"Take the money Harry," I plead, then turn, imploringly, to Jeannie at the cash register. I try to give the cash to her; she ignores me too.
Since 1956, Harry Heftman has run Harry's Hot Dogs, under mustard-yellow awnings in the tiny Showmen's League of America building at the corner of Randolph and Franklin. Harry is, maybe, 5 feet tall. He is, maybe, 90 pounds. Glasses. White hair. He is 92 years old.
For a wild moment, I consider tossing the bunched up money at Harry, but I end up pocketing it with a sigh, as I always do.
Harry puts mustard and ketchup on my hot dog--that's how I like it, and unlike many, he puts on no airs about the ketchup. He is a friendly man, and acceptance radiates off him like a glow.
"That's what life is all about," he says. "Be friendly."
I take my hot dog, resting on a sheet of waxy paper in its little red plastic basket, and my styrofoam cup of hot black coffee, and go sit in a booth.
I have never done this before--usually I eat the dog standing up at the counter then rush away. But I want to look around the place, to look at Harry and calm my jangled nerves. The last time I saw him was Sept. 11—I was hurrying to work, he was standing out front. I paused to shake hands—we always shake hands. "Hell of a day," I said somberly and he agreed. I've missed him, missed his friendly pat on the back, and if not for my reluctance to cadge another frank, I'd have been back long ago.
I dig in. A juicy, hot, Vienna wiener. Soft, steamed bun with poppy seeds. After a minute, Harry slides into the booth across from me. This is pleasant, sitting here, I tell Harry. I should do this more often.
"A nice opportunity to relax," he says, his voice low and raspy. "Start the day right. It's important to start out with a good breakfast that gives you a lift--a bowl of cereal."
And not a hot dog? I ask, surprised.
"A hot dog too," he says. "What's important is to sit and relax."
He hurries away. Customers. Harry is a man in motion. I can't help but think of all the other people, his age or younger, sitting in the day rooms of nursing homes, griping. Not Harry. He is hustling back and forth with a metal bowl of crisp fresh lettuce in his hands.
I look around the shop. This is the sort of place that people have in mind when they curse fast food chains. The beauty of the green neon signs, "Drink Coca Cola," in both windows, contrasted with, in orange neon, "HOT CORNED BEEF" facing Randolph Street, and "FOUNTAIN SERVICE" facing Franklin. The faux wood paneling. The plastic flowers. Blue laminate booths, six four-tops and three two-tops. A pair of charming signs encourage culinary daring: "Try our fish sandwich!" suggests one. "Try our shrimp in a basket!" suggests another. Cook Chester Green, 72, in a poufy chef's hat, like a cook in a comic.
Harry returns, and we continue talking about friendliness. I ask Harry if he ever met anyone he didn't like.
"No," he says, with a shake of the head. "If I don't like a person, I start talking to him, and he walks out happy, smiling. That's what this business is right here. A lawyer came in the other day, and by the time he walks out, he was my best friend."
A lot of people walk out of Harry's smiling.
"He's the type of character that makes the city a wonderful place to be," said Circuit Court Judge James Henry, a regular. "He's priceless."
Harry leans forward, his voice hushed, about to impart a secret.
"The economy is not good," he reveals. "I really hope it changes. I'm lucky to have a good location."
Harry points out the latest decoration—a pair of Boeing posters, one for a 747, one for the F/A 18 E/F Super Hornet.
"My business is very improving because of airplanes," he says. "Boeing, they all come in here--very nice--gave me beautiful pictures."
Harry lives in Skokie. He arrives at work five days a week at 6 a.m. He stays until the shop closes at 5 p.m. "My son drives me," he says. "He comes in especially for me."
Harry tells me about a grandson at Harvard, then asks, "You have a nice family? Wait, I'll show you a picture." He runs to get a photo of himself and his wife of 60 years, Perle. And one of his parents, Rose and Herman. He is proud of his three children and five grandchildren.
"I wish your children to follow my children. That's a very good wish. A good family gives you energy, to work for," he says, emphasizing his words with a light tap of the fist on the table.
Then he is off again, hustling about his day, and so am I, refreshed and renewed, not so much by the hot dog--which in truth goes down a little uneasily first thing in the morning--as by the hot dog vendor. Be friendly.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 28, 2001