Debbie Knox grew up in a tarpaper house in Minto, a New Brunswick mining town. She was ninth of 11 kids. "I’m a tough cookie," she says. "My mother made me like that."
Debbie has had her struggles, but life’s been good for the last couple of years on Barton East, right across from the jail. There, in front of the Beer Store, she runs a chip wagon. Handcut fries, and her secret dark gravy.
But yesterday, trouble came to town. A tall brown beast in a bright-orange coat danced on the sidewalk a hundred paces from Debbie’s truck. His name, the Great Root Bear. His employer, A&W Canada, which, after a long hibernation, is going gangbusters. Three weeks ago, the chain opened store No. 756 downtown, King near Bay.
And Wednesday, another one, at the corner of Barton and Ferguson. It’s good news that somebody has invested on this corner, abandoned so long. It’s a perfectly nice and shiny A&W, and we can wish them well.
Locals ask questions
There’s nothing but a parking lot between Debbie and that new restaurant. And as it began to rise, locals started asking Debbie questions. They wondered if she was scared of the new guy.
"I’m not saying I’m glad they’re here," she says, "but I’m not going to have a heart attack about something I can’t control."
'The entertainment is free. You don't get this channel at home.' —Debbie Knox, fry truck operator on Barton East
I met Debbie eight years ago. I wrote about her then because she and her truck had just been knocked off the most desolate piece of real estate in Hamilton, the windswept, noisy and smoggy corner of Victoria and Burlington.
Business was good there and the passing truckers loved her fries. But the landlord jacked her rent way up. Debbie found another location down the road. Then another. And another, where the city chased her away for being too close to a pizzeria.
Two years ago, she arrived at the Beer Store property on Barton and loves it best.
There is no place like it in town. "The entertainment is free," she says. "You don’t get this channel at home." She’s busiest at the end of the month, when the assistance cheques come in. "There are a lot of good people here," she says, "but a lot of them are hurting too."
Up to her little window come the hustlers, the homeless, the jail guards — and the people who love the ones they guard, on the block for a visit. And there are those who drive miles for Debbie’s fries.
Takes them naked
Will MacKenzie, retired from a PR job at the Ministry of Transportation, is here from the farthest suburbs because he needs home-cut fries. He takes them naked. "I only get gravy when I have to cover the taste of bad fries."
Until now, Debbie had almost no competition. She will compete now on her burger, fries and drink combo, just a little cheaper than the Mama Burger combo.
She does have poutine on her side. And shrimp. And sausage. And fish. Every Friday, she sells fish and chips for $5. Last Friday, she was on her feet in the heat for 12 hours straight selling that special. She’s thinking with A&W on the street, maybe she’ll make Mondays a fish-special day too.
But what if it turns out she can’t make it here any longer? Will Debbie and her old truck move on, make another stand? "No," she says, "not after everything I’ve been through. If something happens here, I’m done."
You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.