I had a brief layover in Chicago. I was starving, slightly shaky with hunger, and getting to the point where any option seemed wrong. In that state, it seemed I didn’t deserve food, and probably I would never eat again. People talk a lot about the rage of hunger. I’m more acquainted with the despair.
I was in a small corner of the terminal without many shops. It seemed hopeless. I was staring blindly at a kiosk of prepackaged, chilled sandwiches, fat-free yogurts, and Red Delicious apples—I had tears in my eyes—when a man popped his face out from somewhere and said: “We have hot dogs.” An angel’s chorus could not have been sweeter to my ears. “What do you want on it?” he asked.
“Everything,” I whispered. “Everything.”
And so he dragged that Vienna-beef dog through the garden, anointing its steamed poppy-seed bun with yellow mustard, bright piccalilli, the dignity of a pickle spear, the jolt of sport peppers, chopped onion, tomato, celery salt. Nothing has ever been so beautiful.
“Hunger is the best spice,” says Ma Ingalls. Perhaps. Or perhaps this hot dog was just the finest dish ever composed. The joy I felt made the despair worth it.
There was nowhere to sit down so I ate it standing, ravenously, bits of onion and relish sliding down my front, mustard speckling my sweatshirt. “Haha, I think you’d better slow down!” said a cheerful woman whom I instantly hated more than anyone in the world. She continued to watch me, grinning broadly. “She’s got more than she can fit in her mouth!” she announced loudly to whatever strangers were sitting around her.
“My happiness,” as Laurie Colwin writes, “turned to ash.” Private joy had slid instantly into perverted spectacle. I didn’t care if people saw me with mustard on my face and/or celery salt on my bag. But my intense pleasure had felt private and glorious, and now it had been degraded. I longed intensely for the surly disinterest of the sidewalks of New York, where I could’ve made my mess in peace.
“You better wash your face!” she said now, laughing gaily. “Half of that ended up on your shirt!”
I’ve never wanted to be invisible. If I had to choose a superpower, I guess I’d fly, just because I have a horror of snooping. But in that moment I wished intensely that no one could see me. Besides, I was already flying, and it was terrible.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.