Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Flashback 2001: Hot dogs with ketchup, mustard and wisdom

     Today is what would have been Harry Heftman's 113th birthday. Longtime readers will remember that he owned a hot dog stand at the corner of Randolph and Franklin that I liked to visit. Eventually, I started to write about the diminutive owner. Harry passed away in 2013, at the age of 103. But I still think about him sometimes, particularly when I walk by the little park where Harry's Hot Dogs used to be. I thought I would share this, at the risk of re-igniting the stupid ketchup controversy. Not that it ever goes away.

     Harry serves me hot dogs but will not let me pay. He stands in front of the condiments, his head just visible above the counter. I hold out several bills, folded in my hand, and shake them vigorously, as if to catch his attention. But he ignores me.
     "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


  1. I am from Chicago and have always lived here. Still I have no dog in the fight over how to dress a hot dog. Haven't eaten one in 50 years. Chicago style preference seems much like being a bears fan. Only one way to go.then there's baseball. Rife with disagreement boardering on and sometimes spilling over into violence.

    Don't understand that either. I'm happy no matter which team wins , especially a championship. Root for the Sox though I grew up a cubs fan. Switched over in 98. Couldnt endure the perpetual disappointment.

    1. When I was about four or five, I spewed pieces of cut-up hot dog (and baked beans) all over a neighbor's kitchen. So I didn't eat them again until well into adulthood. When the school lunch menu read "Frank on bun" every Monday, I always picked the alternative, no matter what. Or ate whatever was in the brown bag. Still don't like hot dogs all that much. I prefer brats, or Smokie Links...the ones that you could still get at Wrigley in the Eighties. For one buck.

      In my youth, I fell hopelessly in love with the hapless Cubs, but I was also a Chicago baseball fan. Cheered for both sides of town, and listened to both teams on the radio (Bob Elson, along with Vince and Lou). I watched countless hours of mostly disappointing TV baseball (Jack Brickhouse) on WGN. Even doubleheaders.

      When I grew older, I realized that in Chicago, you have to pick one side of town or the other. My cousins were all White Sox bandwagon jumpers. Since I was a North Sider, and preferred Wrigley to Comiskey, that made it easier. But it was also just as easy to be happy for "the Sux" in 2005 as it had been in 1959.

      I could never switch allegiances, though. This "Die-Hard Cub Fan" (used to have both the hat and the patch) will bleed Cubbie Blue until he dies. Perpetual disappointment? I don't recall who famously said "You suffer and you suffer and you suffer...and then you get used to it..." But they must have been a Cub fan.

    2. I have congenital civic pride. So I've never been a front runner. Cubs / Sox , whatever. its the people who root for the Yankees, Patriots , Lakers and dont live in those areas, that gaul me. Especially chicagoans that root for great teams from other cities.

      Baseball is my favorite sport to attend but watching on television has come to be agonizing. 4 hour games? Accckkk

    3. I moved to Cleveland thirty years ago, to marry a lifelong Cleveland fan. I even worked for the...um...Guardians...for a few seasons. So I'm supposed to just walk away from the Cubs? Like hell I will. I've had Ohio vanity plates that proclaim my Cubness since 1993. And now that WGN's coverage is history, thank God for the MLB Network.

      Cleveland's my AL team and the Cubs are, still and always, my NL team. You can imagine what 2016 was like at my house. No matter who won, somebody was going to end up sad and crying. As Simon and Garfunkel sang: "Every way you look at it you lose."

      So the Cubs finally won a pennant and a World Series in my lifetime, something my father (1920-2002) never got to see. But at the age of 69, after decades of misery, the joy was muted and bittersweet. Of all the teams they could have played and beaten, why the hell did it have to be Cleveland?

    4. My wife is a Cleveland native and her large Irish family still lives there I have been to the Jake/ Prog many times . Absolutely nothing against the Guardians. The wife not much of a sports fan so I relate to your circumstance.
      My sister in law on the other hand is a huge baseball and basketball fan. No friction between us. Just a healthy rivalry. Cubs and Sox fans should learn civility.

  2. As a longtime reader, I'm certainly familiar with the marvelous Harry and your having written about him. I've seen that photo before, but I'm not sure whether I read this particular column in 2001. A charming piece to mark the occasion.

    Whether one sits and relaxes with it, or not, I think Harry's suggestion of "a bowl of cereal" for breakfast is more suitable than a Vienna Beef dog, regardless of what it's wearing. But I imagine stopping on the way from the train was much preferred to trudging over and back for lunch.

    1. I used it when I posted another Harry column four years ago.

    2. I remember Harry's Hot Dogs from my many years of working just one block away on Wacker Drive. His place was such an institution that it was memorialized by the Museum of Science and Industry, at least for a time, in the big Chicago Loop model at one end of their famous model train display. You could find Franklin Street, locate a faithfully rendered model of the Showmen's League of America building, and there on the front of it was a little striped awning, marking Harry's place.

      I assume the downtown Loop model has been updated now with the new high-rise and park that replaced the old building. Unfortunately we all have to go sometime, and then at various rates, we fade away.

  3. If I can borrow a phrase from one of Anthony Trollope's stories, "Any good done in the world always pays."

    Certainly worked for Harry and probably for many of his customers.


  4. I still miss having lunch at Harry's. Now I find that my replacement establishment, Fast Track on Lake Street, is going away too. << Heavy Sigh >>

  5. More importantly, is it CATSUP or KETCHUP?


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