Authors: Tom Perrotta
STORIES OF THE SEVENTIES
Table of Contents
The Wiener Man
y mother was a den mother, but she wasn't fanatical about it. Unlike Mrs. Kerner—the scoutmaster's wife and leader of our rival den—she didn't own an official uniform, nor did she attempt to educate us in the finer points of scouting, stuff like knot-tying, fire-building, and secret handshakes. She considered herself a glorified babysitter and pretty much let us do as we pleased at our meetings, just as long as we amused ourselves and kept out of her hair.
We had a den meeting the day the Wonderful Wiener Man came to town in his Frankmobile. When we expressed a unanimous desire to go down to Stop & Shop to meet him, my mother said it was fine with her, especially since she had some shopping to do anyway.
Before we left I ran upstairs and got my autograph book. My collection of signatures was getting to be impressive. Most of them came from
obscure baseball players to whom I'd written fan letters, but a handful were from TV personalities who had recently visited Stop & Shop to promote their products. In the few months since the mini-mall's grand opening, I had met the Pillsbury Doughboy, Mr. Clean, Cap'n Crunch, and Chef Boy-R-Dee. I found it exciting to meet these characters in real life, just a few blocks from home. They were friendly, too. Baseball players at the stadium sometimes looked hurt or angry when you asked them to sign your scorecard, but the TV personalities were always delighted to chat, give autographs, and hand out free samples. I especially liked Mr. Clean, who had let me squeeze his biceps and rub his shiny head.
I expected good things from the Wiener Man. He was driving his Frankmobile to supermarkets all across America “to spread the wonderful word about Wonderful Wieners,” a new brand of hot dog. In the past few days there had been a blitz of radio commercials publicizing his visit to our town. The commercials promised free food and lots of fun surprises.
It was a warm October day in 1969. We marched in double file to the mini-mall, our feet crunching down on the red and yellow leaves carpeting the sidewalk. My mother led the way. Her partner was Harold “the Dork” Daggett, the newest member of our den. Harold had only been with us a few
weeks. He had just switched to public school from St. Agnes, and Mrs. Kerner had used that as an excuse to kick him out of the Catholic school den, where no one liked him anyway, and dump him on us. When we heard about the transfer we presented my mother with a petition saying Harold was a jerk and we didn't want him. My mother ripped the petition into confetti; Harold joined us the following week. We got our revenge by ignoring him when she was around and ganging up on him when she wasn't. She got her revenge, at least on me, by becoming good friends with him. She claimed that he was the smartest boy she'd ever met.
My partner was the den freak, Allen Falco. Allen had hair down to his shoulders and refused to wear the regulation cub scout uniform—he wore the shirt but substituted bell-bottom dungarees for the crisp blue trousers and tied the neckerchief around his head in an attempt to look like Jimi Hendrix. We were the last pair in line. I kept my eye on my mother as we walked. She kept smiling and touching Harold's shoulder. I heard her say, “That's fascinating, Harold.”
Then Allen dropped a bombshell: a few nights ago, he said, when his Dad was out, he had seen his brother's girlfriend with her shirt off. Allen's brother was a hippie. He looked like Jesus and wore an army coat with a peace sign on the back. His girlfriend looked just like he did, minus the
beard. Allen said that he got out of bed for a drink of water and she was just sitting there on the couch, watching TV with her tits hanging out. Allen was a good friend of mine, but I often had the feeling that our lives took place on different planets.
“So what happened?” I whispered.
“Nothing,” he said. “I got a drink of water.”
I walked straight into Billy Turcott, who bumped into Gary Zaleski in a chain reaction. My mother called a halt to our march.
“Harold has something he wants to share with us,” she announced.
Harold stood beside her looking worried, his pudgy body stiff at attention. He wore thick glasses, and the left side of his shirt was decorated with merit badges and little gold stars. He had a squeaky voice.
“Even though we often think of hot dogs as an American food, they were actually invented way back in the Middle Ages in Frankfurt, West Germany. That's why we sometimes call them frankfurters. Another popular American food, the hamburger, is named for the German city of Hamburg.”
Billy Turcott raised his hand. “Is there a German city called Dork?”
My mother frowned and Harold turned red. He looked like he wanted to cry but wasn't going to give us the pleasure of watching.
* * *
The Frankmobile was parked in the far corner of the lot, where Stop & Shop met Ye Olde Liquor Store. My heart sank when I saw it. I had taken the name seriously and expected to see a huge hot dog on wheels. But it was just a pink Winnebago.
My mother veered off from the group. “I'm going shopping,” she said. “I'll meet you in front of the store in fifteen minutes.”
We crossed the parking lot and got our first glimpse of the Wiener Man. He looked like a human hot dog, and kids were standing in line to shake his hand. Next to him, a woman from Stop & Shop stood behind a hot dog stand and passed out free Wonderful Wieners. The Wiener Man was taller than the yellow umbrella on the hot dog stand. We started walking faster.
The line formed between two rows of orange safety cones. There were about twenty kids ahead of us, most of them with their mothers. Not far from the Frankmobile, in front of Brite Boy Launderette, a bunch of tough-looking teenagers were slouched against a black GTO, smoking cigarettes and scowling at the Wiener Man like they knew him from somewhere and hated his guts.
While we waited, I tried to think up some good questions to ask him. I knew from experience that if you wanted to have a conversation with a celebrity, you had to get the ball rolling yourself. I made a mental list of the possibilities:
How did you get your job? Who do you like better—Joe Frazier or Muhammad Ali? Do you own a motorcycle? What's your favorite TV show? Were you ever in the service, and if so, what was your rank? Have you traveled to foreign countries? Do you know Chef Boy-R-Dee?
We were stuck in the middle of the line when Ricky Stoner, a kindergartner from our neighborhood, walked past us holding a Wonderful Wiener with both hands. He seemed to be concentrating deeply, like it was difficult to walk and carry a hot dog at the same time. Ricky got picked on a lot because something was wrong with his head—people said it was still soft, like a baby's— and his mother made him wear a Little League batting helmet all the time for protection. We called him Kazoo, after the Martian on
, who also wore a funny helmet.
“Hey Kazoo,” Billy Turcott called out. “Wait up.”
Kazoo stopped. He tilted his head sideways like a dog to look at Billy.
“Whatcha got there?” Billy asked.
“Hot dog,” said Kazoo. “They're free.”
Billy stepped out of line and put his hand on Kazoo's shoulder, like the two of them were friends. “Can I have a bite?”
Kazoo glanced hopefully up at Billy and shook his head. Billy lifted his hand and slapped it down
three times on the dome of Kazoo's blue helmet. Kazoo just stood there with his eyes squeezed shut and took it.
“Kazoo,” Billy said thoughtfully, “do you want to be a cub scout next year?”
Kazoo nodded. He held the hot dog tightly to his chest. There was a little smear of mustard on his sweatshirt.
“Then you better give me a bite. It's your initiation.”
“That's right,” said Freddy DiLeo. “We all get a bite.” Freddy was Billy's best friend.
Kazoo looked down at his Wonderful Wiener and up at seven cub scouts. The hot dog was only four bites big.
“He's lying!” Harold cried out. “There's no such thing as initiation.”
“Shut up, Dork,” Billy snapped. He glared at Kazoo. “Hand it over. Or else.”
“Leave him alone, Billy,” I said. “There's enough for everyone.” I hadn't planned on saying anything, but after Harold spoke up, things looked different to me.
Kazoo sensed his chance and trotted away. Billy didn't chase after him. He got back in line and looked at me like I'd hurt his feelings. “What's the matter with you? I wasn't gonna take the little twerp's wiener.”
“Oh yes you were,” Harold said. His voice
was shaking. “You should pick on someone your own size.”
“Oh yeah?” Billy poked Harold in the chest. “You're about my size, Dork.” He hauled off and socked Harold in the arm, right above the elbow. Just from the sound you could tell it hurt. Harold didn't even say ouch; he just reached up and started rubbing. This time I kept my mouth shut.
Up close you could see that the Wiener Man was not as tall as he first appeared. His face was painted pink and stuck out of a hole in the middle of the hot dog suit. He wore a wiener-colored leotard and wiener-colored gloves. Only his dirty white sneakers kept him from being uniformly pink.
We were next in line. In front of us the Wiener Man posed for a picture with a little blonde girl in a red and white checkered dress. The two of them stood perfectly still with smiles frozen on their faces.
“Say cheese,” said the girl's mother.
Just as she snapped the picture, one of the tough guys by the GTO flicked his cigarette at the Wiener Man. It arced through the air, sailed past the little girl's face, and landed on the blacktop at the Wiener Man's feet.
The tough guys laughed. There were four of them. The one who flicked the cigarette had long hair and a dirty peach-fuzz mustache. His faded dungaree jacket was covered with graffiti.
The Wiener Man gave the little girl back to her mother, then turned to the tough guys. He pointed to the cigarette. It was still lit; smoke curled up from it in a lazy S-shaped pattern.
“Does this belong to one of you gentlemen?” he asked.
“Maybe,” said the guy who flicked it. “Maybe not.” His friends laughed. They all had long hair parted in the middle, but the similarity ended there. One was chubby and red-faced. One reminded me of a rat. The third looked confused.
The Wiener Man's voice was calm. “Come over here and pick it up.”
The tough guys looked at each other in disbelief. “Did you hear that?” the leader said. “Mr. Tube Steak wants me to pick up that butt.”
The Rat touched his fly. “Yeah, I got a tube steak for him.”
The woman from Stop & Shop stepped out from behind the cart and grabbed the Wiener Man's hand. “I'll go get the manager,” she said.
“Forget the manager,” he told her. “I can handle these guys myself.”
I glanced at Allen. His eyes were wide with wonder. There was going to be a fight. This was more than we could have hoped for in our wildest dreams.
The Wiener Man put his hands where his hips must have been. His arms looked stumpy because they only stuck out from the elbows down. “Are
you gonna come over here, or am I gonna go over there?”
“I think you're gonna have to come over here,” said the tough guy.
“Okay.” The Wiener Man walked slowly toward the GTO. The costume bunched up around his ankles, so he could only take tiny shuffling steps. The guy who flicked the cigarette put up his dukes and stepped forward. His friends stayed back by the car.
There was a momentary standoff. The Wiener Man towered over his opponent, but he didn't seem eager to take the first punch.
“Come on, weenie man,” the tough guy sneered. “Put your money where your mouth is.”
It wasn't much of a fight. The Wiener Man faked high with his left and came in low with his right, landing a solid gut shot that folded the tough guy right in half. When the punk was doubled over and gasping for air, the Wiener Man grabbed a hunk of his hair and led him over to the cigarette butt. When the tough guy picked it up, everyone cheered.
The Wiener Man called all seven of us up at once. After we introduced ourselves, he made a speech. “Scouting's a fine thing,” he said. “It'll give you direction in life, teach you the right values, keep you off the street. Whatever you do, don't grow up to be wiseguys. Wiseguys don't know it,
but they're going nowhere fast.”
He gave us a long serious look, then turned to the woman behind the hot dog stand. “Lois, why don't you give these fine young men a Wonderful Wiener on me. Boys, I'll be frank with you”—he winked for those of us who caught the joke—“in the world of wieners, they're the winners.”
“I'd be glad to,” said Lois. She took a bun out of the plastic bag and spread it apart on her palm with metal tongs.
The Wiener Man smiled when I asked for his autograph. “What's your name, son?” He scrawled his signature with confidence and flair, then snapped the book shut with my pen marking the page. “There you go.” He handed it back to me.
He seemed friendly, so I decided to try one of my questions. “Sir,” I said, “have you ever met ChefBoy-R-Dee?”
He didn't seem to hear me. He was gazing over my head at the doors of the Stop & Shop. I turned and saw my mother standing in front of the store, hugging a grocery bag with both arms, looking around for her scouts.
“Pardon me.” The Wiener Man squeezed right between me and Allen. His suit was spongy to the touch. He shuffled through the parking lot as best he could, on a beeline for my mother. He had to move fast to dodge a long train of shopping
carts. The kid pushing them wasn't paying attention.
“Ann,” he called out. “Is that you?”
Ann was my mother's name.
My mother's face scrunched up above the groceries jutting out of the bag. Then she smiled. She had a really pretty smile. “Mike?” She didn't sound convinced.
The Wiener Man stuck out his little arms as he approached her. He hugged my mother right there in the parking lot. A can of tomato sauce spilled out of the bag and rolled toward Grand Avenue. I wanted to chase it, but my legs wouldn't move. My mother reached around with one hand and clutched a fistful of the wiener suit. I felt like everyone at the mini-mall was staring straight at me, demanding an explanation.