Hot dogs are a classic American food. But when is a hot dog more than just a hot dog? When it's a neighborhood mainstay, through years of change.
As Oakland's Temescal district suffered through decades of decay and halting recovery, Kasper's Hot Dogs stayed rooted on Telegraph Avenue as an anchor for its community and a gravitational force for its customers. Since the stand opened in 1929, three generations of an Armenian immigrant family have served up friendship, compassion and a commitment to their community along with some of the tastiest and most artful hot dogs served anywhere.
Peter Thomson is a failed housepainter and waiter who is forever grateful and amazed that there is a field known as journalism through which he can channel his idle wandering, undisciplined curiosity, and penchant for making glib observations into a more-or-less respectable living. His work over the last 15 years or so has focused largely on the relationship between people and their natural and built environment, primarily through the vehicle of NPR's Living on Earth. Ten years later he took advantage of a large hole being blown in his life by grabbing his younger brother and jumping a series of trains and boats for Alaska, Japan, Siberia, Lake Baikal, and points ever farther west until they once again found themselves back in Boston, after which, not knowing what else to do, he blithely decided to try to write a book about the journey. The result of all of this effort, Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal, will be published later this year by Oxford University Press, after which he will once again have to get a real job.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Peter Thomson
Did you have a personal connection to Kasper's yourself? If not, how did you hear about the shop?
I found Kasper's when I first moved to Berkeley in 1996 and went to get my California drivers license. The DMV was on Claremont Avenue in a kind of dodgy section of Oakland in the shadow of the freeway, and I poked around the neighborhood when I was done. A few blocks down Telegraph Avenue, past the intersection with Claremont, the vacant lots, shuttered bank buildings and Taco Bells started to be joined by a handful of older, family-owned businesses that had clearly been there a long time -- an Italian deli, a hardware store, and a ways farther down still, this weird, somewhat ramshackle little pie-slice of a building with a neon sign on the roof flashing "Original Kasper's Hot Dogs." I'm not a big hot dog guy, but this was a place I knew I had to check out.
Inside was a single room no larger than your average kitchen with chipped paint and tattered linoleum, a small counter and an old man behind it with a big smile on his face who greeted us with a warm hello. Hot dogs were something like $2 a piece and when I ordered one and the guy behind the counter took out a fresh tomato and onion, sliced just enough for this one dog and then laid the slices on a bun as if he were laying fine Italian tile, I had a feeling the dog was going to be worth every penny.
It was also clear that the place had a story, and I had a hunch that it was part of a bigger story as well, a story about how this neighborhood had somehow managed to hang together, even if just barely, when so many other neighborhoods in Oakland and other American cities were falling apart in the last half century or so.
Of course all of this was very fuzzy in my mind in that first encounter. Mostly I was just enjoying the dog and Harry (the guy behind the counter) and the spirit of the place. But it started to come together as I thought about it more over the next few years and came back for a delicious dog every now and then, and I made up my mind to do some kind of story about it. It took me more than five years to get around to it, by which time Harry had died and I'd already moved back east, but my hunch was borne out as soon as I started talking with Harry Jr. and others in the neighborhood.
This story is a cultural snapshot of a very special place, a historical document about the legacy of Kasper's, and a commentary on urban economics, all in one. What was most important to you in telling this story?
The fact that the documentary was all of these in one, and more. It's rare that you find something small that tells a much larger story, and even when you do, it can be hard to know what kind of frame to put around it. When I first started work on this, I wanted Kasper's to be the centerpiece of the project but I still thought it was too small to tell the bigger story I wanted to tell, about how the Temescal neighborhood made it through the urban crises of the second half of the 20th century, and what it takes to hold a neighborhood together. So I interviewed other shopkeepers and longtime neighborhood residents and community activists and it was all very interesting but none of it really took off, and the more time I spent in Kasper's talking with Harry and his customers, the more I realized that everything I needed to tell that bigger story was right there, in that place and those people.
It helped a lot that Harry Jr. was so articulate and thoughtful about the place and the neighborhood, that he told his father's story so well and served as such a strong central character and narrator. It also helped -- and this is one of those awful ironies of journalism and storytelling -- that his father had died, which cast the whole story in a measure of sorrow and wistfulness that otherwise would've been missing but that deepened the story considerably.
Which interviewee was most memorable for you?
Well, the whole cast of characters who came through the place in the three days I spent recording there was memorable, but I guess three stand out. One was the guy (it's been almost four or five years, so I don't remember his name) who talked about picking up a dog every time he's in town and carrying it with him on the plane back to LA for his 88-year-old his aunt, who grew up in Oakland. His story spoke the deep bonds people felt with the place, but also just how damn good the dogs were. And this is one of the things that drew me to this place and made it so special. It's not just that it was a friendly, warm, neighborhood spot but also that they only did one simple thing -- hot dogs -- and they did it exquisitely.
Then there was Marcus, who grew up with Harry Jr. I'd spoken with a local historian and community activist about Kasper's role as a sort of social glue for the Temescal neighborhood; he knew all the economic and social history of the neighborhood and the city and the broader national context and spoke with a sort of academic authority about the place, and he was a great source. But then this other guy Marcus had lived through all that and just nailed it with an answer to a single question: "this is an anchor in the community." He went on to talk about how Harry Sr. had stuck it out through strife and decay and crime and how his commitment to the community was like "a pump, a heartbeat" that kept blood flowing through the neighborhood.
Then there were the kids who came after school, especially the 11-or-so year-old boy who sweet-talked Harry into giving him a free hot dog and then smacked his lips when I asked him how it was, and said "Ex-cellent!" He was sly and endearing and Harry told me later (off tape) that the kid hit him up for free dogs all the time. It was sort of a game they played, and it seemed so symbolic of what made the place so important to the kids growing up in the neighborhood. Harry Jr. (like his dad) didn't see them as trouble, or limit the number who could come in at once or give them the brush-off when they told their sob stories about how they "ain't got enough money." He made them feel welcomed and even loved, and you could just tell how much it meant to them, and to this kid in particular.
And of course there was Harry himself. He was as warm and welcoming to me as he was to all his customers, articulate and thoughtful about Kasper's and its history in the neighborhood, and so clearly dedicated to this place and to the memory of his father. And yet he was also wistful, the legacy of Kasper's was also a burden. Like his dad, he had other things he'd rather be doing in life than selling hot dogs, which, again, provided the kind of bittersweet quality that makes a story far deeper and richer than it would've been otherwise. And of course he's ended up doing some of those things -- Kasper's hasn't reopened since he closed it for renovations four years ago.
Did Kasper's re-open after it was renovated? If not, is there any hope for the citizens of Oakland that it eventually will?
I stayed in touch with Harry for a while after I finished the doc, and he kept promising me that the place was going to reopen soon. After a while I was sure he was getting tired of me and other people constantly pestering him about it, so I stopped asking, and eventually we fell out of touch. When I got back in touch this spring to tell him that the doc was going to be featured on the Third Coast site, he promised me, unsolicited, that he still hopes to reopen soon, maybe even this summer.
In your ears, what is the SOUND of a hotdog?
The snap of the casing as your teeth bite into it the first time. And now that you mention it, I can't believe that I didn't record that!
Your donation to the Third Coast International Audio Festival makes it possible for us to share creative and compelling radio stories with listeners across the globe, and to champion the ever-growing community of producers who bring this incredible work our way.