From Jewellery to Franks

Photo by Lindsay Fitzgerald

Marianne Moroney unlocks the door to a life-size treasure chest buried underneath a 1920’s house on Mutual Street. Swaravtzki crystals, fine feathers, strings of pearls, and a whole room of derrangement and mysterious boxes belong to her. It is, after all, her old jewelry studio. Pausing for a moment, Moroney marvels at the dark and dusty basement. It’s the first minute of silence she’s had all day, but there are still hot dogs to be sold.

Once a jewelry vendor and working actress, Moroney now sells hot dogs by Mount Sinai Hospital. Following the loss of her child at birth and a downhill marriage, selling jewelry on the street couldn’t keep her alive. No one wanted a nose stud. They wanted the usual smoke and hot dog from the guy they were used to seeing.

So, naturally, she added food to her vending license.

Moroney still remembers her first day.  She was yelled at by another vendor, she didn’t even know what temperatures she should cook at, and she still wasn’t selling more franks than fine silver. But she kept coming back.

Sixteen years later, Moroney unlatches the hot dog stand on wheels from the back of her silver dodge caravan and rolls it onto that usual spot. “You’re standing outside without a jacket on!” yells Moroney to a man waiting beside her empty space.

“I refuse to give into winter. The older I get the more I hate it,” says Brian Duff, one of many regulars from Mount Sinai Hospital. He’d been expecting her.

A rickety Volvo speeds past, giving a loud meep, meep, meep. “Everything’s a rush, there’s a rush to unload and get your truck out of here,” says Duff.

Using her body weight, Moroney rolls the cart onto the 2.32 sq ft. piece of sidewalk space a few feet away from Duff. The morning set-up ritual usually takes 30 minutes. Once set up, it’s pretty much a one-woman show. Her business still runs without hydro, electricity, assistance staff, or garbage collection, with only a canopy to cover.

Every morning, Moroney does a loop around the city for supplies before she can start selling her love-plates, jerk dogs, sweet potatoes…and yes, traditional hot dogs. Unfolding her black apron and swiping her hands through her hair to make sure she still has her jade earrings on, she jumps back into her van.

Moroney’s morning ritual first consists of a stop at Silverstein’s bakery. This is what a bread lover’s heaven looks like: buns from the top of the high ceilings gliding down a spiral bread rack oven. The workers look almost as if they were painted white from their hairnets to their sneakers, pushing crates of milled, refined, powdery goodness.

“You’ve got the best vendor in the city,” says Mark Silverstein – one of three brothers who run the bakery – over the oven’s drone.

She also happens to be the executive director of the Toronto Street Vendors Association for the seventh consecutive year.  But while she juggles running her business with the problems of every other vendor in Toronto, she admits the wage for that much work isn’t enough.

“I can’t afford to give shifts. There’s not enough that this produces to even have a wage on top of all the costs, which go up every year,” she says.

Next stop: Lucky Moose supermarket, where Moroney buys one single onion. Then on to Barberians Steakhouse, where she gets her pulled pork and wild boar. She usually goes to Champs, another street vendor hub tucked off of King Street West, for condiments, veggie dogs and all beef sausages.

The extent of Moroney’s menu grew last year when the City of Toronto allowed vendors to sell something other than the traditional franks and fizzy drinks. For years, vendors begged the City of Toronto for an extended menu.

“They wanted our business to die. There is this deep seated prejudice. Often councillors have referred to us as mafia-run, as ignorant, in very derogatory ways. That’s the reason I became executive director,” says Moroney. “Instead of looking at the demographic and working with it … they demonize it.”

Traffic never ends on University Avenue, but Moroney’s stand is still sees its fair share of regulars. “You’d think there’s none of the same people, but there’s still the core people that are here every single day.”

At four o’clock, dozens of children walk home from school and Moroney knows most of them by name. They all give her peace hand gestures and shy smiles. Then there’s also Dr. Pilate, who comes out in the afternoon to give her a “pee-break,” and her Tuesday night date, Dr. Amato (he’s also the reason she hasn’t switched her mustard brand).

“I wonder if its home or community? I leave my home and my community becomes everywhere I go,” she says. “If you have a relationship but you haven’t extended it to have any depth, what is it?”

Moroney created a club linked to her stand for the people that helped her grow to love the hot dog stand. The club is called Peace Together Forever. She has theme days, a mini sign language and on “Happy Thursdays,” when hot dogs are $1.50 for kids.

Every child walking past from Mount Sinai Elementary School does the peace sign language she created with a shy smile. “Why would you not smile at a child? Why wouldn’t you smile at everybody? Really, you know, people talk about peace all the time, but it’s a very small thing. We don’t teach our children the right attitude, it’s not the job that you do that defines who you are, it’s how you do the job,” said Moroney. “We’re so centred on always giving people trophies and medallions. We need to just give people good handshakes.”

Moroney opens the trunk of the van and stares for a few seconds at the dozen whole wheat buns and single onion.  A dozen feet below, through a few locked doors, is a room of buried gold, strings of pearls and a few Swaravtzki crystals.

She takes her bicycle out of the shed and rides back to her 2.32 square feet of sidewalk space, where her first customer awaits.

“Hi, how are you?” asks Moroney with a smile.

She puts a polish sausage on the grill and turns up the flame.  ‘Would you like sautéed onions with that?