Careworn: The life of an everyday “Joe Six-Pack”

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Shannon Snyder

John Budd sells hot dogs at the Sammy’s cart near UH and recently has seen a decline in sales that threatens his business in the future.

Noora Somersalo and Jamie Van Doren

Cleveland – A worn AM/FM radio hangs under the umbrella of the Sammy’s hot dog cart. It produces a constant crackle as it churns out sports programs. Combined with the traffic on the street outside of Rainbow Babies Children’s Hospital, it makes it difficult to hear John’s quiet voice.

“You don’t need it.” he said, when asked for his last name. Pressed, John gives his last name as “Budd.”

John Budd. It’s a pseudonym.

In many ways, Budd typifies working class America.

He isn’t sure about the Affordable Care Act, even though he could use the healthcare coverage. He just doesn’t know where the money will come from, or how it will work.

He worries about the economy and companies that ship jobs overseas and competing with cheap labor. He doesn’t understand how or why one Viagra should cost $25. He thinks smoking is a terrible habit, but he does it anyway. He wishes he had taken a different path, and gone to college.

Budd describes himself as your typical “Joe Six-pack.”

Budd’s face is lined. His skin yellowed by cigarette smoke and reddened by wind burn. He’s bundled against the 40-degree cold in a black hoodie and thin green jacket. His black ball cap partially hides his face. The only brightness is the red scarf he occasionally pulls up across his mouth and nose. He doesn’t wear gloves. If he did, he’d constantly have to take them off to use his hand sanitizer.

Budd looks older than his 49 years.

He has been working at the Sammy’s hot dog cart for at least five years, six days a week, every Monday through Saturday. The working hours are long and the pay is low.

“I get here at 10 in the morning but I’ve been at the shop at least one or two hours before that,” he said. “I stay here until five but then I have to clean up and my day usually ends at seven. So that easily becomes a 10-hour day.”

Unlike many other hot dog stands, the Sammy’s stand stays open year round. Because his job requires standing outside for hours, one of the biggest challenges for Budd is the notoriously harsh Cleveland weather.

Snow is not the worst element for Budd. Any passer-by could tell that he is prepared for the cold. He has bundled up in layers upon layers of clothing in order to keep himself warm, and it’s not even snowing yet. Winter mornings are bad, but the cold rain is the worst.

“Everyone has their own coping mechanisms; some say a prayer and others figure out something else. I sometimes run to the hospital if it gets too cold,” Budd said, “I guess you get calloused to the pain as time goes by.”

Most of his customers are fine, some are characters. One man offer to trade him a knife for a hot dog. A women wanted to trade him a look at her breasts. The knife he accepted.

“Meeting people is definitely one of the better parts of this job. I’ve certainly met some characters along the way,” Bud said. “Good and bad people. I often talk to the hospital workers. And sometimes I talk to students about music and sports.”

Since April of this year, Budd has seen a decline in customers. He says that the reason for fewer customers has to do with factors beyond his control.

“We were right there across the street for many years. And then the hospital decided it wants to sell only diet drinks, you know,” said Budd, “So, we’re not part of their referendum or whatever, and they didn’t want us on their property. Children and old people who are at the hospital are afraid to cross the street, so now they don’t want to buy hot dogs anymore.”

Budd’s concern is for his livelihood. If the foot traffic declines he could have to move to a less desirable spot – like outside the downtown library, where he says there are sometimes as many pan-handlers as customers.

Or he could lose his job. If that happened, Budd doesn’t see many other prospects.

“It’s do or die, at this point,” Bud said, “It’s either find another job or end up in a homeless shelter, you know. There’s not a whole lot of wiggle room here.”

He says he could try for disability or some other kind of government assistance. But he’d rather work.

“If I can do something, I’ll do it.” Budd said “You know, I mean there’s some jobs that I’m probably not qualified for, and maybe some that I can. But I’ll work for three days and then my legs will hurt so bad, or my back. I’ll be so out of whack.”

Prior to his five years on the job as a hot dog vendor, Budd was a dishwasher. Before that he did different jobs with a temp agency. For awhile he was nearly homeless, struggling to find any work at all. He blames himself.

“I got arthritis in my back. It’s hard to follow through with anything.” Bud said. “I work good for a while and then I get hurt again. It’s rough, for me personally.”

Budd’s fondest memories are of California. He was heading to Arizona, but didn’t end up there.

“I wanted to check out the west. Probably ain’t shit in Phoenix, but I ended up in San Fran (sic).”

Budd was in California during the Rodney King Riots of 1992. He stayed in San Francisco for the next eight months, and left in December of that year.

Coming back to Cleveland was expected. But, it also came on the heels of his hopes for a better life.

“I experienced culture shock coming back from CA. I kept dreaming about it, man. And I’d only been there nine months,” Budd said, “I didn’t expect to stay there that long. It was like ‘OK, this is fun, but get real, am I really gonna make it out here’. And then I ended up getting a job and I was like ‘Huh, maybe I will.’”

He ended up losing that job – a security guard at an arcade.

“I was just not disciplined enough. I was too wild.”

A lack of discipline also kept Budd from considering college after graduating from Normandy High School in Parma, OH.

“As a high school boy I wanted to be a park ranger or something like that,” said Bud, “I didn’t do well in high school. I smoked too much reefer. I was probably too young to be messing with it that much.”

California is where Budd’s dreams still reside. His face lights up when talking about the possibility of going back – but only for a moment. Reality has a way of clouding his smile.

“Part of me would love to, and part of me is scared. I’m split on that decision.” Budd said. “Where would I get the money? That seems impractical. It’s already overpopulated. The unemployment rate was like 10 percent when I was there, what’s it like now?”

His face falls when he talks about the future. He doesn’t know where he’ll be in ten years. Budd doesn’t like to think about the future too much, let alone talk about it.

Right now, all he thinks about is making it through the season, and the 10 to 12 hour days he works.

“I’ve made it through four or five winters,” Budd said, “I just need to make it through this one too.”

For now, Budd is holding on. There don’t seem to be many other options for a manual laborer like him, according to Budd. At least his job as a hot dog vendor is steady, even if it doesn’t fulfill him.

“There aren’t many opportunities for moving up in this job. It doesn’t allow me to grow mentally,” Bud said, “But I guess I have to maintain an optimistic attitude.”

Because at the end of the day you don’t really have control over what happens in life.

“Some people think that life is a wave, and you are the surfer. I see it differently. I think it’s life that surfs you. You just have to make sure that you stay on the wave no matter where life takes you.”