On the first day of classes this semester, I directed a freshman to the Jewish Studies Center using “the hot dog guy on Glebe Street” as a landmark. “Who?” she asked.
At the time, I couldn’t have known what deeper implications this question held. But nevertheless, I was shook. Where the hotdog stand run by one Mexican man in the city with the highest rate of gentrification in the United States used to be now stood Koa Bowl, an audibly blue poke truck – a manifestation of this very phenomenon. Given our city’s well-known history with pushing out poor residents, and making grocery stores and apartment buildings vanish in favor of more hotels on a thumb of land that already struggles with parking space and floods, worrying about the fate of one guy who used to sell hotdogs might seem trite. However, what happened to “Angel’s Food Services” is like a scale-model of what is happening to Charleston as a whole, and in order to understand it, we must ask the small questions as well as the big ones. So, what happened to our sole downtown provider of hot dogs and Jarritos?
Rumors spread quickly. I heard from a friend that he was working on East Bay Street. Another said he was working construction. I created a short survey to ask people simple things about who he was and where they think he went. Three people of the 68 responders thought “he just died.” Thanks to an erroneous article in The Odyssey (“Bring the Glebe Hot Dog Man Back” by Colleen Topliff), many students believed he had been deported. Nearly anyone you asked, from students, to peer facilitators, to public safety officers, were under the impression he’d been deported. One person answered that survey question with “I don’t think he’s been deported but I heard someone say that they thought he was, I figured it was a racist joke ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.” Considering the widespread concern voiced by the students as well as the current political climate, I wanted to set the record straight.
Antelmo Garcia Vargas pulled up in his white Nissan truck to the corner of Glebe and George on a Friday, just after the sun went down. He agreed to meet with a photographer, a translator and me. His English is quite good, but he felt more comfortable speaking in Spanish. Our conversation floated between the two languages, occasionally studded by the roar of passing Übers laden with drunk college kids. As he talked, I caught a glimpse at two front teeth embedded in silver.
Vargas usually just asks people to call him Moe. He doesn’t mind if people call him Angel, but his business was actually named after his son. He came to the United States from Mexico City in 2002 when he was 16 and lived in New York City for two years. He then moved to Gaston, North Carolina. He came to Charleston seeking more construction jobs and now lives here with his wife Julia and his three kids, Amy, Angel and Alan. The real story behind his disappearance is that his spot on Glebe was indeed bought out by Koa Bowl and he has gone back to working in construction in the Charleston area. Though he’s left campus, he told me he has no intention of leaving the city. “I like Charleston, I don’t want to go anywhere,” said Vargas.
He originally started the hot dog business with friend Luke Chillak, under the name Coral Bean. Chillak moved on to be a supervisor at a construction company, taking the name with him for plans for a future franchise. However, he encouraged Vargas to keep selling hotdogs. With a new name of Angel’s Food Services, Vargas hit the pavement and served the people of Charleston from late 2007 to early 2017 – just shy of ten years.
The spot he occupied on Glebe Street goes up for auction every August, typically for 1800 dollars for the whole year, but will always go to the highest bidder. His theory is that people noticed how he always had a line at his stand, figured he was making a lot of money, and that’s why the spot ended up being bought out by someone else. It’s clear this is something Koa Bowl may have erroneously assumed. “People went to his stand because it was cheap and it was good. That’s where all the construction workers got lunch, but they’re not going to go to some super expensive food truck. They don’t want avocado toast. No one wants avocado toast. That’s a f**king meme,” said Lane Kennedy, a College of Charleston student. Keeping things affordable was strictly in-line with Vargas’s morals. “I don’t pay much for this spot because I like to sell cheaper for the students, and it’s enough (revenue) for me,” said Vargas.
It was certainly a relief to hear he was still around and hadn’t been deported. It is a real and frightening thing that affects hundreds of thousands of immigrants to America every year, but despite it being so common, it shouldn’t be taken lightly or accepted as a norm. Even if something like a Hispanic man and his family being deported sounds believable, we need to make sure we’re fact-checking rumors such as these.
“What do you think about the deportation rumors?” I asked. “When people do actually ask and take the time to figure out why I’ve left makes me feel important,” he said. “Do you think you’ll ever come back to your old territory?” I asked. “Maybe. I love this job. I like the people here. I miss everybody. It just makes me feel really good, really important, that over ten years I was able to impact so many people for them to care to even ask about where I’ve gone.” We miss you too, Moe.