Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why Hot Dog Johnny Matters

My maternal grandparents lived in the town of Bangor, Pennsylvania—approximately seventy-five miles due west of New York City. Prior to the mid-1970s, there were no I-80 roads extending this far east. Without the Interstate at our disposal, these treks over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house therefore took us into many small towns and down intriguing main streets, which were ascetically at odds with Kingsbridge and the big city way of life that I was foremost accustomed. There were so many fascinating sights along the way, and more than a few establishments from the Bronx to Bangor that the Nigro brood so desperately wanted to patronize.

Really, it’s hard to believe that it’s been forty years since my siblings and I pined to stop at a joint called Hot Dog Johnny on Route 46 in Warren County, New Jersey. For starters, I am happy to report that Hot Dog Johnny is alive and well these many years later. In fact, it’s thriving in the new millennium as a popular landmark. But four decades ago, my father wasn’t one to call on roadside eateries, or other attractions like the Cherokee Trading Post in nearby Budd Lake. Only peeing pit stops were kosher with him, which—in these pre-Interstate little adventures of ours—typically amounted to pulling alongside the road somewhere and heading off into tree cover. My dad sprained his ankle on one such jaunt, tripping over a rusty old lawn mower that some irresponsible sort had discarded in the brush. There were no public bathrooms, or even a McDonald’s around, on this route in that bygone time.

Eventually, we did sample frankfurters from  Hot Dog Johnny. We consumed our tasty wieners on picnic tables with views of the Pequest River, which I had long assumed was nothing but a babbling brook—not a Delaware River tributary teeming with trout. The Internet is such a great source of information. I remember, too, that the place had tinted green coverings of some kind—maybe plexiglass—serving as both sun and rain blockers above the outdoor tables. Upon initially unwrapping my frank, I thought it a rather curious and unappetizing shade of green. Hot Dog Johnny served birch beer in frosted mugs, and, if memory serves, buttermilk as an alternative—something that always rang more melodious to my ears than it tasted on my palate.

By the way, Hot Dog Johnny is in the town of Buttzville. It is indeed. I always appreciated that in this neck of the woods there are so many -ville and –town suffixes. Hackettstown, for instance, not very far away, hosted another place the Nigro kids so very much desired visiting: Leo’s Lunch Stand, specializing in hamburgers and hot dogs. And just like Hot Dog Johnny, we paid Leo's a call at some point. And I am pleased to report that Leo;s, too, endures—although modernized somewhat—in the twenty-first century.

While Dr. Floyd Hess, my grandparents’ GP has long since retired and shuffled off this mortal coil, his shingle—the last time I visited Bangor—still hung outside his old office. And while I miss regularly visiting the town with local surnames like Buzzard, Kneebone, and Stucker, and senior citizens called Myrtle, Margery, and Florence, I can at least take heart that Hot Dog Johnny is timeless.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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