By Joe Hobby
It’s funny how our brain connects things. For example, I recently read an article by a dog expert who suggested that using “high value treats” helps with canine training. For my pups, Reese and Roscoe, this means small chunks of hot dogs. And every time I cut them a coney, my mind drifts back to when a hot dog was a high-value treat for me.
Let me clarify. It couldn’t be just any hot dog – it had to be a Pete’s Famous hot dog. For decades it was a Birmingham culinary institution. This little crack of heaven was mashed between two buildings downtown. It was only about 7 feet wide and 20 feet long. But size didn’t matter. Because for 63 years, droves of people walked underneath that iconic neon sign and pressed against that counter in three deep rows just to place their hot dog order with the owner, Gus Koutroulakis.
Ah, Gus. To call him a cook is like calling Michelangelo a wall painter. This man was an artist – a coneyologyst if such a word exists. I never tired of watching him fix one “all the way,” put it on a piece of wax paper, then place it on the stainless steel counter. The first bite of that hot dog was a spiritual experience. Perfectly cooked on a fresh bun with kraut, onions, and that sauce. I can now close my eyes and still recall that wonderful sauce’s taste. It’s been often imitated but never, ever duplicated. And it won’t be. Sadly, 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 thru the pearly gates. But I’ll bet he still keeps that sauce recipe to himself.
My Mom and Dad introduced me to Pete’s Famous when I was about eight. It was love at first bite. A few years later, my sister would pay me for babysitting her son with those hot dogs. I took all of my children there. After Dad died, Mom and I would periodically go downtown on a coney pilgrimage. Great hot dogs, even better memories.
On one of those Saturdays, the man stopped us when we walked out of Pete’s and turned the corner. He didn’t look homeless, but his busted-up jeans, faded flannel shirt, and disheveled hair wasn’t going to get him on the cover of GQ either. There were several pamphlets in his right hand. I knew what was coming. But surprisingly, it wasn’t your standard panhandler’s line.
He said, “I don’t mean to bother y’all, but I’ve got a little bit of trouble and need your help. Can I borrow $20 for bus fare back 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 her down to UAB Hospital in Birmingham as fast as we could. So, without thinking, I jumped in the ambulance with her, and off we went. By the time we got here, I had realized that I had forgotten my wallet and my credit cards. Not to mention my truck. So, if I can get to Decatur, I can make it home, pick up what I need and drive back down.”
Sadly, I’m usually suspicious of anyone on the street asking for money. So even though I’ve bought food and gas for folks who say they’re in need, I rarely give someone cash. But this was a good story. Not quite good enough for me, however.
“Have you tried the Jimmy Hale Mission?” I asked. “They’re close by.”
He brandished the papers in his right hand. “This is all I got from there. They gave me all kinds of brochures to help me get to heaven, but right now, I need to get to Decatur.”
“I wish I could help you, but I don’t have any cash. Just credit cards,” I lied. “You might want to try the Firehouse Ministry. It’s about two blocks west of here.”
He nodded, turned, and walked away. Mom and I crossed the street in silence and got in my car. Once I put the key in the ignition, she spoke. “Joe, I don’t know what you think about what that man just said, but I want to ask you something. Are you going to miss that $20 five years from now? That did not seem like a story he made up.”
I looked across the street, and there he was, walking with those brochures still in his hand. Curiously, he was headed south, away from the bus station and toward UAB hospital.
I thought a minute, started the car, and said, “I guess you’re right.”
She replied, “I know I’m right. I’m your Mother.”
I made a quick U-turn, and we headed south, driving parallel to the man. Pulling even with him, I rolled down the window.
“Hey, um – I found a twenty in my car. You can have it. Do you want me to drive you to the bus station?
Genuine gratitude flashed across his face. “If you don’t mind, could you take me to the UAB Emergency Room? I need to tell my wife what I’m going to do.”
It was a very short drive, but our new friend steered us to the emergency room like he had been there before. I began to feel less like I was getting scammed and more like I was doing something good.
He got 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 somebody. Just do that, OK?”
He nodded and went thru the automatic doors. I never saw him again.
The next morning in church, I sat in my regular seat, sang a few songs, said a few prayers, and settled in as our minister began delivering the message in his usual way. Flipping the Bible open, his voice filled the sanctuary.
“Today, the reading is from Hebrews 13, verse 2. ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
I stiffened. If it weren’t church, I would have said something that wasn’t very churchy. My goosebumps got goosebumps. Believe me; I had no problem staying awake through this sermon.
When the service ended, I cornered our preacher in the narthex and recited every detail of the story. Forget about 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, he nodded, smiled, and said, “Isn’t it great when God speaks to you like that?” And after a brief pause, he added, “And aren’t those Pete’s Famous hot dogs something else?”
I agreed. Those were both high-value treats.
Find more of Joe’s stories on his blog: https://mylifeasahobby.blogspot.com/?m=1. Also, follow him on Facebook at Joe Hobby Comedian- Writer.