God Bless the Hot Dog Man
In the shadows of uptown's towers, a network of homeless people have come to depend upon an anonymous man and his wife
Written By Van Miller
Photograph by Chris Edwards
Arthur and his wife have been handing out food, clothing, and other necessities to the homeless for sixteen years, never once missing a day.
Sam Scott won't tell me where he's sleeping, but he showed me a photograph.
I know that he had been sleeping in his van, until it was towed away. Ever since then he's been sleeping out on the street. He said he couldn't tell me where, because he didn't want anybody stealing his blankets and belongings. That's the street paranoia—part protective instinct, part delusion—that most homeless people live with.
Sam is one of my best students in a photo workshop class I teach at The Urban Ministries Center. I give him disposable cameras and he carries them around with him and photographs what he sees. His photos express more about his life than he is able to verbalize. The photo of his sleeping spot shows a small brick courtyard with flowers. Against a wall, behind a statue of St. Francis D'Assisi, is a neat nest of blankets and quilts. "I woke up with snow on my face the other morning," Sam says. He's a big, strong man in his early fifties. He looks like the actor John Amos from the sitcom Good Times. As he talks to me, he stares over my shoulder. He is fidgety and distracted, as though he's late for an important meeting. He asks me the time. I tell him 4:30. He quickly gathers his things and stuffs them into a shoulder bag. "I gotta go see the Hot Dog Man, don't wanna miss him," he says.
"Who's the Hot Dog Man?" I ask. I hear a lot about the Hot Dog Man. "Oh, he's this fellow who gives out hot dogsand soda."
One Saturday morning I drive uptown to meet Sam at a place the homeless call The Wall, near the Hal Marshall building.
Small groups of people cross North Tryon near Tenth Street, toward a crowd of forty or so others. They carry knapsacks, duffel bags, blankets, and black plastic bags. They could be tailgaters hanging out uptown before a game or concert, but these people have a bent, beaten-down way of walking. They wear layers of clothing, including the occasional down coat. Their hair is unkempt, their clothes dirty, fingernails long, teeth brown. They look like extras from the movie 28 Days, in which some sort of plague has destroyed civilization. This isn't a movie set, though; these are real people, and the disaster they are living is their own lives. These are the chronically homeless of Charlotte. People who live on the streets, in the woods, in shelters or motels.
A crowd gathers around a blue van, which is riding low on its shocks, the windows obscured with boxes and clothes and bottles of water and soft drinks. The hatch is popped and people crowd around taking plastic cups of brightly colored fizzy soda. This gathering has the look and feel of an open-air flea market, except that nothing here is for sale. The food, the clothes, everything is free.
On Tenth Street people gather around mounds of clothing piled on plastic sheeting held in place with old red bricks. A middle-age woman named Sylvia Thomas holds up a tie and examines it. She ended up on the streets after the person she was subleasing from quit the lease. She slept in abandoned houses for a while and then the women's shelter, which she says is too crowded. Behind her, against the chain link fence, two men sleep. One lies on his back with his legs crossed. He cradles a pair of Air Jordans in his arms. He wears a yellow down jacket with a fur-lined hood. It's one of the coats the Uptown Shelter for Men handed out to all of their residents. The label inside says (in French) that the fur is coyote from the United States. Last year coats were bright red. The color this year is this awful pale yellow. A lot of the men sold or traded their jackets, so for a while there were a lot of people walking the streets with these big, warm, coyote ugly, down jackets.
On the other side of the street, three card tables are set up with food. One has blackened hot dogs and stacks of white bread. Another has plastic bottles of mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise, and another is covered with white paper plates piled with muffins and white cookies decorated with green sprinkles. A small man with glasses scurries around the blue van. His face has the scowling intensity of an athlete in the zone. His name is Arthur, and he is the Hot Dog Man.
People stand around the van asking him for things. "Do you have socks?" He hurries to the tailgate, reaches into a bag, and pulls out a brand new pair of white tube socks. Somebody asks for a razor. Arthur hurries to the passenger door, reaches in, and pulls out a razor. A belt? He produces a belt. Aspirin? Back to the passenger door, he holds up a big bottle of aspirin, and shakes a few into the palm of his hand. Any umbrellas? Arthur stops, his face softens, he smiles. "Umbrellas? No, they go fast." He grabs one guy by the elbow and leads him to the side door, "Do you need a pair of 34-36 slacks?"
Arthur and his wife, Debbie, come to this area every Saturday, and to another spot near the Federal Court House on South Mint Street every Tuesday and Thursday around 4:30 p.m. He's been doing it for sixteen years and says he has not missed one day. When it rains he sets up under an overpass. He has a lot of volunteer help. Willie Hubbard showed up one day and has been coming back for six years. Then there's the three generations of the Cook family: mother, son, and granddaughter.
Arthur has a real job and a last name, but he doesn't want me to write about him. He refuses to answer any personal questions. He's in his late fifties, with a slight but wiry build and a healthy head of curly brown hair. He won't tell me what he does for a living or where he's from. I detect a New England accent. I asked some of his volunteers for info but they all said the same thing. Mr. Arthur doesn't like to talk about himself. This of course leads to speculation, because why would anybody want to keep his good deeds private? Why wouldn't he want to bask in the glory of being kind to the needy? Is it because he is not an ego-driven man, but actually somebody helping others for all the right reasons? Or is Arthur doing what he does out of guilt, as penitence for past misdeeds? Is he a formerly homeless person who has returned to the streets saved, and driven to save others? No, no, no. Arthur's answers to all of my questions are no and it's none of your business, so you can either just write about what I do or take a walk, buddy. A healthy dose of street paranoia has rubbed off on him. He feels that most of the media negatively stereotypes the homeless as well as the people who help them.
He is protective of the people he helps, and he is not concerned with what they may have done in the past or if they are going to sell what he gives them. "I don't care. If it serves them, that's good. People give me this stuff so I can find the right person for it. I give it away and it's used." He will say that he is not a church, not a charity. He buys and cooks the hot dogs. Sometimes people see him in the grocery store with a cart full of hot dogs, bread, and soda, and when they find out what he's doing, they offer to pay. He lets them. The reason he does this, the reason why a network of street people depend on him is because he is "serving the Lord. These people are out of sight and out of mind. I just try to be the Lord."
Arthur prepares a sermon for every Saturday. It is meticulously typed out, filling both sides of white bond paper. Some of the text is in all caps and underlined. He hands out copies then holds one over his head, raises his voice, and begins. On this day the theme is "be the season" (you are the salt of the earth). "Add flavor to your life. Add the Lord to your life," he shouts. Last week it was about getting in the boat (toss the extra stuff overboard). I hear he can get really riled up, but what I saw was more of a philosophical lecture about setting your life straight, looking forward, accepting Jesus, and loving others. He was not speaking at the people who respectfully gathered around him, but inviting them to share his ideas. As he speaks, several in the crowd raise their plastic cups filled with orange or grape soda and yell, "Praise Jesus!" A man over by the fence shouts, "Hallelujah!" A woman in a big overcoat adds, "Devil always got something to say." Somebody yells, "Oh, you need Jesus, lady!"
After Arthur finishes his sermon, a big man dressed in dirty work clothes with boots caked in red mud approaches. He has a long scar that runs down the right side of his head from his scalp to his chin. He reaches out and embraces Arthur. He chokes up, almost sobbing, and says, "What am I going to do?" Arthur gently returns the embrace, resting his head on the large man's chest. He calmly says, "I can't do it for you, but the Bible says…" and turns his head and speaks softly into the big guy's ear. They stand this way for a few minutes. At their feet a man is curled up sleeping on the pavement. The large man relaxes and takes comfort.
During the sermon, Arthur's wife, Debbie, prepared a hot dog and walked over to an old man with long, matted white hair and a face lined like a topographical map. She sat down and talked with him quietly. Now she sits in the hatchback of the van, talking with people. She wears jeans, a light blue cotton shirt and clogs. She has a warm smile and talks with people who come over for cups of soda. She knows everybody and it's obvious that they are happy to see her.
"Where you been?" she asks a thin middle-age man. "Oh, I've been up at the library playing chess," he says. And they start chatting.
Living on the streets, on the edges of society, can be lonely and isolating. These tailgate gatherings provide access to a social network, a peer group in a safe setting. Just about everybody knows each other. Not much happens on the street without everybody knowing about it right away. People gather around Debbie and share street stories.
"Debbie is my psychiatrist," says a guy standing off to the side. He wears matching baggy sweat pants and shirt that, when new, were dark blue, but now are faded from the sun and stained from constant wear. He has vivid blue eyes that are intensified by the reddish brown complexion of somebody who has been out in the elements, like a mountain climber or tennis pro. He wears tennis shoes that were once white but now a dark gray. The tops are blown open, exposing his bare toes, which have filthy coal-black cuticles. His name is Rick, he's forty-six, and he chats away with Debbie. I ask him where he lives. He says that he lives in NoDa with a friend. I recognize Rick, though. I know he sometimes lives under a bridge in NoDa. I often see him walking around the neighborhood pushing a city-owned plastic garbage can full of scrap metal. I wonder if he's the guy who stole my garbage can, or the one who's been stealing copper tubing from all the swanky new development in the area. "I recycle metal. I just got permission to take some copper from a house."
Just as quickly as everything is set up, Arthur and the volunteers start to tear it down. Arthur has a system, a box and place for everything. Unclaimed clothing, plastic sheeting, bricks, tables, and food. It all fits into the van.
Arthur puts his head down and attacks the task. Two large lawn bags are filled with garbage. He tries to leave the sidewalks and streets cleaner than when he pulled up.
Some late stragglers, a man with a black eye patch and a woman, show up after everything is packed away. They smell of alcohol. The woman has a green tear tattooed at the edge of her left eye. She wears a stained, dingy denim jacket. Hanging around her neck are a tangle of Mardi Gras beads, along with a white Narcotics Anonymous key fob, which symbolizes one day of sobriety. The man asks if there is any food left. Without missing a beat or showing any annoyance for their tardiness and presumptuousness, Arthur holds up a handful of bologna sandwiches wrapped in plastic. "Have a bologna sandwich. Here's some for later." Then he and Debbie hop into their van and drive off. The woman holds a bologna sandwich up over her head and shouts, "Thank you, Jesus! God bless the Hot Dog Man!"
Van Miller is a regular contributor to this magazine. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org