Hot Dog King

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Personal / Stories / pk by Age / College Years /

Refreshment Agency Partner: pk, the young capitalist


I’d joined the Refreshment Agency. Columbia had four football games a year at home in Bakers Field. A dean had told me that success in hawking hot-dogs there could lead to some serious capitalism. The student-run agency hires as many freshmen as it can get, first to stock the four refreshment stands, then to sell the refreshments: $5 flat fee, no matter the hours or your success in selling. Maybe sixty or seventy-five start at the first rung of the ladder.

Columbia, Bakers Field

Columbia, Bakers Field

If you know me, you’ve heard me from five blocks away. Edith Piaf was the size of a sparrow but had lungs like a bull. Little pk also has a diaphragm that can hurt eardrums in the last row. Imagine me lugging my Sterno heated box around. “Delicious delicacies and tasty tidbits to tickle the taste palates of the most discriminating of gourmands … imported from all over Brooklyn.” A very pretty girl a dozen rows up had to hold her ears. Most others were laughing, but my, did they buy! (I never thought anyone would break my hawking records, but the very next year someone did. He didn’t hawk! He went up, turn by turn, to each person in the stands, looked them in the eye, and quietly asked, “Would you buy one of my hot-dogs?”)

Ten freshmen are asked to return as Sophomore Managers. The sophomores are the slaves of the Junior Managers. They work like diamond miners in Africa, from before dawn till after dark. $10, good or bad. But if you don’t volunteer to work the day before the game as well, your chances of promotion are zero. (Somebody’s got to count the hot-dogs into the bags they’ll be cooked in.)

One Sophomore Manager adopted me, a mere freshman, as his personal slave. I was the only freshman asked to show up on Friday to count hot-dogs. I even helped with unloading the Coke truck. When they saw how I could sling the Coke cases, they had me directing the rhythm of the whole chain: a freshman, with, not the rank, but some of the authority of a junior executive (and not just any junior executive: the Kitchen Manager! The Kitchen Manager was traditionally the Stalin of the Junior Managers). (I’d worked in the supermarket for years, don’t forget, so I knew how cargo-slinging lines could hum.) At the end of the year, my sophomore announced that he had been promoted to said Kitchen Manager, that Kitchen Manager was a shoo-in to Senior Manager, that his buddy was a sure thing to be his partner, and that I was I sure thing to be their successor. It turned out to be true: but regardless, he had a slave for another year. (I stopped short at his invitation to follow him into his laundry business, his magazine subscription business, his worm farm, his in-dorm deli, or his on-the-street “garage” where he refurbished old M-Gs: Model Cs only. A day-and-a-half of capitalism four times a year was enough for me.) (If I had trouble finding time for classes, imagine this guy’s problem! He wasn’t just putting himself through Columbia; he was trying to support his parents in Brooklyn.)

(One day the three of us are at the Kitchen Manager’s digs. Let me assign names to keep us straight. There’s the Kitchen Manager: Brian. There’s John, another Junior Manager. (Both of them are sure thing Senior Managers.) And me: the Sophomore Manager Brian had picked — and John had approved — as their successor. We’re meeting at Brian’s girl friend’s place: a high school girl whose parents approved his staying in her room. (Hell, Brian was making a lot more money while a student than her father was earning with his career.) Somehow, if it’s possible, Brian did even less homework than I did. (Can he possibly have missed as many classes?) The girl’s mother delivers Brian’s mail. He tears open something from the dean. A transcript with more bad grades. John looks over his shoulder. “You’ll never get into medical school, Brian,” John says. “You’re gonna have to buy one.”)

Anyway, sure enough, the next year I’m Kitchen Manager. Proceeds are taken to the Comptroller in the Brink’s truck along with the gate receipts. CU takes 5% off the top. CU pays the contracted bills from Oscar Meyer and Coke and so forth. 100% of the rest is divided seven ways: 10% to each junior manger, the rest (50% of the net) shared between the two seniors however they’ve agreed to split it.

I soon discovered how my mentor could have been so sure of his buddy’s advancement. For one thing, his buddy had been promoted to the “Clock”: prime refreshment real estate, right under the scoreboard. As far as anyone could remember, only the Clock and the Kitchen had ever made it all the way. You’d think that location was enough of a competitive advantage. But the other stands could have competed better had they not been handicapped with such a paucity of hawkers. My predecessor sent the vast majority of freshmen to the Clock. I decline to say here what else I learned that he did to make the comptroller unable to understand what had made the Clock perform so spectacularly that year: it deposited more money than it had had inventory! Everyone else was short! Figure it out.

CU regarded the junior who’d handled the money as superior to the junior who’d coordinated everything but. It didn’t care that the kitchen went to the sophomore deemed hardest working, most reliable, and best organized. Without the kitchen, nobody gets nothing. But the other guys actually coordinate the selling!

But it’s bullshit. There are deals within deals. The Kitchen is like a casino: you can skim, you can false shuffle, you can stack the deck. Once again: capitalism. who’s to tell you not to? The Clock became king, but the Kitchen was the king-maker. They’d taken their best salesman as well as their best organizer and put him in the Kitchen. My guarantee had a cost: I’d be prince, but not king. I figured I’d let Arthur pull the sword out of the rock himself. I didn’t false count the bags. I didn’t starve the small stands for labor while sending the Clock more than it could handle.

(1999 06 13 Recoding the note files, a new metaphor occurs to me: the guy who runs the Teamsters never gets to the White House: in a democracy such as ours, he merely decides which of two candidates does. The comparison breaks down as soon as you realize that the Teamsters boss also decides how close to eight years the successful candidate stays. Still, the principle difference is that I didn’t cheat. What would the Teamsters do with a boss who didn’t cheat?)

Lo, a great wonder: for the first time in history, the junior from the second largest stand out-produced the largest and best located stand. The guy who afterwards became my buddy, hadn’t wasted time entreating people to come down from the stands to his cubby under the General Admissions seats; he’d worked out a fast system to recycle the hawkers. Don’t wait for your customer to come to you; take the product to him where he is: up in the stadium. His sophomores came panting and gasping into the kitchen to run more dogs back more frequently than the others. Understand: I didn’t rerig the handicap; I just let the handicap already in place distribute the weights.

Payment was made to freshmen and sophomores on the barrel head. The execs waited till the season was over. Nevertheless, the day of a good game, the juniors earned more than my mother earned in a week even once she was supposedly some kind of junior partner. The seniors, typically just turned twenty-one, made five times that. My predecessors had agreed to a 55/45 split. Once promoted, my guy and I shared 50/50. Our agency broke all records. Our shares recouped our tuitions for the entire year! But then, like our predecessors we’d also innovated a few additions: like bidding against the cafeteria to cater the Home Coming! That’s right: we got it.

(Witless me, I wanted to make all the potato salad and fry the hundreds of chickens myself. No, all our “kitchen” could do was boil water: heat the hot-dogs and make instant coffee.) We continued my predecessors’ innovation of catering the basketballs games as well. You guessed it: when my masters did it, I was their only labor and only salesman.

(My metaphor has it that Brian was the Agency’s Teamster boss. Yet somehow John always controlled him. From the beginning (i.e., the point at which I could start noticing). CU understood perfectly well that the four refreshment stands could not compete equally. It was Calvinist capitalism: the Elect were Elected in advance. Still, John’s advantage in having the Clock stand wasn’t sure enough. He got Brian to make doubly sure. My colleague Wayne was Elected to the Clock. David was dismissed to General Admissions. Third place. Perhaps it could be argued that the Hillside Stand tied for third. The Permanent Stand, by the mens room, was the consolation prize, given to the booby in fifth, or last, place. Once again, my reform was to count the hot dogs honestly and to distribute the freshman hawkers a bit more evenly. I still sent most of the hawkers to the Clock: it was the biggest stand. I just didn’t send all of the freshmen to the Clock.)

That reminds me of a couple of favorite memories from sophomore and juniorhood. Home Coming is always a bear more terrible than the grisly. My boss wanted me in the Kitchen with him that day. He kept feeding me vitamins the size of horse pills. (At least some of the games, I’d run for the Clock.) It’s my job to keep moving the hot-dogs from the fridge to the cooking pot, judging how fast they had to be added to meet demand, then kick the other sophomores in the ass as I handed them the pails full of boiling dogs.

How well any of us kept the tallies, I’ll never know. It was Bedlam. But I never heard any complaints.

Whew. We can tell from the noises coming down the hall that the game must be over. People must be streaming out of the stadium and off the grounds. The parking lot’s just beyond the Field House where our Kitchen is in the basement with the equipment storage bays. We’re at the point were you can’t give the hot-dogs away. Each junior is responsible for the money at his stand until relieved of it by a senior. He’s supposed to have a pretty good idea of the amount despite so much of it being in change. (The deliveries were quantified so the junior knew what he was responsible for in advance of counting.) The promoted stand manager gets to walk around carrying the Brink’s bags under armed guard. The promoted kitchen manager can watch the game throughout and no one will care. This day, the Clock’s money was arriving in installments. My junior was madly trying to confirm his guy’s totals. I got to stack the quarters. The senior comes back with both Brink’s guards. Time to take the take. The Brink’s truck has the gate receipts and doesn’t regard the Agency as more than a pimple. It’s this attitude that seldom allows the change to be counted at all. “Wait. Wait Wait,” my junior is pleading. “Just shove it in the bag, Brian. John’s already counted it. We gotta go.” And away they march. They left an unruly pile of singles behind! Not to mention all the change. The portable table is still covered with money. I don’t remember where my counterpart was at that moment. My junior and I had the suddenly quiet kitchen to ourselves. Brian pushes the paper money into two rough stacks. He stuffs one pile into his left pocket. “This is John’s, and this,” he says filling his right pocket, “is mine. Good job, Paul. The rest is yours.”

(Figure: Five positions; 1 Kitchen, 4 stands; 10 Sophomore Managers … There had to have been another Sophomore Manager in the Kitchen with me when I was a sophomore assigned to the Kitchen. Yet I have no memory of my labors ever being shared. Whoever the other guy might have been on any of those occasions, it must have been stentorianly obvious who had Brian’s confidence. I presume he did his job and stayed out of the way.)

The quarters alone, those that had missed getting rolled and counted, missed the Brinks’ pick-up, had to come to some $70.

(Could I be misremembering a bit of that? Or blending two different years? Maybe it was the senior who divvied, then pocketed the cash when I was a sophomore. I’m sure about all the change left on the table being given to me: and me alone.)

The following year my juniors were the seniors and even at Homecoming found time to get all of the paper money into the bag. (That’s the year the three of us where still trying to peddle leftovers back on Morningside Heights at 10 PM that night. When the West End Tavern wouldn’t pay so much as a nickel a head for some sorry looking lettuce, John said, “Give it a rest, Brian,” and we finally went home.)

Did CU know that a little something had been left off the top before they took their supposed-to-be-virgin 5%? How could they not? Maybe they should have told the gate to count slower (or been willing to pay Brink’s for another few minutes). Perhaps they saved money by losing those few singles and quarters. They seemed satisfied with the count. I never heard any different.

PS: Once my partner and I had broken all the earning records, we got a nice feeler from Coke. The football games were the only toe Coke had in the Columbia door. An alumnus was big into Pepsi. He’d tried to strong-arm us before the season. We should hawk Pepsi, not Coke. My partner, the king, handled it. “Will Pepsi give us a free truck for the two days? Coke does. Coke always has.” “No, but we’ll give you a price break. You can rent a truck.” “No, thank you. We’ll take the truck.”

But Pepsi had the cafeteria, the vending machines … So Coke told us that they’d give us two machines, free, plus all income forever, if we could locate the machines anywhere within the dorms. Each machine should produce $100 a week, $100 for David, $100 for me, if the two of us would or could do it. Not me, I say. We’re half-way through our senior year and I haven’t gotten to October yet of Freshman assignments.

pk 1960, college pic
pk, 1960

Apropos, by the time I’d been in graduate school a few years, I’d say I was caught up with the majority of my sophomore assignments: undergraduate sophomore, that is. Naturally, I was also doing other work that sophomores haven’t heard of. (Just as I’d been doing work in high school that many graduate students never heard of.) (Just as I now do science that many scientists (most?) haven’t heard of.) (See Macroinformation.)

What about graduate school assignments? I’ll keep working at them till the day I die, but catch up? Never happen.

More adventures of P & D were told in Gambling, post, link yet to be resurrected.

This piece started as a note for the Faulkner module in my zoo of academic assaults: Hierarchy vs. Conviviality Stories. It got longer and longer. It’s past time I move it among my personal stories.

Searching for an image of Columbia’s Bakers Field just annoyed me. In September 1956 Columbia devoted a week to indoctrinating us that we were Columbia College, that we were older than the United States, that we were the elite of the elite, that we were a grant from King George, that the university was a dignelberry to our rock solid turd … Goodgle’s image search says “Columbia University” as though there were no such distinctions. My Free Learning Exchange in 1970 hoped to replace all colleges, all universities, all schools … all governments, all previous media … The world refused to learn: why should it bother me?
Well, however vain Jesus may have come to see his mission as having been, it was still his mission. It’s not his fault if humans refused salvation. Being crucified hurts.
@ K. before 2001

If only the above picture of Bakers Field showed the north bank of the Harlem River you’d see the big blue C I painted on the rock the RR cuts through. I didn’t start it, I didn’t finish it, but I painted the biggest area of it: hanging from a bosuns chair.

Stories by Age

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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