Man of La Muncha

One morning last week, as he's done for a quarter-century, Eddie Haramina set up shop in front of the county courthouse in downtown Phoenix. He didn't appreciate that it was a blustery day -- the wind kills his business, he said.

Eddie took a hand-painted sign and leaned it against a nearby light pole, where passersby couldn't miss it:

"Ed the Hot Dogger Is Here," it said.

Then he wheeled his two food carts into his new location, at the southeast corner of Third Avenue and Jefferson Street. Longtime habitués of downtown Phoenix had been wondering what had happened to the dapper 58-year-old, who had been conspicuous by his absence from his usual spot at First Avenue and Jefferson (just down the street from his new locale) for most of last year.

Eddie's triumphant return in late December came after three years of inane bureaucratic snafus that left both him and his many loyal customers red hot.

Starting in 1999 and continuing into last year, a new generation of competitors had been staking claim to Eddie's longtime spot, grabbing it in the predawn hours. Those are the lonely hours during which Eddie prepares his food for the day inside his central Phoenix warehouse.

"I couldn't get there early enough, and so I had to start moving around downtown," he says, the accent of his native Argentina still strong. "People were calling and writing me, wondering where I was. 2000 was pretty much of a zero, except for the State Fair."

So much of a zero, in fact, that Eddie took a job as a census taker for the U.S. government to make some extra dollars.

"I hadn't worked for anyone in a long time, and never here in the States, and never the government," he says. "But I met a lot of nice people, just like I do when I'm serving them a footlong."

Last year, Maricopa County officials for the first time asked interested mobile vendors to submit bids for the right to operate on the four corners of the courthouse complex. Eddie filed bids on all four corners, but won a contract only at Third Avenue and Jefferson, a somewhat less crowded but still viable corner.

"We're not on the sidewalk anymore," he says. "We're more out of the way. Maybe that will keep the big people happy."

The county bidding process dovetailed with a new Phoenix city ordinance that limits the number of vendors that may operate at any intersection. The law is designed to keep competing vendors from clogging up busy pedestrian and vehicular intersections.

It was far simpler for Eddie and others like him in the old days.

He migrated to the U.S. in 1970, and soon settled in Phoenix with his wife, Mitzi. He says he already had experience in the food business, having run a concession stand in Buenos Aires starting at the age of 15.

After a four-year stint as proprietor of a small market in west Phoenix, in June 1976 Eddie decided to give mobile food vending a go. He chose an ideal location, the one at First Avenue and Jefferson. Or, rather, he says, it chose him.

"It was obviously the best spot, and it stood out for me," Eddie says. "I was the first one down there, and I did well because I have a very good product and I like to think I am a gentleman."

His "product" included, and still includes, all-beef hot dogs, fresh lemonade (it's on the tart side) and homemade chili. He invented the "Taco Dog," a hot dog wrapped in a flour tortilla, and his popular Argentine choripan, which he calls "sausage on a bun."

Eddie keeps his food hot and the hot dog buns steamed, a welcome touch to his customers, both old and new.

He knows his clientele is a mix of impulse buyers and steady customers. Though he treats everyone with equanimity, he relies on repeat business to give him an edge over his less venerable competitors.

Case in point: A Superior Court judge walks up to get lunch, the $2.99 special that includes dog, drink and chips. Judge James Padish says he loves to patronize Eddie, because of the good food, the good price, and the good guy behind it all.

"We really missed him down here," the judge says. "There's no one like him."

Eddie Haramina finally became an American citizen in a downtown Phoenix ceremony on January 12, 2001.

"I had been flying the American flag for years, because I believe in this country," he says. "It hurt me not to be able to participate in the [voting] process. And I want to work against the death penalty because we are a country who believes in God, and God said, 'Thou shall not kill.'"

An old customer who's waiting for a bus steps over to say hello to Eddie.

"Long time, no see," Eddie tells him.

"Southeast Asia does that to you," he replies. "Been over there selling a bunch of stuff, old guns and things."

Eddie asks the man if he wants a hot dog.

"No, just a drink," the customer replies, then decides to fess up.

"It might make you sad, but I don't eat meat anymore."

"That's okay," Eddie says, quite gently. "Lots of people still do."