It’s a little before 1 p.m. by the time I find my way to Reggie’s hot-dog giveaway at CJ’s Famous Angus food cart at the corner of 117th and Buckeye.
Reggie’s nowhere to be seen, so I introduce myself to the red-aproned, mustachioed man behind the cart, who turns out to be CJ himself. He’s just loaded a fresh batch of hot dogs onto the grill, where they sizzle alongside an enormous mound of caramelizing white onions.
He tells me Reggie’s across the street picking up some cases of Pepsi to give away with the dogs.
“Is it OK if I hang out for a while?” I ask.
“Sure, sure - hang out! That’s what it’s all about.”
I happen to arrive during a lull in “business,” so I ask him about the giveaway.
“I’m just doing it to give back to the neighborhood,” he says. “I’m out here selling every Saturday, so this is my way of saying thanks.”
Hot dogs aren’t his usual purview: burgers are, along with barbecued chicken breast and po’ boys. It’s the aromatic, browning onions, though, that CJ calls his trademark. They’re inspired by a similar cart he visits whenever he’s in Chicago. He works all over town, including in St. Clair-Superior and on nearby Larchmere Boulevard.
He looks up from rotating rows of dogs. “I hope some kids come soon,” he says. “With school out, a lot of them walk around hungry.”
As if in answer, a small bus pulls up a few minutes later. It’s from Brownstown Tiny Tots, a daycare center on Union Avenue.
A dozen hungry kids pile out, and they - along with CJ - are eager to pose for a photo.
Kids mean a lot to CJ. With his son, a professional boxer, he runs a grassroots initiative called Put Down the Guns, Pick Up the Gloves, which raises money to help kids learn boxing. He credits the sport with keeping his son off the streets.
The Brownstown kids’ arrival seems to spark interest from others, including a group of teenage boys who’ve been hanging around on the opposite corner. In the two days since I moved in, I’ve seen them a few times on that corner and up and down 117th Street.
Reggie dashes back across Buckeye Road with a couple cases of Pepsi, just in time for the rush. CJ buns the dogs and Reggie handles the condiments and beverages.
The kids are polite and cute, each one thanking CJ and Reggie. But tensions rise when the teenagers get their dogs.
Reggie scolds one to pick up a piece of dropped paper. When the kid says it’s not his, Reggie gets in his face, yelling. The kid pulls a tough expression back, then runs off.
I haven’t seen Reggie anything but smiling and relaxed, so the confrontation surprises me. Later, when the rush dies down, I have a chance to ask him about it.
“You got pretty tough with that kid,” I say.
“I had to,” he says, his voice bitter. “They’re drug boys, all of them. One of them steals cars. You’ve got to be tough on them or else they won’t listen.”
I watch the teens across the street, hoping I’ll have a chance to talk to them directly. Not to confirm whether or not they’re committing crimes, but to get to know them, to get their stories. It’ll be challenging, I sense. One young man already warned me he doesn’t want his picture taken.
Yet theirs are the stories that may be most important to understand. Would they describe themselves as already happy? Or is there something they want from their neighborhood that’s not currently present? If so, what is it?
What, in the words of Miss Jeffries’ index card, would be the dream they would build so they don’t end up building someone else’s?