Hot dog enlightenment?

Blame Carla. She's in a wheelchair again. She had to have a follow-up operation on her broken leg. Before the surgery this morning, she begged me for that recliner chair I've been promising these past months.

I felt so terrible I screwed up courage and asked our neighbor Bill if we could go in his Jeep Cherokee down to Jerome's in east Chula Vista.

"And," I said by way of a bribe, "maybe we can stop at that hot dog stand I spotted outside Home Depot. It's next door to Jerome's."

Bill's into Buddhism. "Hot dogs, huh?" he says. "So what did the Buddha say when he met the hot dog vendor?"

I shake my head.

"'That pup may be my pop'?"

"Nice try," I say. "Let's go pick up that chair."

Twenty minutes later, at Jerome's, I shell out $299 of next month's rent for a recliner. They send us 'round to the cargo doors to pick it up.

Except, at the cargo doors, there's a sign. "Depending on the number of pickups, you should anticipate a wait time of 20--40 minutes."

"You mentioned hot dawgs?" says Bill.

Two minutes later we're down the road, standing in the sun outside Home Depot. Hooped canvas shelters the Hot Dog Express.

I'm a little nervous. Turns out, Bill's a hot dog aficionado. Knows the best wursts from the worst. "They used to be my thing," he says as we join the line. "New York-style, Philly, Chicago, Southern. You ever had a dirty water dog?"

"'Dirty water dog'?"

"Sure. They're the best. In the Big Apple, you find 'em at carts on just about every corner. They're called 'dirty water' 'cause of the foam, the scum that covers the hot water the dogs are cooking in."

Bill says that's actually a broth of the juices and salts from all the wieners that came before. "So the idea is, the later in the day you buy one of these, the richer the flavor." He says the best franks snap when you sink your teeth into them. "Plus you need a big, hot, salty pretzel that you dunk in mustard." And if you want to make like a true New Yawk native, "You get a 'Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray DB.' A celery soft drink. Been around since the 1860s."

Huh. Hot dog culture. Who knew?

"The contest's always been between Philly, Chicago, and New York, but if you really want the best, fling your fangs around one of Uncle Al's Famous Dogs in Virginia. Uncle Al, man. You get real bark from his dogs. We used to eat veal dogs back at Uncle Al's."

It's our turn. The choice is pretty simple. But there's a line behind, so gotta think fast. Lessee -- there's Combo Meal #2 (somehow, I've missed #1), "Spicy Polish Hot Dog, soda, bag of chips, $4.15." Combo #3 is the same but with a "jumbo" hot dog. Chili's 75 cents extra, cheese 50 cents.

The spicy Polish or jumbo dogs on their own are $2.85, and a regular-sized one is $1.65. They have big ol' pretzels too, for $2.50, and nachos for $2.50.

"Combo three," says Bill.

"Spicy combo, uh, four," I say.

"With chili," says Bill.

"With chili," sez I.

"I'm out of chili right now," says the guy, Zack. "But I have grilled some onions. Would you like some of them? No charge. I cook them just so the smell drifts around. You'd be amazed how it hauls the customers in."

He hands us the dogs, bare in their buns -- and grilled, not boiled.

"Aha!" says Bill, looking at his. "Tube steak. Heh heh. Now, you want it Southern-style, or Chicago-style?"

"What's Southern-style?"

"They call it 'dragged through the garden,' 'cause it comes with carrots, onions, cabbage, mayo, spices, all chopped up like coleslaw. But let's not get that here. Let's go for Chicago-style. Mustard, raw onion, pickle, relish, sliced tomato, celery salt if you can find it."

"And ketchup?"

Bam! Bill slaps his hand down on the counter. "Never ask for ketchup on your dog in Chicago, buddy. Everyone will stop and slam their hands down. It's the tradition. That's how you tell an out-of-towner. Asking for ketchup is verboten."

So we load up with everything except ketchup. Me, I can't resist Zack's grilled onions on top. I grab my soda (a Sprite) and a bag of Cheetos, part of the combo deal. The Polish sausage is big, herby, spicy. We stand round eating, making a mess. You can't beat that.

Bill wolfs down his dog, then starts singing.

"'The fixin's are delightful. There's fun in every biteful, at the happy Wienerschnitzel, yum yum!' Remember that jingle? We used to get dogs at the Wienerschnitzel up in Cardiff, after surfing all day."

We get talking to Zack. He turns out to be a really nice guy. He's from Afghanistan. Was a dental-lab technician till he got carpal tunnel syndrome.

"One more question," I say to Bill, as we head back to Jerome's. "How come we call them 'hot dogs'?"

"Yale students is what I heard. Back in the 1890s they used to buy wieners in buns from guys driving by in what they called 'dog carts.' But who knows?"

"So what do you think of Zack's dogs?"

He wipes his mouth. "Up there with the best. The best."

We're back at Jerome's cargo doors, getting ready to load up Carla's chair. "So," I say. "What did the Buddha say when he met the hot dog vendor?"

"'Make me one with everything.'"

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