A man wearing a dark plaid shirt and a black, peaked stevedore’s cap sticks his head out the little window of the hot dog stand and shouts across the street to a construction worker, “Hey, buddy! How about knocking off for lunch? How about a bowl of chili?”
The construction worker shrugs and keeps walking.
“We got soup–you like soup?”
The construction worker relents. “Back in ten minutes!” He calls back.
All day the man in the cap pokes his head out the little window near the comer of Clark and Cornelia and calls out to passersby:
“Hey, Chief! How about a cup of coffee? Warm you right up. . . . Good afternoon! How are you? Had lunch yet? We got Polish sausage, how about it?”
A white-haired man in a baseball cap stops for a tamale.
“How are you today?” he asks the customer, and in a moment they’re talking like old friends. The man in the baseball cap says, “I got one for you: Husband comes home from work. Asks his wife what she did all day. She says, ‘Honey, today I creamed the corn, creamed the spinach–and creamed the car!'” Laughter all around. They exchange a few more jokes, the tamale is paid for, and the customer moves on.
The man in the stevedore’s cap, William Joseph Dickens, is a retired barge captain.
Dickens left school at 15 to work on a barge as a deckhand, “and once I wore out my first pair of shoes, I was hooked,” he says. He progressed from deckhand to mate to engineer to pilot. At 27 he earned his captain’s license. He says he’s worked on barges on the Great Lakes, along the east coast, and on the Mississippi and her tributaries. Now 38, Dickens has been retired two years because, he says, shipping is slow: more materials are being moved by rail and truck. Once, though, last summer, he came out of retirement to transport the submarine Silversides from Chicago to Muskegon. Towing the craft 120 miles was “an honor–and a risky business.” Dickens has a five-year-old son, but has never married because his schedule–“being on boats as much as 30 days at a time”–was an obstacle.
Now Dickens works part-time as a carpenter; he also helps out his friend Brenda at her hot dog stand, selling hot dogs, tamales, soup, and coffee out of a converted trailer parked near Wrigley Field. Brenda is a straightforward, cheerful woman with a thick mane of brown hair. She opened the stand last summer to escape the carnivals and pornographic bookshops, where she worked as an exotic dancer. Business is slow in the winter; her best season is baseball season since most of her customers are Cubs fans. The trailer has “Brenda’s Dogs” painted above the service window.
Inside, it’s cramped and cluttered, with hot dogs boiling in a pan, french fries cooking in oil, shelves and counters covered with paper plates and cups, cardboard boxes, small tubs of onions, tomatoes, and pickles. A cooler sits in the corner, and on the other end of the trailer is a television and a microwave.
The trailer seems like a cage around Dickens, who can’t keep still. He sits, rises, pokes his head out the window, munches on pickles, smokes one cigarette after another, drinks cup after cup of coffee–while Brenda sits on a stool, or watches television. They only move in unison when putting together an order for a customer. They cope with the confines of the trailer pretty well, having friendly arguments over whether or not he drank all the coffee or ate all the pickles.
Dickens says he’s a direct descendant of Charles Dickens, which might explain his fierce energy and his talent for story telling. There even seems to be a faint family resemblance in William Dickens’s round eyes and slightly prominent upper lip.
Dickens can talk a blue streak when he gets going. His nickname, he admitted with an embarrassed grin, is “Silly Willie.” How did he earn that name?
“Well, I’m just crazy, I guess. When it’s too tough for anyone else, it’s just right for me. Like once I was pushing an oil barge nine knots in a shut-out fog and coming on a bridge with an 80-foot draw. That sort of thing.
“Once,” he says, “I was on the Illinois River. There’s seven locks and you drop 150 feet, and I’m coming on a bridge pushing two barges and there’s a barge ahead of me–but I can’t stop because of the current. So I call out to the captain on the other barge to get out of my way. But my boss was suing his boss then, and he shouts, ‘Kiss my ass!’ and makes a lot of gestures. Well, sure enough the cables go, and my two barges they start to jackknife and wham! they hit the bridge. When I saw that son of a bitch a while later I said, ‘My boss and yours was suing each other, but that ain’t you and me–so you can kiss my ass!’ and I hauled off a good one.”
While Dickens likes joking and telling stories, his current preoccupation is a plan for an artificial seawall to be built along the lakefront to prevent erosion. Dickens says his plan would cost millions less than the ones the city is considering. He intends to present his plan at public hearings now being held by the Chicago Shoreline Protection Commission.
About his life on barges, Dickens soberly reflects, “I miss it sometimes, I really do. I was my own boss, I had respect. I miss the different people you meet. I’ve met all types out there–murderers and criminals, too. It gave me a chance to do what I wanted. I read all the time on the barges. All sorts of books–I read everything, trash and good books, novels.
“It got rough out there sometimes. That lake, oh, she’s a killer. You notice I said ‘she’? That’s ’cause she’s a bitch, all right. A whore–a fucking whore, that’s what I call her. People who work here, they know they’re gonna come home every night after work, but out there you wonder if you’re gonna get home at all sometimes.
“But here, every day’s the same. I know what I’m going to do every day. I’m gonna cook these hot dogs, talk to these people on the street–this isn’t my sort of thing. I used to go on my barge by Union Station and I’d see the people crossing the bridge and I’d pity the poor bastards. They looked like a herd of cattle, like they were stuck in such a rut. I’d get off the barge to get a newspaper and I’d get trampled. Just like a herd of cattle.
“Sometimes, people, though, they’d stop and look at me on my barge, and maybe dream about my job, about being on a barge where you’re free . . .”
Dickens shrugs abruptly and goes to the little window and calls out, “Hey, buddy! How’s it going? How about a cup of coffee?”