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It shouldn't come as any surprise that the world of hot dogs is not an especially salutary one. There's little sunshine when it comes to processed meats. But Dog Days, a new documentary by Laura Hinson and Kasey Kirby about the travails of DC-Metro hot dog stand vendors, really isn't about the darkness inside the bun but the forces of darkness that surround it. This is like The Jungle of street food.
The heroes of film are the immigrants from places like Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, many of whom came to the United States as political refugees. These men and women — many women, actually — traded the wide open squalor and peril of their home nations for an approximately 8 foot-by-4 foot aluminum box, a crushing volume of hot dogs in festering water, and the promise of freedom.
An approximately 8 foot-by-4 foot aluminum box, a crushing volume of hot dogs in festering water, and the promise of freedom.
Dog Days focuses on one of these vendors, a middle-aged woman from Eritrea named Siyone. She's been running her hot dog stand for the last 22 years. She has four kids, ranging in age from 25 to 3 years old, a deadbeat ex, and works 14 hour days in many miserable ways, to be detailed later.
Her life seems extraordinarily difficult but one of the reasons the movie stuck with me is how graceful Siyone is and how hopeful she remains. It reminded me of the Buddhist practice of lojong (mind-training) in which Atisha taught his students to meditate on the saying: "Drive all blames into one." The basic point is you can have the conditions of suffering in your life, often described as storm clouds in the sky, but you yourself are the spark of the suffering. You cause the storm, not the conditions.
Clearly Siyone's forecast in the world is gloomy and the horizon seems far off. But, judging from the film, she doesn't suffer all that much. And that's inspiring. How privileged it is to use someone less well off as a sweet little perspective-giver I know, but it would be even more idiotic not to.
The other protagonist in documentary is a tall bearded unemployed industrial engineer named Coite. After being fired from his job and recently married, Coite has the idea to sell good food to hot dog vendors (i.e. something other than hot dogs.) The real interest here isn't so much in Coite's venture — which is doomed, of course, to fail and does — as it is in exposing the really ruinous conditions under which hot dog vendors work.
The villains are the hot dog depot operators.
It's not just that they're stuck in a small box for hours, in sweltering heat and nipple-cracking cold. (Many vendors don't work on the coldest days since business is so bad.) It's that the system in which they operate is deeply exploitative. The villains are the hot dog depot operators. Due to DC health code restrictions, hot dog vendors must keep their stands in overnight storage facilities and the owners of these facilities lean on the vendors heavily for them to buy the hot dogs, buns, potato chips, sodas and other pretty depressing industrial processed food stuffs. If they don't they risk eviction in the worst case, and increased rent in the best case scenario.
Ever wonder why hot dog stands are all the same, all uniformly shitty? Well, that's your reason right there.
A lot of the movie is spent on Coite and his enterprise. There's a long charming bit about his aunt, Deane, who comes up from South Carolina to teach him how to cook Jamaican Jerk Chicken Wraps to sell to vendors. Once Coite convinces Siyone to sell his patties, Deane takes her harp — she's a harpist — and plays Bob Marley to drum up business. It's adorable.
But, I could really do without the focus on poor Coite. It reads a bit like a noblesse oblige-y white man's burden narrative. In fact, his whole enterprise, in some ways, seems like replacing one sort of exploitative dependency with another one, albeit slightly less dependent and tastier. Why, I wonder, would he push to sell food to the vendors as opposed to somehow encouraging them to cook their own? Some of the most delicious looking food in the movie is the injera Siyone makes for her family. Now, wouldn't you like to eat injera (or yassas or curries or pastillas) more than hot dogs or even Jamaican Jerk Chicken sandwiches prepared by a bleeding heart with no culinary background?
Wouldn't you like to eat injera (or yassas or curries or pastillas) more than hot dogs?
There is probably some easy, not-nefarious explanation having to do with health codes for why Coite decided not to do that, but I do think a fundamentally better enterprise would have been to try to create the conditions under which vendors would have more authority and power vis-a-vis their relationship with the depot vendors. Instead, they are at the depot owners mercy, washing dishes with cold water in the middle of the night, watching their revenues fall, and their hold on the American Dream grow even more tenuous.
It's the politics in the film that are the most enervating and compelling. Hot dog vendors versus the hot dog depot owners. Hot dog vendors and hot dog depot owners united versus food trucks. Food trucks, hot dog vendors and hot dog depot owners versus the government. Where the fuck is Frank Underwood when you need him?
Not quite cast as villains — because how could they be? — but not quite white knights on four wheels, food trucks represent the evolution of hot dog stands that render its progenitors obsolete. There's some stat in the film that when a food truck parks within a block of a hot dog vendor, the hot dog vendor's sales drop 15-35%. Can you blame anyone for wanting a lobster roll or kimchi taco over a ballpark frank? No, you can not. This is the Darwinian free market in action. There are winners and there are losers.
On the whole food trucks win. The food truck operators mobilize well to beat back any deleterious or burdensome legislation. Remember the whole Save Food Trucks thing, which sought to improve regulations surrounding food trucks in DC? Tons of people helped them to do it. And who didn't win? The hot dog vendors, who have no one looking out for them.
And who didn't win? The hot dog vendors, who have no one looking out for them.
At the same time, though younger, whiter, better off, Twitter-savvy, with more capital, and used to being listened to, food truck guys are in no way trying to oppress or otherwise harm the poor, darker, older hot dog vendors. From the side of malign intent, they're in the clear. From the consumer side, too, as I said, at the end of the day, the food truck product is, by and large, superior. Often times organic, sustainable, feel good-y, delicious, every part of who I am chooses the food truck over the hot dog vendor.
But I wish someone would work to level the playing field a little. How? I'm not sure. Perhaps by altering the regulations about what can and can not be sold or, perhaps, where the carts may be stored so that depot operators have less power. That, at least in the documentary, doesn't happen. And it's no surprise, that's how capitalism often works.
If there's a fault with this movie, it's that it is inherently crushingly undramatic. We know how it's going to end and it doesn't look good for the dog.
Rating: 3/5 Stars