See that guy on the windy corner of Parkdale and Barton, standing there hour on hour, grilling street meat on the Beer Store parking lot?
They call him the Dawg Father. And he’s there because life kicked him in the teeth one time too many.
It was two years ago and he was out West. He was working hard, like always. He was a mulcher, the first guy into the woods, turning the forest into a path of chips. The guys with the chain saws rolled in right behind.
But it was so cold that winter. And John Turnbull was coming up on 50. What the hell was he still doing this for?
Sure, he had made some mistakes. First one was quitting school at 17. Didn’t get a trade. Did get a job in produce at The Barn, and liked having a little money in his pocket.
Along the way, there was work at Laurel Steel in Burlington. He got 10 years before the layoff.
There was the Inglis plant, making fridges. Now white goods are built in far-away lands, so that job ended too.
I put the kids to shame
Turnbull was on the line at the muffin plant up in Ancaster. He laid carpet.
At the Nelson Quarry in Burlington, he was a driller and blaster.
Layoff followed layoff.
"I’ve done everything, man," he says. "And I'd always be thinking, ‘How can they lay me off? I’m the hardest worker. I work like a dog. I put the kids to shame.’ But in Ontario, jobs are so tight. And they all pay $10."
So he went West, weathered that winter, then decided life had to change. He had to stop working for the man – and start working for himself.
He came back, sold his beloved Harley Road King, bought a hot dog cart. Then he went looking for a place to park it.
"I’m a Hamilton guy," Turnbull says. "I thought I could set it up anywhere in this town."
Wrong. He tried Stoney Creek, the Mountain, West End. Finally, on that rugged corner by the Beer Store, he found a home.
He became the Dawg Father on Aug. 15, 2011. His sign even uses the Godfather font and the puppet-strings logo, but the Corleone family hasn’t stopped by yet to complain.
If he was going to be the Dawg Father, Turnbull decided, he’d have to be different, have to be better.
The average dog vendor might have seven or eight toppings. Turnbull figured he should go for 40. He’s at 37 right now, including crushed BBQ chips, apple butter, a Dr. Pepper potion, Jack Daniels No. 7 – and enough hot sauces to blow up the Skyway.
On on his cart, from Da’ Bomb Ltd., is one called Beyond Insanity. On the Scoville scale, it rates a blistering 119,700 units of heat. By comparison, on a good day Tobasco Original Red hits 5,000. Tough guys say they want something that really smokes. The Dawg Father tells them to shake on a drop or two, then watches the fun.
On occasion, he’s had pregnant customers stop by with cravings. One cleaned him out of pickles, another the olives. But 90 per cent of the business is guys.
Just a toonie on Tuesdays
Turnbull does the eight-inch all-beef dog, bigger than served by some. They’re $3, or two for $5, or $2 on Toonie Tuesdays. Buy 10, get one free. There are sausages too.
I wish I could tell you what the meat tastes like, but between my talking to the Dawg and him serving up the people, the last link disappeared. It was day’s end and he was sold out.
Don’t go assuming he’s making a killing here. Keeping his head above water is more like it, and he’s paid a price.
When he was started out, he asked a guy running a cart at a Canadian Tire on the Mountain about the business. "And he said, ‘What’s going to happen is you’ll lose your wife.' And I did.
"I was devoting myself to this. Giving it all my energy, all my time. And I kind of put her on the back burner."
They’d been together 12 years.
The Dawg Father carries on because he must.
"This is the hardest thing I ever did," he says. "I’m doing the best I can. I don’t ever want to work for someone else again."
Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca | @PaulWilsonCBC