CLEVELAND - When my father and I wanted to have a heart-to-heart conversation at the kitchen table, we would usually put a couple of hotdogs in a pan of water, turn on the stove and then chow down with good conversation between bites.
There is something about hotdogs that are not only filling for the stomach, but also sometimes filling for the soul. Maybe that's why I usually enter into good conversations with the hotdog vendors who are hawking their products from carts parked at many corners in downtown Cleveland.
In many ways, they are part-time philosophers, offering curbside opinions about what's right and what's wrong with the city. While they prepare a couple of hotdogs for the buns, asking the customer if the food needs mustard, ketchup, onion, or any other condiment, they will engage in a quick conversation.
Customers know that and usually agree to a good exchange of talk on the street corner.
"I get here sometimes at eight in the morning and already, there are people waiting for me," said Danny Pittman, as he filled a couple of quick orders.
Danny has been holding down the business at the corner of East 17th Street and Payne Avenue. In front of a county family services building, Danny is often pulled into conversations from some people about the benefits they gained or lost inside the building.
"I'm the first person they see when they leave the building and sometimes I get an earful of how they are feeling," Danny said. He smiled and flashed a wink. "Maybe my hotdogs help them through a tough time; I don't know."
Less than two miles away, at West 3rd Street and St. Clair, Mike Tsolakis greets everyone who passes his cart.
"Hey! How you doing?" he asks everyone who passes within 15 feet of his mobile hotdog stand. "Just be yourself… You got to be kind to people."
He has been showing kindness since 1985 when began selling hotdogs at the corner, which is in the shadow of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, home of county and city courts and headquarters of Cleveland police. Many of the lawyers, judges and police officers who walk or drive through the intersection know Mike.
"He's awesome," shouted one passerby who waved at Mike. "He's been here for years; he's a fixture on this corner."
With each greeting, Mike offers a blessing.
"God bless you, my friend," he says to those who pass his cart regardless of whether they buy hotdogs.
"I love Mike," said Britney Smith who supervises a public parking lot within earshot of Mike's cart. "This is my third time here today," she said, offering a testimony to the quality of the street hotdogs Mike sells.
All of the vendors who pepper the downtown streets of Cleveland are licensed by the city and assigned their sales locations.
"They put the medical mart over there," said Mike, pointing to the new Global Center of Health Innovation, which is part of the new Cleveland Convention Center complex. "Everything is going to get better."
Certainly, Mike has seen many of the ups, downs and back-ups of Cleveland. Through the rough winters and the sweltering summers, he, Danny, and the other hotdog vendors provide a service at busy intersections of downtown Cleveland. It is not only hotdogs on their menus.
"We're gonna be alright," Mike said. "I can tell by how the people feel when they walk up to my cart."
"Hey! How you doin?'" asked Mike to a new customer approaching his cart.
That brought a smile from the customer, who ordered a couple of hot dogs with mustard and ketchup.
"You got it," smiled Mike. "Two dogs comin' up."