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Here's a job to relish

July 04, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

The little blond boy standing up in the back of a shopping cart didn't want a bun or any toppings other than a small squirt of ketchup. The armored truck driver asked that his hot dog be topped with chopped onions and mustard.

Another man, a regular, requested two "suicides," which are hot dogs topped with everything - sauerkraut, chili, shredded cheese, onions, relish, ketchup and mustard.

Dimitrios Boulafentis - who insists on being called Jimmy - filled each order quickly and mostly quietly. He's been a food vendor in Martinsburg for 17 years, and now sells hot dogs and sausages outside of Lowe's on Apple Harvest Drive.

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His voice heavy with a Greek accent, he'll dispense philosophy with the hot dogs ("We change. The place doesn't change," he says of Martinsburg).

Mostly, though, Jimmy simply aims to please the palate. He never calls out to those walking by, but waits patiently for them to approach him.

Tales of the city


Jimmy came to America from Greece when he was a teenager. He spoke no English and started working as a food vendor in New York City in 1968 or 1969.

"Rough. Real rough," is how he described his days in New York. "Between people who tried to rob you or try to force the push cart over, you gotta keep your eye on it all day. You always prepare yourself for unexpected stuff. New York is rough to be on the street."

With luck on his side, Jimmy said he was never robbed, though he once spotted trouble coming toward him in the form of a group of teenage boys.

The boys started asking Jimmy his food prices.

"Before I knew it, knives came out," he said.

Swinging a large saw he kept with him and yelling for help, Jimmy was assisted by a police officer riding a horse. Without the officer's help, Jimmy said he'd be dead today.

Life in Martinsburg is quieter. He's never been robbed here either, but occasionally someone will approach him and claim to have no money and nothing to eat.

"I never turn down anyone," Jimmy said, though he has to pocket the loss in income. "I'm very easy to get along. I never say no."

He said he loves his job because it enables him to meet people.

"Bad. Good. Famous. Not famous. You talk to people," he said.

Customers tell him their problems, their joys, their stories.

Mutual respect


Unlike those in New York City, people in Martinsburg seem to be more relaxed. They're polite, not too demanding and don't rush him.

"I give their respect back to them," he said.

Within minutes, several people greet Jimmy by name. One man, as he drives by, tells him to have a good holiday.

"I have a lot of (regular) customers. I don't know about their names, but I know their faces," he said.

People seem to count on Jimmy to be in front of the store. On days he decides not to work, he has received calls at home from people wondering if he's OK. Others will mention a previous absence the next time they see him.

That people rely on him, trust him and care about him means something.

"That makes me very happy. That makes me proud," Jimmy said.

All around town


Here's how Jimmy prepares a customer's order: He grabs the bun first and quickly slides a napkin underneath. He then spears the hot dog, Polish sausage or Italian sausage and slices it open lengthwise if needed. After putting on a customer's toppings, he wraps the hot dog in a foil square, rolling it and slightly crimping the ends. Another napkin goes on top and he'll place the wrapped hot dog into a brown paper bag if asked.

Country music rolls from the speakers of a beat-up old portable radio. The cans of soda and bottles of water are cold, while the hot dogs and sausages give off steam.

On a good day, he said he'll sell 50 hot dogs. On bad days, freezing rain or snow keeps the customers indoors, but Jimmy often can still be found under his blue and yellow umbrella.

He's been selling outside of Lowe's for about two years, after being asked to set up his stand there. He started out near the courthouse downtown and also worked as a vendor outside of the post office, former Blue Ridge Outlet Center, the DMV office and a now-closed grocery store.

Jimmy pushed the cart around for 10 years before buying a white 1972 Chevrolet Nova. People honk when they see him driving.

This particular day, a muggy Friday afternoon, is a good one. Sales are interrupted only long enough for Jimmy to walk from his cart to the parking lot, pull out a pack of Jacks brand cigarettes and light up.

He doesn't consider himself a chain smoker because a chain, by definition, has links with holes in them. His smoking is nearly constant, he said.

Jimmy, who at first would give his age only as "over 20," but later acquiesced and said he is 54, started smoking when he was 10 years old.

The odd one out


His only job, vending food, allows Jimmy to have food on his table and a roof over his head. It's all he needs, he said.

Both his son and daughter finished college and each received a full scholarship. His son now is pursuing a master's degree.

Coming from a family of professionals, Jimmy said he's the odd one out. After fifth grade, his education became one learned on the streets.

"Nothing came easy for me, but I say I made it. I love this country," Jimmy said. "The opportunities this country gives you, no place else (can) you get it."

Still, though, he said maybe in his next life, he'll be a doctor or a lawyer.

"Something easy," he said.

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