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Survive
by Matt McCarthy

 

Americaís Wieners, Redux


I eat nothing but hotdogs and French fries. Twice every day I walk to Salís Hotdog Shop and order two with everything. They come wrapped in wax paper with modest condiments and are served, with the fries, in a greasy brown paper bag. Whether or not the bag is greasy before the dogs and fries are thrown inside, or only afterward, I cannot say for sure.

Some of the other customers, Iíve noticed, like cheese; they get the cheese fries or they get cheese slathered with a ladle right

Photo: Hillshire Farm

across the top of the hotdog. I am extremely suspicious of the cheese and do not like it. It has an odor that is distinctly un-cheeselike. Itís more akin to burning plastic, or maybe hair. Burning hairy plastic. And thereís also the color: an eerily unnatural, artificially vivid hue. Hot neon cheese.


Salís should not by judged solely by the quality of its cheese, however. Nor, for that matter, by the quality of its food in general. There are other factors to consider when choosing an eatery. One, for instance, particularly important for a man in my position, is price. The price is always right at Salís Hotdog Shop on Fullerton near the expressway. Thatís Salís, voted by InSight Magazine as "One of the Top-Ten Hottest Urban Hotdog Spots on the North Side." (Salís finished a respectable sixth, for the record; Manny's on Roscoe took top honors in the category.)


A few months ago I wrote an article for THE new mildly subversive local hipster weekly newspaper of the moment, Read Me, extolling the all-American virtues of the classic hotdog joint. The article, "America's Wieners," was commissioned ($150) by this cutting-edge publication barely making it, apparently in an effort to drum up advertising revenue from the hotdog set. The features editor, a kind of sexy in a tawdry sort of way mid-thirties rocker brunette named (dramatically enough) Constance Whalen, provided me with a list of hotdog purveyors to call upon, all of whom were being courted at the time by advertising reps. Salís Hotdog Shop was one of the stops on my hotdog tour. Sal himself, impressively enough, was the man I was to see.


In "Americaís Wieners," I recalled the following incident that occurred during my meeting with Sal:

I was about to eat a hotdog at 9:30 in the morning. This was my first stop of the day and I had yet to completely shake out the cobwebs from the night before. When Sal asked me what I wanted to eat I told him a hotdog with everything and a cup of black coffee. My host was mortified.


"You canít have coffee with a hotdog. Why donít you have a Coke?"


"Iím tired," I told him. "I want coffee."


Sal looked at me curiously, deep wrinkles forming on his forehead, then he turned to the pimpled young man in the white apron taking orders behind the counter and, pointing a chubby thumb in my direction, told him: "Give 'em a dog with the works and a large Coke." The young man in white took a moment only to blink then sprang into action.


As I pondered wearily my impending cola it occurred to me that I had just found the cholesterol-choked heart of the American hotdog.



When Sal saw the story in the paper he liked it enough that he had it framed and put it on display adorning the east wall of his establishment. Clearly a man who recognizes an important work of American letters when he sees one.

Sadly, Sal never took out an ad in Read Me, but he and I worked out an under-the-table agreement.


I mention Salís restaurant in one published piece every month. Just one. The name and general locale, merely a mention. It can be published, as Sal put it, "anywhere within reason," and I am expected to provide proof of publication. In return I get free hotdogs (and Cokes), as many as I want.


So, to be honest, when I said earlier that the price is right, I meant mainly that the price is right for me. Not that hotdogs arenít reasonable at Salís, but I probably wouldnít be patronizing the place twice every single goddamn day if the food wasnít free. Itís not that good.


But it is free. Or, another way to look at it: Iíve earned it. Itís mine.


Some might say (and indeed have said) that entering into such a contract is a clear prostitution of my "art." They shake their heads and inform me in quiet, disapproving tones that the whole endeavor is, to say the least, cheap and lacking in ethics. To these people, who clearly know more than I on the subject, I have only this to say: Itís been my observation that you canít eat ethics; you canít eat art. You can eat hotdogs. At Salís.


Thatís Salís on Fullerton near the expressway.

Cockroaches and Other Problems


There is a loud knock at the door that causes me to bolt upright. I do not like visitors and rarely get them, so I always feel slightly panicked whenever anyone comes calling.


"WHO IS IT?" I yell.


"SAMONNE," says the voice outside my door.


I get up and walk to the door, opening it a crack. "How ya doin', Samonne?"


Samonne is a sight to behold. She always is. Sheís gotta be six feet tall, 275 pounds, easy. Just gargantuan. Arms thick as my legs, legs thick as my waist. And even though she is unfortunately wearing very little clothing for a woman of her size (just a tube top you could fit around a car and yards of denim cutoffs, fat bulging everywhere), sheís sweating. A lot.


"Hot," she answers flatly. Itís been one of the hottest Julys on record in the city. Just day after day of oppressive, heavy, wet heat. And a 10-story building with nothing but one-room apartments in the middle of a heat wave has got to be one of the goddamn hottest spots in the world.


"Yeah," I agree. "It's hot."


"Gotta cigarette?" Samonne asks.


"Hold on." I close the door and retreat back to the windowsill where I left my cigarettes. Itís only about four paces across the width of my room, so it is not a long trip there and back. I open the door again to see Samonne waiting with her sweaty hands on her ample and no doubt sweaty hips.


I extend the cigarette to her filter first and she takes it without a word. I start to close the door but she blocks it with her foot.


"Was there something else, Samonne?"


"Julie's here," says Samonne with a hint of satisfaction in her gruff voice. "Handin' out notices." She sticks the cigarette behind her ear like a pencil, and when she bends her arm to do so somehow the limb looks twice as enormous. "She got Victor with her."


I thank Samonne for the information and close the door, which, this time, she grudgingly allows me to do.


Samonne's not too bad. Sheís my next-door neighbor. My only complaint about her, when all is said and done, is that sheís a little loud during her lovemaking. These walls are paper-thin, and I can hear her and her loveróthis frumpy, dumpy looking woman from Appleton, Wisconsin, named Saraówhen they get amorous at night.


Samonne and Sara, though disgusting and slightly annoying, are harmless.


Julie and Victor, however, are another matter entirely. They work for the owner of this dilapidated, bug-infested tenement, the mysterious North-Central Inc., to whom we make our checks payable each month. Julie manages the building and Victor is her muscle-bound henchman.


At first blush Julie seems harmless. She looks like a suburban soccer mom who drives the kids around in a Volvo station wagon. She wears stylish pants suits and has cute hair and will stand there with a smile on her face while her goddamn linebacker mean ghetto nigger Victor slaps the shit out of you and trashes the place if you donít have the rent. They arenít big believers in tenants' rights 'round here. If you canít pay, they want you the fuck out. Immediately.


I scurry around my apartment like one of the cockroaches that lives here, looking for my checkbook, killing several of the little buggers along the way.

 

The cockroaches are everywhere in this building. Iíve never seen anything like it. Itís not an infestation; itís an entire goddamn cockroach civilization. It wouldnít surprise me if they had little cockroach schools and hospitals and entire industries hidden in the floorboards and dark corners. Itís like the capital of the cockroach universe.

You wake up with cockroaches crawling on your sheets. You open the cupboards and there they are. You turn on the water and a couple fall from hiding places in the faucets. You open a drawer and thereís a family of the little fiends living in it. You leave the cursed place and youíll find one in your clothes or in your bag an hour later. You kill 100 of 'em and 200 more appear.

Photo: roachcom.net

 

I have trouble sleeping in the place now. I keep having crazy nightmares about cockroaches chewing on my eyebrows. I wake up disgusted and confused, trying to brush insects away from my face that may or may not be only dreams.


Iíve tried sleeping on the roof a couple of times. It wasnít bad. It was cooler up there, and the bugs werenít as intense. But you canít sleep very late. It gets bright and the city starts groaning to life pretty early in the summer.


I try to crash elsewhere as often as I can.


For all that, the rent is $420 a month (utilities included), which, thanks to a check I just received and deposited two days ago from Read Me (a week late, the jerks), I know I can just barely cover if only I can find my checkbook. Itíll leave me almost broke (once again), but Iíll be able to cover it.


There is a loud series of knocks at the door. Before I can even respond, I hear, "OPEN UP. LANDLORD." Itís Victor. I leap for the door and open up so as not to keep him waiting, which makes him ornery. And here he is, big and mean, with Julie smiling beside him.


"Hello Matt," says Julie pleasantly. "Today's the 10th." Victor doesnít say a word. He just stands there with his massive arms folded in front of him. Theyíre almost as thick as Samonne's, but an entirely different kind of thick: thick with bad intentions.


"I know," I blurt out. "Sorry. Iíve got it. Iím just looking for my checkbook now."


"Weíll wait," says Julie.


I stand there a moment looking at the two of them and nod, understanding that theyíre not going anywhere, then turn around to resume looking for the checkbook, a little more frantically this time.


I move through the tiny apartment in a wave of panic, checking every conceivable surface for the checkbook. I look under things. I open drawers and find nothing but cockroaches.


Shit.


It hits me like a brick wall. I know exactly where I left the damn checkbook. In my bag. But, unfortunately, my bagís not here. I turn around nervously to face my visitors.


"My checkbookís not here," I tell them as calmly as I can.


Victor shakes his head back and forth feigning disbelief, his giant, dangerous arms still folded across his barrel-shaped chest, a slight frown beginning to show.


"Can you go to an ATM and take out cash?" Julie asks reasonably.


I swallow hard, because I know that neither one of them are going to like my answer. "My wallet isnít here either. Theyíre both in my bag. I left them at a friendís house." Jeeze. It sounds suspicious as soon as itís out of my mouth, but unfortunately itís the god's honest truth. Except for the friend part.


"Where?" Julie asks.


"In her bedroom I think," I tell them.


Julie and Victor turn to look at each other, then look back at me. "I think she means, whereís this fuckin' place yo dumb-ass left all yo shit at," Victor clarifies for me.


"Oh. Itís in Lakeview. An apartment."


There is a moment of silence as the representatives of my landlord consider. Then Julie speaks: "So youíll call your 'friend' and tell her that you and Victor are going to stop over and pick up your bag?" Itís phrased as a question but itís clear that there is only one answer.


"Yes."

You Had to Know I Wasnít Going to Name a Character
Constance Whalen and Not Bring Her Back


Most of the things that happen to us are of our own doing. Fate is for cowards and losers.


Of course, there are exceptions to that. I mean, obviously. Terrible things happen to people who by no means deserve it. I donít mean for this to get twisted into some awful attack on all of lifeís little unfortunates. Christ, I can just see the parade of shattered lives picketing outside my apartment, hurtling inane rhyming epithets up at me from the depths of their wretchedness.


(Jesus, I probably shouldnít have said that either. Iím just making it worse, arenít I?)


Look, I donít want any trouble here. All I meant is we control an awful lot of what happens to us. More often than not we put ourselves directly into the shit we get in. Itís cause and effect everyday. If you take a hard honest look at what led to the successes and the failures, the good times and the bad, youíll see that there were things that you either did or didnít do that brought you to it.


Iím sleeping with Ms. Constance Whalen.


Sure, I could bore you with excuses. Rationalizations. I could tell you that the mid-thirties rocker brunette features editor in question fed me drinks and came on to me to the point where I really had no choice but to sleep with her. I could tell you that sheís 10 years my senior and used her well-seasoned feminine wiles to lure me into an extremely superficial and predictable relationship. I could also tell you that I have a sneaking suspicion that she only publishes my stories because Iím sleeping with her, and that Iím not exactly confident sheíd continue to throw work my way if I werenít constantly throwin' the hot sexy lovin' her way. I could tell you, in my most pitiful voice, how much I need the small amount of money which that work brings me.


But thatís all bullshit. Some of it more so than the rest, but bullshit nonetheless.


This relationship, if you can call it that, is easy and convenient. It fell into my lap (so to speak). Extricating myself from it now would undoubtedly cause inconveniences. Iíd have to find another shitty newspaper to publish my work for the less-than-enough-to-subsist-upon wages I make now. Iíd have to go back to living full-time in my substandard, cockroach-ridden, one-room apartment, rather than being able to spend nights in the splendor of Constanceís clean, rather gothic-looking loft apartment in Lakeview. Iíd have to find someone else to have sex with me.


So I continue my ridiculous relationship with Constance Whalen, a crude, nymphomaniacal woman 10 years older than me; a woman with absolutely baffling taste in music and an unfortunately edgy hairstyle; a woman who has a fondness for sitting around naked, smoking cheap cigars, lazily touching herself.

Paying in Full


Constance answers the door barefoot in shorts and a black sports bra. Her hair is still wet: sheís just gotten out of the shower.


I step into her apartment with Victorís ominous presence behind me. "I gotta get my bag," I tell Constance simply. "This is Victor."


Victor nods.


I advance toward the screened-off section of Constanceís loft that constitutes her bedroom, leaving the two of them behind me without another word. I want to get this over with as quickly as possible. I locate the bag and return to find Constance opening a Heineken and handing it to Victor, who is sitting casually on the couch. This does not please me.
"So Iíll just write you and check and weíre done?" I ask Victor hopefully.


He looks at me without a word and takes a long pull from his beer. Constance pops open a beer for herself and sits down on the couch next to Victor. "Why donít you go on and get the cash, so's there no mistakes," says Victor. "Run yo skinny ass down to the ATM and bring it right back up here." He takes another long draw off the beer, then looks me right in the eye as he puts an arm around Constance, who doesnít seem to particularly mind. "And you better come right the fuck back, yo. Know what Iím sayin'?"


I retrieve the wallet from my bag and flee for the nearest ATM.


As I walk hastily down the street to the 7-11 around the corner (I buy condoms there sometimes, I know they have a cash machine), it suddenly occurs to me that I should just take out all the money I have and split. Just go as far as my 500 bucks will take me and forget all about Victor and Constance and my awful little apartment. None of it matters to me. Why am I hustling around trying to maintain this?


Even as Iím punching my code into the ATM Iím still thinking about it. Why not? I could jump on a bus and go anywhere. California. Mexico. The mountains. I could be rid of all of it. Start over.


But this is all bravado and bullshit, and as the cash machine starts spitting out $20 bills Iím brought back to reality. I get my cash ($500) and receipt from the machine (remaining available balance: $17.20) and head back to Constanceís to give my money to Victor.
When I get back there Constance has got Poisonís "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" playing on the stereo. I can hear it before she even answers the door. She leads me in to Victor, jamming out on a little air guitar along the way. Victor is drinking what I perceive by the empty bottle next to him to be a new beer.


"SO I'VE GOT THE CASH," I yell to Victor over the Poison.


He shoots me a scowl, then turns his sights to Constance. "TURN THAT SHIT DOWN FOR MINUTE!" he commands. She stops her head bobbing and looks at us both. Then she shakes her head and, with her best pout, thankfully turns the music down.


"Get me another beer, would ya Constance?" Victor asks in a deep voice.


"But I just got you one," protests Constance. "You've barely touched it."


Victor looks at her hard enough to make the smile fade off her face. There is a moment when I think heís gonna blow. Then he says calmly, "I gotta conduct a lil' bidness wit junior here. I was just tryin' to be discreet. Give us a minute, alright?"


The smile reappears on Constanceís face. "Sure thing," she says flirtily, and bounds off unconcerned.


Victor looks at me from his state of repose on the couch. "Pay up, nigger."


I count out the required money and hand it over as graciously as possible. He shakes his head with the first smile Iíve seen on him, and starts counting $20 bills. "Ol' girl's got some crazy taste in music, huh?" he asks me almost jovially without looking up from counting.


"Yeah," I manage to mumble as I watch him methodically count almost all of my money.


"She's alright, though." Victor informs me. "You hittin' that, huh?" he asks me.


I donít answer. He gets to the end of the money and looks back up at me. "There's only $420 here," he says.


"That's the rent."


"Yeah, thatís the rent," says Victor mockingly. "But there's a 20 dolla' late fee, mothafucker."
Fine. I hand over another $20. What am I gonna do about it? He snatches it deftly away from me.


"Now why donít you beat it," he suggests. "You off the hook for now." As he finishes speaking Constance immediately returns to the picture, as if she was listening the whole time and knew exactly when the conversation was over.


"You boys through with your business?" she asks a little too innocently.


"Yup," answers Victor. "Matt was just leavin'. Weren'tchya, boy?"

Screwed


I buy a six-pack of Miller High Life (cans), go to the lake, and drink. I walk up and down the lakefront. I lie down on my back in the sand and fall asleep. I slumber there until sometime after sun-up, when I am awakened by a police officerís shoe poking me in the ribs.


"Whatchya doin' here?" the gentleman in blue asks sternly.


I look up at him sheepishly. "I'm sorry, officer. I must have fallen asleep."


"Where do you live?" he asks skeptically.


I give him my address.


At this point he decides heís going to be kind enough to give me no more trouble than a mildly threatening, "Better head off that way then," and sends me along.


I begin walking back in the direction of the dreaded apartment. I find that I had rather impetuously traveled quite a ways the night before, and am now a good distance from where Iím going.


I notice for the first time that itís nice outside. The first comfortably cool day in a while. I decide to continue walking, rather than hop on a bus or the subway. I am in no hurry to get back to close quarters with the cockroaches.


For nearly an hour I walk along the lakeshore, just enjoying the fine day and not really thinking about anything more than the sunshine. Finally I reach the point where I must turn away from the lake and begin heading west.


As soon as I get a few blocks from the beach itís a totally different scene. Gone are the serenity and peace of the lake. The city is awake and stirring. Itís all wild commotion, traffic, commerce, chaos. Millions of people trampling through the streets at once, beginning their days.


The whole thing is quite taxing. I walk another six or seven blocks, then, spent, I duck into a greasy little coffee shop, sit down at the counter, and order a cup black. I manage to kill a couple of hours there, drinking black coffee and reading and rereading the sports, until the flow of humanity on the streets slows to a tolerable level. Then I pay for the coffee and resume my walk.


It takes me about another 20 minutes to reach my apartment. When I arrive I find an eviction notice nailed to my door.


I tear it down, unlock the door, and enter to find that everything I own has disappeared. Thereís nothing in my room except for me and the cockroaches. I un-wrinkle the eviction notice, still balled up in my fist, and inspect it.


I am being evicted for lack of payment, which I find strange since I seem to recall paying dearly just last night. I continue reading until I come across a number to call, then storm out for the pay phone in the lobby of the building.


"North Central Incorporated," says a womanís voice at the other end of the phone.
I pause. "This number was on the eviction notice I found on my door this morning."
"Address please."


I give her the address of the building and my apartment number.


"One moment please."


I wait a moment and then there is another, more familiar voice at the other end of the line "This is Julie."


Great. "Julie this is Matt McCarthy. What the fuck?" I decide to go for the straightforward approach. "I show up this morning, thereís an eviction notice on my door, and all my stuffís gone."


"Well what did you expect us to do after you gave Victor the slip last night?" asks Julie.


It takes a moment for her question to register. "What the hell are you talking about?"


"Victor told us that you ditched him last night on the way to go get your checkbook."

Fate Is for Cowards and Losers


I walk away from the building, homeless now, with nothing but the clothes on my back and about $60 cash. Julieís henchmen moved my few meager belongings out into the alley behind the building, but I donít even bother retrieving anything. Thereís nothing there of any value anyway. So I just split.


Fucking Victor. He got me, and good. He took my money, which I was foolish enough to give him in cash without asking for a damn receipt in return, and, just to add insult to injury, he probably also slept with what for all intents and purposes is (was) my girlfriend. Heís ruined me, the goddamn evil genius.


With nothing better to do, I head for Sal's Hotdog Shop. Iíve ingested nothing but coffee and miles of shit so far today, so a couple of hotdogs should be just what I need. I arrive there after a few minutes walk, order my standard two dogs with fries (and a Coke), and take a seat at an empty table near the window.


Iím there for a long time, picking at my free food, staring out the window, still trying to sort it all out. Trying to figure out what to do next. Pondering where Iíll sleep tonight. Iím lost in thought, staring out the window at the early afternoon traffic, when I hear a voice from above. "What'sa matter, kid?" It's Sal. "You look lost."


I look up and smile. "It's been a rough day, Sal."


"Tell me about it." He plops his rather large form down on the white plastic chair across the table from me. "I'm shorthanded here as of yesterday and itís been busy as hell. One of the fucking Mexicans quit on me," he says, referring to his behind-the-counter staff.


"That is rough," I sympathize.


"Yeah," Sal wipes his dirty hands on the front of his apron, fishes a pack of cigarettes out of a pocket, and lights one up. "So whatís got your dick in the dirt?"


I tell him the whole story. About Victor, Julie, and even Constance Whalen. About the terrible building I live in and the cockroaches; about being conned out of nearly every dollar I have and, as a result, about being evicted. Sal sits across from me in complete silence, nodding sympathetically at the appropriate moments, taking in every word with the sort of patience usually attributed to priests or bartenders, until Iím finished.


We sit staring at each other for a moment. "So Victorís got your money?" Sal finally asks.


"Yes."


Sal gets up out of his chair and stands over me. "Hang out for a minute," he says. "Have a Coke. Iíll be right back." Then he turns and leaves me sitting there bewildered.


Thatís great. I spill my goddamn guts to the guy and he gets up and leaves.


Maybe I can ask Sal if I can stay with him for a few days. He might let me do that. Salís a pretty stand-up guy. Iíll bet heís got a pretty alright place too -- he probably makes a killing selling the dogs all day. Iíll bet Salís loaded.


He returns as Iím working out in my head how to ask if I can stay at his place a while, and says simply: "You got your apartment back. They're gonna spray for bugs and move your crap back in."


I look at him in utter amazement. "How ... what did ..." is all I can manage to stammer.


He smiles. "Let's just say that Iím one of the partners in North Central Inc., the owners of your building." Iím speechless. Sal chuckles and sits back down. "You're paid up 'til the end of the month."


I canít believe it. Fucking Sal. "What about Victor?" I ask.


Sal looks serious for a minute. "I'll make sure he leaves ya alone from now on, but I canít do anything about whatís already happened," he tells me. "What's done is done. Heís not my responsibility. And he didnít know you were a friend of mine."


I donít know what to say. "So I can just go home?"

A Brief Addendum
(Or, Congratulations, You Made It to the End)


Iím working on a new article. Constance, though no longer sleeping with me, is still giving me some work. Sheís with Victor now, and the two of them seem happy together.


Anyway. The new article. Apparently Read Me is trying to get the theater crowd to advertise in the paper, because I now have a list of drama people to go interview. Tonight Iím supposed to go see a militant lesbian play called Suck My Dick, about a dyke private detective.


I asked Samonne if she wanted to come along. I figured it would be quite a coup to show up with my own lesbian, but unfortunately she declined. So, this evening Iíll be attending the lesbian theater by my lonesome. Wonít that be a hoot?


My only concern is itís not going to be easy working Salís Hotdog Shop into an article about a militant lesbian stage show. But Iím gonna give it a try.


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Copyright©2002 by Matt McCarthy.

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