On this morning, at least, the corner of Ninth and Mass. seemed to be a magnet for simplicity.
The sweet smell of hickory smoke filled the air for barbecue to be served over the weekend. A jug of sun tea brewed on the sidewalk in front of an attorney’s office. The man known as Toad, the unofficial gopher of downtown, played a game of who could bark the longest with a dog in a locked car.
And it was a Thursday, which meant in a few minutes the corner would be planted with pure nostalgia — a stainless steel hot dog cart, complete with colorful canopies and a colorful vendor.
“This isn’t simple,” Craig Nowatzke said firmly. “This is a lot of work.”
You’ll have to excuse Nowatzke for interrupting our little scene. The view of simple is much different from where he sits.
A little after 10:30 a.m., Nowatzke pulls his small station wagon right up on the sidewalk, startling the man on the nearby bench who sat in the fleeting shade of the Third Planet Imports building.
Soon, Nowatzke has the 1,000-pound cart unhooked and pushed into place. He starts fiddling with a knob and a propane tank.
“You always try to get the fires going first,” said Nowatzke, 40.
Then, there’s the unloading of more than a half-dozen coolers, containers and condiments, until he finally reaches the piece that he’s been dreading.
It’s a shaved ice machine — an odd contraption that looks part corkscrew, part wood plane and is encased in a piece of round glass that just looks expensive.
“This is my arch nemesis. It’s 65 pounds and all awkward,” Nowatzke said as he balanced it on a plastic folding table.
He does all this from his wheelchair.
Nowatzke had a plan: He would do this hot dog gig for five years. This is his fifth year, and he admits it looks like he’s heading for a sixth.
Ask him now what it will take to get him out of the business, and he retorts: “A good idea.”
But don’t be too fooled by it. Nowatzke loves the freedom — a workday defined by hours that end in ‘ish,’ such as 11ish to 4ish — and the business isn’t bad either. He’s open Wednesdays through Saturdays, usually from April to Christmas. On most days, he’ll sell between 50 to 100 hot dogs, sausages, links and — swallow hard, Tofurkey products — at anywhere from $2 to $4 a pop.
Yeah, it’s done all right. In some ways, better than the previous life where a master’s in rehabilitation therapy left him trapped in a cubicle. The hot dog stand has helped bring a new bride, a house that he owns in North Lawrence, and a daily dose of conversation. The conversation can be about anything.
He remembers the day he spent talking for hours with a 14-year-old girl who was waiting for her mother at the corner of Ninth and Mass. She hadn’t seen her mother in eight months.
“I just kept thinking, ‘I hope she shows up,’” Nowatzke said. She did.
Then there was the day that a good part of the afternoon was spent talking about the guy who was walking up and down Massachusetts in a skin-tight, full-body rainbow suit, topped off with a hat with a plume. Somehow it was an encouraging, if not aesthetic, sign to Nowatzke.
“I know some stores have come and gone, but downtown still has the feel — nutty people and people who accept them,” Nowatzke said.
On this day — no matter what the headlines said in the newspaper — the big story downtown was that Craig Nowatzke got a haircut. No more long locks. The comments started about 10:30 with a friendly yell from a passing truck: “Nice haircut, hippie.” At least a half-dozen comments followed, including: “Heaven forbid, not a job interview.”
No, not yet. For a while longer, Nowatzke wheels around in roughly a 3-foot by 5-foot area. He watches ice dwindle in the shaved ice machine — six blocks a day “whether you sell it or watch it melt.” He deftly handles a pair of tongs — bare hands never touch the food. And today, much to his displeasure, he battles the wind that batters the umbrellas that serve as the only shield from a 96-degree day.
“I can only do this for so much longer,” he says as he places a bun in a wrapper.
“No, you got to do this forever,” says the man waiting for his dog.
Nowatzke was 18 years old and was on Kansas University’s Wescoe Beach blowing a large soap bubble. The scene caught the eye of a University Daily Kansan photographer.
As it happens, it would be the last photograph ever taken of Nowatzke on his own two feet. Two hours after the photo was taken, Nowatzke would never walk again.
He suffered a spinal cord stroke. He collapsed, began spitting up blood, and then took a ride on an air ambulance.
No cause was ever determined.
“It was weird,” said Nowatzke, who has no movement below his mid-chest, and has developed tendinitis in his hands to the point that one hand is about 50 percent larger than the other.
“It still is weird.”
He ended up at a top-notch neurosurgery hospital in Bethesda, Md. Doctors did all types of complicated tests but after three months there, the diagnosis was — there’s that word again — simple.
“An inch and a half above the nipple, I have dead cells on the spinal cord,” Nowatzke said. “That’s that.”
There are definitely regulars at the Sun Dog hot dog stand. Some just hand Nowatzke a dollar and open the fridge up themselves to get a soda. There are others who Nowatzke can tell you their order and the condiments they’ll put on the dog before they ever reach the counter.
And they’re all types.
“I have everybody from attorneys to the homeless guy who just got $3 and spends it on a quarter-pounder,” Nowatzke said.
Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug has become a regular. Weinaug said the dogs — all beef, made by a Chicago company — are good. They almost rival the ambiance.
“You always meet interesting people sitting on this bench,” Weinaug said. “And you get to harass the proprietor about his haircut.”
Nowatzke tries not to overthink the business strategy. No employees, no advertising — well, the stand does have a Facebook page now — and just good, traditional hot dogs.
For some, it is a formula that never seems to stop working.
Chris Czel stops at the stand every time he’s in Lawrence. The Connecticut transplant lives in Prairie Village now.
With two dogs in hand, he had a plan for the afternoon.
“I’m going to sit out in the sun,” Czel said, “and fantasize about being at Fenway.”