New York - "He's the mayor," says a UPS delivery man eating a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut. "Well, he should be the mayor."
"I want to marry him," says a woman who just bought a can of Pepsi and a packet of Skittles. "Just don't tell my boyfriend."
"A true gentleman," says an elderly man finishing a hot sausage with relish and mustard.
"Liars, all of them. He's a first-class jerk," shouts Jimmy, a potbellied bus driver. In his next breath, Jimmy, who's halfway through a six hot-sausage lunch, smiles. "Nah, I was jokin.' He's the man."
It's a winter afternoon on the northwest corner of 93rd Street and Central Park West, and the object of the effusive affection, and derision, of these salty New Yorkers is Vasillios Douuris, a Greek immigrant better known as Billy the Hot Dog Man. Billy isn't best friends with everybody in this Upper West Side neighborhood, just 99 percent of them. "Vegetarians don't like me," says Billy.
Billy's modest, of course. Everybody loves Billy, and why not? He's funny, loud, sweet, gentle, acerbic, and infinitely generous. Don't have any cash? "Get me tomorrow," Billy will say. Have a child with you? Billy will hand the tyke some candy and refuse to accept payment. "Your kids are my kids," he'll say.
Oh, how did I forget? Billy serves delicious weiners and hot sausages (juicy, firm, and tangy) and pretzels (fluffy inside, crispy outside) and has a smorgasbord of candy. Also, Billy's prices – $1 for hot dogs, pretzels, candy, canned soda, and bottled water, and $1.50 for hot sausages, bottled soda, and Gatorade – are half what most other vendors, including the guy directly across the street, charge.
Best of all, Billy is utterly reliable and always at his post from Monday to Friday, whether it's 15 degrees F. and snowing or 96 degrees F. and humid.
During a rare moment this afternoon when no customers are around, Billy steps away from his pushcart. He leans against his beat-up maroon van, which he uses to transport his pushcart and supplies from his home in the Bronx. Billy is 5-foot, 7 inches and weighs 150 pounds. He is hale, with wide shoulders and a flat belly, and has angular cheekbones, scruffy black hair, and wide, round eyes. "What's all that you're scribbling?" he asks, looking at my notebook. "You with the FBI?"
"I need notes to tell your story," I say.
"Me? Who cares about me?" Billy says, laughing. "I'm just a hot-dog vendor."
* * *
I've lived in New York since 1989, and while growing up in the suburbs I regularly visited the city to see my grandparents. I've always loved hot dogs and been curious about the people who sell them on the city streets. I began to gain an inside perspective on New York's hot-dog vending world when I befriended Billy a few years ago after moving to 94th Street and Central Park West. Billy loves to talk, and I love to ask questions.
"How's the burner for the pretzel drawer work?" I asked one day.
"Gas, from Iraq," said Billy.
"Do you have health insurance?" I asked.
Billy laughed. "No way!" he said. "Who could afford twelve-hundred bucks a month? Me and my family, we just don't get sick."
"What are your food costs?" I asked.
"I get pretzels for 40 cents," Billy replied. "A hot dog and bun with fixings is 30 cents. Soda, that's expensive, 30 cents a can and 50 cents for a bottle."
"Where do you go to the bathroom?" I asked.
Billy pointed down 93rd to a private high school. "They give me ice, too. I've got friends."
There are 3,000 licensed mobile food vendors in New York. Most of them are independently owned, largely by immigrants, but some carts are owned by companies.
Vendors control sites for free on a first-come, first-served basis except in and around city parks where they pay a licensing fee determined by a bidding system in which the minimum bid is $600. Last year, the winning bid for the city's most lucrative vending spot – the north side of the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – went for $326,000.
"Some people must get rich selling hot dogs," I said to Billy one day.
"Everybody thinks I'm a millionaire, which is a problem," he replied. "Take the guy who hired me to work some big party at the Harvard Club. He paid me a few hundred bucks, thought he was treating me like a king. But I had to haul down to the Midtown, pay for parking, and at the end of the night I could've made more money flipping burgers at McDonald's."
Maybe Billy doesn't get rich, but he does pretty well. One day, I tracked his sales for 30 minutes, and the tally was impressive: 22 hot dogs, 21 drinks, 17 packs of candy, 7 pretzels and 5 sausages. Net: $80. Besides his simple business strategy of not raising prices (which in turn will keep volume steady), he won't divulge much financial data. But he did recently buy a house in the Bronx and he takes his family to Greece every summer.
"Hey, I make a living, but this ain't easy," said Billy in his raspy Greek accent. "Hot dog men are the low of the lows. The only job in this city with less respect is a taxi driver."
* * *
So who is Billy the Hot Dog Man?
"I come from Kalamata. You know, the olives," Billy says on another winter day. He pauses, then chuckles. "Hey, even the emperer of China likes our olives."
Okay, Billy is a bit hyperbolic, but that's part of his charm.
"My family was farmers, five generations," he continues.
Billy came to New York when he was 17, in 1971, to live with his father, four brothers, and one sister, all of whom had immigrated to New York in the late 1960s. "I felt left out and had dreams of this big city," says Billy.
Reality wasn't so rosy. After a year in high school in the Bronx, Billy dropped out. "I wanted things and needed money to buy them," he says. Over the next decade, Billy worked as a dishwasher, plumber, taxi driver, and pizza chef, to name a few of his jobs. He also married an Albanian woman, Rosa, whom he'd met during a trip back to Europe.
Billy got into hot dogs seven years ago. One of his uncles had operated a pushcart at 93rd and Central Park West for 30 years, the last five with the help of Billy's wife, and the uncle wanted to retire. The timing was perfect. Billy was tired of driving a taxi and he wanted Rosa to open a new pushcart by the courthouse near their home in the Bronx. "We were gonna have our third child, so I wanted Rosa to be near them," says Billy.
Billy's perpetual smile and nonstop laughter belie the toil his work requires. Every morning, Billy rises at 5:30. By 7, he's in his garage packing supplies into his van. He then calls a delivery company to place his daily order for hot dogs, buns, pretzels, and soda (the stuff is delivered to his cart around 10 a.m.), and then he has breakfast with his kids and by 7:30 he is driving down to work. Upon arriving at 93rd Street, he unloads his cart from his van using the 2,000-pound battery-powered winch mounted inside the van.
"How does Rosa handle her cart?" I ask.
Billy smiles. "She's a strong woman," he says before pausing. "She tows hers on a truck, so it's not so bad."
* * *
"It's not easy, bro, not easy," Billy says.
It's noon on a biting winter day. Billy has a clear plastic tarp around his cart, but that doesn't keep out the cold. After 20 minutes of talking, my body is frozen to the core. I can easily go home, but not Billy. He's going to stand out here working for the next five hours.
"Are you happy?" I ask. "I mean happy inside."
Billy laughs and smiles. "Let's split, OK?" he says. He prepares a hot sausage with mustard and sauerkraut and cuts it in half. He hands me a half and takes a bite out of the other. It often seems as if the people who have the least give the most.
"What keeps you coming back day after day?" I ask.
Another smile. "Bro, I'm a happy man," says Billy. "But I'm not happy because of my business. That stuff comes and goes. I can smile all day because I have friends like you, a beautiful wife, and a healthy family. What else can you ask for?"