Hot dogs are politician’s calling cards

by Brian Clarey

Guilford County Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston does not need your vote this fall – he’s not up for reelection until 2008 – but he might have something to say about your lunch.

Alston, the North Carolina businessman, landlord, elected official, community activist and balkanizing presence in local politics has been in the news lately doing one of the things he does best: withstanding criticism, this time after the Greensboro Housing Coalition listed his property management company, S&J Management, as being the third-worst offender of Greensboro housing code with 15 violations in the 600-plus properties under their control.

It’s nothing new for the man who has dodged bullets for his accusations of racism in county politics, his connections to the Project Homestead scandal, his tit-for-tat rivalry with fellow commissioner Billy Yow.

But as it turns out, the guy also knows his way around a tubesteak.

Skip’s All-Beef Hot Dogs, the red-roofed hut on East Market Street next to the Classic Touch Barber Shop, has served quick and tasty meals to generations of east-side cruisers and working-lunch jobbers, many of whom neither know nor care about the political bent of the owner.

I’m sitting at a picnic table under a shade tree in the sporadically maintained patch of grass next to the hot dog shop, a yard formed by the crook of the Highway 29 on-ramp and bordered by a cheery red and white picket fence. Two of the shade tree’s brothers have been cut down to stumps. A man in a brown cap totes an empty red gas can east on Market to the BP station under a billboard to a soundtrack provided by the sporadic whine and rumble of construction equipment, the squeal of brakes in the big rigs as they negotiate the turn onto the highway.

Before me lies a signature Alston meal in a white paper bag: hot dogs, one with sauerkraut and mustard (the German) and another with chili, onions, mustard and slaw (the Great Dog). There are fries, to be sure: great, browned crinkle-cut jobs, a dollop of potato mush surrounded by a crisp hull of fried goodness, graced with the perfect amount of salt. And there is a drink – no refills, I presume – all for less than five dollars.

Oh, there are other things on the menu – burgers, wings, onion rings, sausages, milkshakes and a promise, unfulfilled this afternoon, of homemade sweet potato pie and pound cake. But in all the years I’ve written about restaurants, I’ve learned that if a place has as its sign a giant menu item, then that’s what should be ordered.

The giant hot dog sign today proclaims, “Over 4 million sold.”

As I sit and eat in the shade, work trucks crunch through the gravel and blacktop parking lot for a pass by the drive-thru window. Roadwork ceases for the lunch hour as the staff inside the hot dog stand kicks it into gear for the midday rush. The guy with the brown hat and the gas can makes his way back to his car, presumably abandoned somewhere closer to the business district, with a full ration of fuel. Across the street a pile of concrete rubble and dusty dirt wait for further development.

It’s hard to say what’s going down in this east Greensboro neighborhood – is it on the rise? On the mend? On the outs? – just as it’s difficult to definitively characterize the man who owns the hot dog hut – menace or savior; activist or agenda-pusher.

What is true about the neighborhood is that, for better or worse, it shall be swept up with the broad changes that are happening all over the county.

And what is true, for sure, about the man is that he sells a pretty good hot dog.

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