forget the line of parishioners waiting to shake his hand. They could wait. For once I didn’t care if the Baptists beat them to the best restaurants.

As I spoke, she nodded, smiled, and said, “Isn’t it great that God talks to you like that?” After a short pause, he added, “And aren’t those Pete’s Famous hot dogs anything else?”

I agreed. Both of these were highly valuable blessings.

Find more of Joe’s stories on his blog: Also, follow him on Facebook at Joe Hobby Comedian-Writer.

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