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Fudge Factor

They say what's in a hot dog can kill you. 

But down here in the Gutter, it ain't the ingredients we're worried about.

Fudge Factor by Bruce Harris



Two things: hot dogs and music. Loud music.
   
My son Aaron’s twelve. Dealt a rough hand at birth, Down’s syndrome. Some pity him. We’ll have nothing of it. Aaron’s a great kid with an enthusiasm for life unequaled by any other twelve-year old. The kid can pack away hot dogs. I think he ate his first the same week he cut teeth. Who knows, in a couple of years, Aaron may earn his 15 minutes of fame winning Nathan’s July 4th hot dog eating contest. He’s happiest, though with earphones affixed and heavy metal music blaring so that the pounding bass sets off car alarms a block away.
     
Some pity my wife and me. You play the cards you are dealt, though every now and then I grab one from up my sleeve. I don’t have time for regrets. I make time for life lessons. Aaron comes home from school, his smile nearly stretches to his ears, tells me as only he could that he’s learning to add and subtract. His homework assignment is to spend some money, get change, count it and record it.      
The hot dog vendor at the corner of Madison and Clark is Aaron’s favorite. The guy blasts Metallica, Twisted Sister, and a myriad of heavy metal groups from a decades-old looking boom box. Aaron and I watch (and listen) in awe as the man pulls a bun from a clear bag, spears a hot dog with a long fork, and then squeezes the bun around the dog. With the precision of the US Naval Observatory Master Clock, he yanks a 12-inch stainless steel rod immersed in a tub of spicy mustard, swipes a perfectly straight brownish-yellow line the exact length of the hot dog, wraps the dog in a napkin and presents it with a flourish to an eager customer. The guy is an efficient one-man assembly line that would have made Henry Ford proud.
    
“You hungry?” I ask Aaron, as if I don’t know the answer. He nods excitedly. “Okay, good. Let’s work on your homework assignment. Here’s a $10 bill. Go get yourself a hot dog and bring back the change. A few minutes later, he came back with a mouthful, a mustard mustache, and a grin larger than the national debt. He hands me the change.
     
“I did it,” he says proudly between chews.
    
He sure did. Only problem, he received change for a $5 bill, not $10. I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I chalk it up to experience. “You did it, buddy! Nice going. We’ll do it again tomorrow, okay? And, we’ll make sure to keep track of the change you receive each time you buy a hot dog. Then you’ll turn in the report to Mrs. Sachs.”
     
“Yes!” he shouts.    

What are the odds? Fifty-fifty, of course, that a vendor making change errs on the side of giving too little versus too much. So, Aaron and I repeat the scenario. Again I give Aaron a $10 bill for a hot dog, and again the hot dog man returns change for an Abe Lincoln. Coincidence? Could be. We try it once more. Aaron couldn’t be happier. He’s hearing his favorite music, eating hot dogs regularly, and proud to be acting independently. Same result.
    
The fourth and fifth times, I change it up a bit. I hand Aaron a $20 bill, but each time, he is given change for a five-dollar bill. “Okay,” I think, “let’s give the music man vendor the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he can’t add? Or subtract? If he is short-changing Aaron unintentionally, the odds are 31 to 1 against it. Still possible. Maybe he just doesn’t know how to make change?” To be certain, I purchase a couple of hot dogs myself. Besides a splitting headache and heartburn, he returns the correct change each and every time. One assignment over, another begins.
    
At closing time I follow the bastard. He drags his cart into a warehouse on Harvard Avenue. Ironic. Here is a stupid scumbag on Harvard Avenue. I wait for him one late morning when he pulls his hot dog cart out onto the street. I yank a .38 from my waistband and aim it at him. I pull the 12-inch condiment rod from its receptacle. My stance resembles that of a demented Zorro, 12-inch rod serving as my sword and surgical instrument in one hand, gun in the other. I hope you like mustard,” I say. Instant colonoscopy.
    
I review the correct ways to receive and give change with Aaron. After some number fudging, Aaron turns in his spreadsheet and earns an, “A.”
   
Lessons learned.

Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type. He overcame his fear of public speaking August 29 at Noir at the Bar, New Brunswick, NJ.