Maybe this is a story about how spring feels in Anchorage, about the pull that makes you leave the office on a sunny Wednesday at lunchtime and head downtown, park your car and walk until you smell hot dogs on a grill.
For years, there I'd be, having gutted out another winter, standing in line at Mike Anderson's hot dog cart outside the Old Federal Building and courthouse near the corner of F Street and Fourth Avenue, gulls crying overhead. And it would occur to me that I had no coat on. Because I didn't need one. Sure, give me a Dr Pepper with that feeling, and a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips. And I'll sit on the grass for longer than I probably should just to soak it in.
M.A.'s Gourmet Dogs sold about the same thing as every hot dog cart downtown. Most of it, I suspect, came from Costco, but Mike's line was always longest. This story is about that, too.
It wasn't because Mike Anderson was nice. In fact, his trademark over the couple decades he sold dogs was the way he razzed tourists and gave people crap about staring at their phones. His abrasive brand made him famous. He was mentioned in a number of travel publications, made tons of appearances in local media, and Martha Stewart magazine once gave him a nod. (He was also the subject of an Indie Alaska mini-documentary.)
One time, because I'm short, he thought I was a teenager until I took off my sunglasses. Then he squinted at the lines at the corners of my eyes and said, "Oh, yeah, you're not young."
I didn't care. It was all part of it. Gift with hot dog purchase. Downtown quits feeling real at some point in the summertime, all prettied up with flowers, the sidewalks full of tourists. M.A.'s had a localness, something about him splashing a Coke on some grilled onions and being surly, old dog lolling in the grass, a Journey song winding out of the speakers. What is it, I wonder, that makes you go from being used to a thing to being attached to it?
I still half expect to see M.A.'s cart when I pass his old spot. The other day I called Side Street Espresso, which is around the block, and George Gee answered. He told me he'd just walked to the bank that morning and thought he saw M.A.'s out of the corner of his eye. Then he remembered that Mike died in 2016.
Maybe this story is about the way you get to know people in a town like ours and how those casual connections take on a certain weight over time. Back in the day, Mike used to pass Dallas Wildeve's flower shop some mornings, poke his head in and ask her if she wanted a cup of coffee. And she'd say yes. And then he'd bring it to her without saying much. He gave free hot dogs to street kids and let high school kids owe him. He brought Katie Sevigny, an artist who owns a gift shop across the street, flowers the day she opened even though she didn't know him all that well.
"I liked him," she said. "I thought he was a good person."
You could say George Gee and Deb Seaton, who own Side Street, adopted him. They ended up moving to his neighborhood and their backyards touched. Deb watched Mike's dog and brought him meals. He was a bachelor who treated that dog like a child. He relied on them, but there were ways, Deb said, they didn't know each other at all.
This might also be a story about the invisible burdens we carry and the mistakes we make. Mike killed himself in December 2016, just as he was about to go to trial for, prosecutors said, giving an 18-year-old woman who worked for him alcohol and sexually assaulting her by touching her inappropriately. He'd lost his lease on the spot for his hot dog cart and spent a season in Town Square Park, but it wasn't the same. All the locals knew the story.
He told people on the block that the reporters got it wrong, that there was more to it. That's probably true. Every narrative that gets filtered through the cops and the court system is incomplete even before the reporters mess it up. It's hard not to want to sort it all out still, to minimize it or doubt the girl (what must this have been like for her?) or solve it.
"I should have just asked him: Is this true? Did you do this?" Dallas Wildeve told me the other day.
The thing is: What if he said yes?
"Can somebody do lots and lots of good stuff and still have one thing erase it all?" Dallas asked.
I turned her question over in my head for half a day. Can you still think Louis C.K. is funny? Or that Garrison Keillor is a gifted storyteller? What about Bill Cosby? Is it OK to miss a hot dog vendor who may have sexually assaulted a young woman who worked for him?
I'd just written the paragraph above, sitting at table at Side Street, when I realized that George and Deb were closing up the other day. For a while, after Mike died, it seemed like every morning in the coffee shop was a wake, Deb told me.
"Part of grieving," she said, "is wondering what you could have done."
Mike's birthday was last weekend. His brother came up, and George and Deb had dinner with him. Deb told me she'd made her mind up that I shouldn't write about Mike. There's no way to tie it up neatly or take the painful parts away. And maybe that's what this story is about too.
Deb keeps a paper folder of notes and stories about regulars. It used to be mostly weddings and births in there, but now, after 26 years, there are more notes about divorces and deaths. So many things that start out one way turn out bittersweet and complicated.
"The longer you stay in one place, the more you see stories unfold," she said. "It's life happening, you know?"