By Eric Lutz
In summers throughout high school and college, my friends and I worked at a hotdog stand called Voo’s—a mobile cart at an upscale outdoor shopping mall in the suburb where I grew up. From 8:30am to 5:30pm every day, we’d hang out, eat sport peppers and listen to ball games. Then, our boss—the eponymous Voo—would pay us eighty dollars cash from the register, plus whatever tips we earned which, on a good day, amounted to about twenty bucks a piece. It was—and remains—the best job I have ever had.
Amid the pretensions of the uppercrust mall, we were a kind of populist oasis where the low-wage mall employees and the bored shoppers could find reprieve from the carefully manicured shrubbery and high-end shops.
Most of these people were cool. There was the goateed Apple Store guy who ate probably six hotdogs per week. The fun couple that operated the roasted nut stand nearby. Even the Polish security guard who hurled insults at us as he sped by on his Segway found his way into our hearts.
But perhaps more memorable were the various oddballs who would spend an excessive amount of time hanging around our stand. The guy who insisted on calling them wieners, i.e. My girlfriend will have two wieners, please. She likes to have two wieners inside her at all times; the janitor who spent twenty minutes bragging about his—definitely fictional—recent sexual encounter in the freezer of a local Oberweis Dairy.
The strangest of these was a guy named Richie, a short, skinny guy with a dark ponytail and a bushy Van Dyke just starting to show some gray. He looked like a skinny Ron Jeremy and spoke with the kind of harsh Chicago accent usually reserved for “Saturday Night Live” characters.
Richie was a nice guy—too nice, in fact. After ordering a hotdog and a couple minutes of stilted conversation, he acted as though he’d known my friend Joel and I for years. His demeanor was that of someone who was about to sell you something, though it became clear he didn’t have anything to sell.
He ordered a hotdog and, over the next hour or so, told us his life story. He told us how he used to operate a printing press for a local newspaper until the man he worked for introduced himself to someone at a bar as his boss.
“Listen, buddy,” Richie said he told him. “You’re not my boss. God is my boss!”
Richie claimed this incident led directly to his termination. His story seemed to be missing a few key details, but we nodded along and he continued.
He told us that he was now in business for himself selling and installing ice rinks in peoples’ backyards. This was 2010, during college, right after the Blackhawks won the first of their most recent Stanley Cups, and Richie was hoping to capitalize on hockey’s newfound popularity in the city.
As if to prove his business was legitimate, he pulled out his iPad to show us the promotional video he’d made for his company. In it, Richie skates around his flooded backyard as a camera—clearly resting upon a knee-high tree stump—records the whole thing. It wasn’t altogether terrible, though there was something distinctly Michael Scott-like in the production value.
“Hey, do me a favor,” he said when it was done. “Hold onto my iPad for a minute while I run to the Apple store.”
“Oh no, that’s OK,” we said. This was only a couple months after the original iPad was released, and it seemed too expensive an item to be entrusted with.
“No,” he said, starting down the walkway. “Play around with it for a while. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Of course, he wasn’t.
Joel and I would have been uncomfortable holding this stranger’s expensive property for even thirty seconds, but as thirty minutes came and went without a sign of Richie, our anxiety mounted.
Why hadn’t he taken his iPad with him to the Apple store? Was this even his iPad? Was he framing us for some terrible crime, the proof of which was on this device? Or was he simply too trusting of strangers, too careless with his belongings? What kind of person leaves anything—let alone something worth more than fifty dollars—in the company of two people you’ve only just met and who could be, for all he knows, thieves who have just walked into their easiest steal yet?
During a break in our lunchtime rush, Joel walked over to the Apple store to see if Richie was there. He was not. For the next twenty minutes, we labored over what we should do. Should we hang on to it? Should we hand it off to mall security? Should we watch the Old Gregg video again on YouTube?
After about an hour, Richie returned. No explanation of where he was or how “back in a minute” had turned into an hour. Just an anatomically graphic description of the Hooters waitress he claimed to be dating. And then he left the way dreams leave us: the details so mundane, it’s hard to figure how it all seemed so weird when you were in the midst of it and yet, the feeling stays with you.
Voo’s closed a few years ago. My summers haven’t been quite as interesting since.