On the corner of Main and Higgins, Casey Giddings wraps foil around a bratwurst covered with relish and bright green “sport” peppers, and hands it to a tall, gray-bearded man.
At the same time, a woman walks by the hot dog cart and says, “I got mustard all over my clothes from the hot dog…” Giddings nods and says kindly, “I’m sorry.”
“…it was that good,” she finishes.
In his baseball cap and T-shirt, the youthful Giddings looks better suited for a game of Frisbee on the University of Montana oval. Seeing him working the popular hot dog stand, he looks like a kid putting in hours at a summer job, saving up for the upcoming semester. But this is Giddings’ business, a good portion of his livelihood. The UM alum bought CaseDogs in April, and it’s more dream job than transition.
“I think there is definitely a misconception of street vending,” he says. “I got over the [idea] that I need to be this successful image that maybe my parents or my friends’ parents want me to be.”
Giddings is one of a handful of Missoula downtown street vendors who apply for annual permits to set up shop on local street corners. They are public fixtures—mobile but fairly consistent with their spots, exposed to the elements and highly visible. The bustle of downtown transpires right before their eyes and, if they’ve been there long enough, they witness how shops come and go, meet characters old and new to the downtown scene, and observe, in general, how Missoula works as a community.
Their opinions of the city are just as far ranging as their own personal backgrounds—a popular Pakistani native struggling to find his way, a former addict who went from living on the street to starting a successful street vending business, a New Age-y couple with grand visions of how incense sticks help make Missoula a better place, and a UM business school grad who invested in a hot dog stand so he could stay in the Garden City. All of them can be found within the same stretch of Higgins Avenue, but they each took vastly different paths to get there.
In some ways, Giddings, a self-described hot dog nut, was destined to run Missoula’s downtown hot dog cart.
“When I was going to school here, the three years up until I graduated I worked here at this cart,” he says. “I started going to the stand a lot because I loved the hot dogs. I love hot dogs, period. So I asked for a job.”
But when Giddings received his business and anthropology degrees from UM, he decided to move back to his hometown of Portland, Ore., and sell insurance. “I think part of the whole go-to-college, get-a-job thing took over for me,” he says.
The move satisfied Giddings’ responsibility jones, but it didn’t change his overwhelming desire to find some way to return to Missoula. When he finally explored moving back, the brats aligned in his favor: The longtime owners of the hot dog cart, Carrie and Mike O’Herron, were selling it.
Giddings declines to say how much he paid for the business, but he says the O’Herrons made it easy for him to take over, giving him the last of their products along with some sage advice on how to run the operation. There was a yearlong lapse before he took over—the cart disappeared during last summer—and, much to his delight, Giddings says people took notice.
“So many people have come up to me and said, ‘I’m so glad your back,’” he says. “[The stand] gives Missoula a little bit of a city feel. Not everyone wants that, but it’s a cool aspect of downtown, having vendors on the street.”
Giddings vends everything from $2.95 Chicago-style hot dogs—complete with slices of tomato and peppers on a poppy seed bun—to a $6.95 Italian Beef dog that comes smothered in gravy, which he says in more like an au jus. He says his profit margin isn’t big, but he has to charge more because he uses pure beef Vienna hot dogs that come by way of Chicago.
“I could use a generic hot dog from Sysco or wherever, and it would be a lot cheaper. But that’s not the quality hot dog,” he says.
Hot dog vending is not Giddings’ only income. His wife, Morgan, works as a medical assistant, and Giddings clocks in at UPS from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. every weekday. That means during the busy summer months, he spends six hours working before he gets the dog cart set up.
Giddings relishes the busy schedule. If he wants to maximize his investment, Giddings needs to take full advantage of every summer day. Winter, on the other hand, gets a little trickier, and bad weather directly impacts business. This year Giddings opened in April, when it was still frequently snowing.
“I don’t mind standing out in the cold or the rain,” he says. “People in Montana are prepared for the snow, but once they get a glimpse of summer coming around, and then if it gets cold again, they’re like, ‘Forget it, it’s cold, I’ve already put my sweaters away, I’m staying in.’
“I can stand out there and I’ll be fine,” he continues, “but nobody else is sharing that experience with me.”
But customers do notice when CaseDogs is gone. Giddings says that on a rainy day he sometimes won’t show up, but the next time he’s vending someone will point out his absence—“not mad or anything”—and let him know they’re keeping track. Giddings doesn’t mind. It’s the people, he says, that make the job worthwhile.
“I love talking with everybody and it doesn’t matter what they say to me,” he says. “One guy walks around with a stereo and he just walks around the block all day playing it and he always says something really interesting to me like, ‘My stereo needs a mustard refill!’ That’s kind of the fun part about the corner.”
“There’s a guy who wanted to trade me a cigarette for two eggs,” says Nasir Abbas Jaffery, better known to his customers and friends as simply Jaffery. “It was cold, but I don’t know how I can put those eggs in my jewelry box because it’s going to go everywhere…So I said to him, ‘Why don’t you just have a cigarette and just keep your eggs,’ you know?”
Jaffery is originally from Pakistan, and he has been vending in Missoula for more than four years on the same corner as Giddings. He’s become well known for his storytelling and network of friends—various people often join him at his table—and also for the fact that he’s one of the only vendors who appears year-round.
The jewelry Jaffery sells changes according to what he can get from overseas and local shops, but for the past year he’s mostly been selling earrings made from Czech glass beaded together on sterling silver. He’ll often sit at his table and make the jewelry on the spot. Recently he spent the afternoon working on a pair of earrings, using pliers to clamp down the hooks.
“These are exactly in balance,” he says. “If you put them on a scale, one would not even be a little bit off from the other.”
A lot of Jaffery’s local acclaim centers on his name—or, rather, misperceptions about what to call him. He’s always gone by Jaffery—sometimes misspelled or mispronounced as “Jeffrey”—but it turns out that’s not actually his given name. He was born into the Marasi caste in a village near Sialkot in the Northeast corner of the Punjab province. Marasi was not considered a low caste, he says, until religious fundamentalists began replacing secular society with Islamic Shariah legal code in the late 1970s—a decade which had been relatively peaceful and prosperous for the country. Marasi is a designation for people who are musicians and singers, and fundamentalist code didn’t approve of such art, so Jaffery’s family reputation sunk. His aunt, who lived in a city and had more societal power, “took” the name Jaffery to protect the family, and Jaffery adopted the name once he graduated high school.
“Whenever people ask me, I don’t want to go into details. Nobody has time for details,” he says. “So I say that my mom and dad have a problem and I want to keep my dad’s family name. It’s not like lying, it’s just easier.”
Jaffery says he came to Missoula for a woman, and he has a 9-year-old son in eastern Montana whom he doesn’t see because of relationship issues. His brother used to send him jewelry from Pakistan, but hasn’t been able to in the last couple years because of tribal trouble in the North. That’s changed his inventory, making earrings his primary trade. Despite the switch he says his business continues to do well.
Things haven’t always gone well for Jaffery. When he was young, he and his brother collected Pepsi bottle caps and other metal scraps to sell to stores. Sometimes they’d even walk the train tracks and illegally pull out metal bolts to sell.
“I was born into a poor family,” he says. “I started to struggle with financial things with my brothers and sister so I bought a cart to pick up the metal things on the ground. It’s like recycling, you know.
“Maybe this is like cheating or something,” he continues. “Me and my brother took the [railroad] screws out and we take it to the guy the first time and the guy said, ‘Hey! Where you get this?’ because it’s not legal. But he takes it and he just gave us the same amount of money.”
Jaffery says that his brother put a stop to it, and they quit taking the train metal. But it’s something he still thinks about.
“Sometimes I go to the Depot and I look at the train and I feel like that train,” Jaffery says. “…Right now I’m so strong, even though I’ve been dealing with lots of things in my life. But when I see the train it looks lonely. Every single thing in this world needs something, but the wheels of the train—nothing. You give them the grease, they’re going to go out of control. You understand why it’s lonely? Because nobody gives it anything.”
Jaffery begins to tear up, wipes his face and says, “Ask me another day.”
Three days later, his table is full of metal scraps from earrings he made, and just eight or so pairs are laid out on the white cloth. People walk by and stop, then move on.
“I’ve had no one buy a single thing today. Not one,” he says. Eventually, he sells a handful of jewelry to someone for $10. “Sometimes, at the end of the day, I just want a meal, you know? Or a cup of coffee.”
With that, he walks down the street to buy a cup—he doesn’t seem to worry about his unwatched table, even though he has been stolen from on several occasions.
“My life is not bad,” he says. “It’s sad, and the last two months it’s really been disbalanced. I’m trying to find the right path.”
Duane White has been sober for 15 years, and he started making jewelry to replace his addiction. His corner is right across the street from Jaffery’s and Giddings’ spot, and though this is only his second summer in Missoula, he says he already has a good sense of the make-up of the Missoula community.
“I don’t really like to use this term, but, well, you’ve got the hoity-toity class,” he says, “and then you’ve got the group just below them. They’re not millionaires but they’re above middle class—and they act like it. They’re the type of people who won’t even look at my stuff, at all, whatsoever. It’s like it’s taboo or something.”
White’s jewelry business is called DEW Jewelry—DEW are his initials—and he sells four days a week on the corner, Saturdays at the People’s Market, and online. Hemp anklets and necklaces with various gems and beads embedded into the weaving, and odd knickknacks like antique-looking pendants, skull-faced earrings and a wooden jewelry box fill his table. And though he says his jewelry could appeal to a broader audience, he finds certain people don’t even look in his direction.
“I’m not sure what it is but I think it might be mental programming,” he says. “All of our advertising—TVs, radios, everything—tells you to go into a store to buy stuff, not buy it on the street. They think that I’m homeless. I’m not! Far from it.”
At least not anymore. White says he lived on the Seattle streets before he cleaned up. He met his wife on a Greyhound bus on the way to Quartzsite, Ariz., a snowbird’s haven for gem and mineral swap meets. After making enough money to buy a van, they traveled all over the United States, buying cheap gems throughout the southwest and selling them in northern college towns. White recalls that he wanted to settle somewhere and while in Eugene, Ore., someone touted Missoula. The couple headed for the Garden City, but found it difficult to make ends meet.
“We actually went through about three trailers and we went into debt, and couldn’t pay the rent,” White says. “This last one we had was $700 a month…and I couldn’t do it.”
The couple called Pak Rat storage to stash their possessions, and his wife ended up landing a job there as a manager, with the bonus of a place to stay.
“We have a house, a four-bedroom house, a big backyard, hot tub, patio barbeque, and the front yard’s huge,” White says. “So for the first time we’ve finally been able to get ahead a little bit.”
White watches his table as a man in shorts and a T-shirt tries on an ankle bracelet. It’s clearly too small and White walks over, bends down to take a look. “You could almost use something as big as these,” White jokes, holding up a necklace.
The man gives him a business card and asks to have an anklet made especially for him, just a couple inches of hemp longer. People like this—working middle class—are whom White says he gets the most business from.
“Your everyday Average Joe,” he says. “They’re nice and friendly and buy the most. Some of the rich kids buy, too…if they’re not with their parents.”
White says he makes about $1,000 per month, which he has to file taxes on. Last week at the People’s Market he made $150. But you probably will only see him during the summer months.
“Heck no!,” he says when asked about braving the winter on his corner. “Like Jaffery? Holy smokes. I always say to him, ‘How do you stay out here in the cold?’ And he says, ‘Put more clothes on.’”
White has essentially risen from surviving on the street to making a solid living on a street corner. He says his personal experience helps him get along with all the different types of people he sees in Missoula.
“I don’t know what to say about the riff raff on the street,” he says. “Every town’s got ’em, but it seems like the ones here, they’re more creative. All in all, I seem to get along with all of them. I kind of figure out whatever their thing is and I’m like a chameleon. I just fit in right with them.”
Nan Cohen and Rick Gold say that “Spirit” brought them to Missoula.
“We were in Eugene, Ore., and Spirit guided us to come here site-unseen,” says Cohen. “[Rick] knew one person here and I knew one person here, and they weren’t the same person. And we just followed Spirit’s guidance.”
Cohen and Gold have been selling incense sticks on the same corner since 1998. The scents are a combination of what you might expect—patchouli, cinnamon and amber—and stranger concoctions like Cool Water, Nan’s Lite and Sex on the Beach.
“We got here in 1998, and in 1999 we were planning for Y2K,” says Cohen, her fingernails colored from working with the incense. “I love incense and all of a sudden I thought, ‘Wait a minute, our list doesn’t have incense on it.’ So we found somebody who makes and sells incense on the Internet and we bought a lot. I mean, a lot. I don’t know how much, maybe 5,000 or 6,000 sticks.”
Y2K came and went and Cohen started buying packaged incense from the online site and selling them on the street. Within a few months, the woman who ran the website asked Cohen if she wanted to know how to make the incense on her own. Cohen jumped at the chance.
“And then the next thing I know she’s asking me if I want to buy the incense business from her,” Cohen says. “And I had to really think about that one. That was an even bigger step than actually learning how to make it. So I bought the business from her and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Cohen and Gold are classically New Age, with interests in the philosophy of the Celestine Prophecy, global meditation and community enlightenment. They say they’ve seen Missoula change immensely over the past 10 years, and they talk about their “new paradigm” philosophy, which is essentially a sustainable vision for Missoula.
“Building high rise buildings and kicking all the people out of the Wilma because they want to convert it to condos, that’s not thinking beyond the bottom line,” says Cohen. “You know, widening the streets for more cars is not part of the new paradigm. It’s not good for the people and animals who live here, and it’s not good for the land.”
For Cohen, the incense business is her way of contributing to the Missoula community. A lot of that boils down to her packaging, which consists of entirely recycled materials. For instance, the two local stores that also sell her incense—Authentic Creations and the Feng Shui Center—give her back the packaging when they’re done with it, which allows Cohen to re-use rubber bands, plastic wrap and bags over again.
“I think that thinking in terms of a throw away society or disposing of things is really an error,” she says. “We need to think about taking care of things, and I think a lot of that goes for businesses.”
Cohen won’t talk about her overhead or profits, but she proudly says that she has never raised her prices—they’ve remained at 10 sticks for a dollar, 15 cents each, and a pre-packaged group of 10 sticks for $1.50.
Even without raising prices she says she still manages to live comfortably. She and Gold spend their summers in Missoula and leave for Eugene in the winter to commune with friends, meditate, and get rested for the next season. The relaxatioin is important, she says, because Cohen and Gold see themselves almost like missionaries. Not in an organized religion way, but in a general spiritual sense.
“I say ‘Hi’ and ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you’ to as many people as I can,” Cohen says. “Not ’cause I want something from them but because I want to contribute to them, and let them know that I see them, that they exist and that they’re visible to me.”
And that rule has also taught Cohen not to judge those who pass her by.
“One really good lesson I’ve learned is to not assume I know who’s going to buy the incense,” she says. “There’s a guy who sticks in my mind who bought honeysuckle. He bought honeysuckle. And I thought, ‘Wow...I never know who’s going to buy what.’”
At around 4 p.m. every Saturday, the vendors usually pack up their goods and leave their corners bare. Jaffery rides his bike up and down Higgins, while Cohen and Gold step into Butterfly Herbs, their regular hangout, for coffee. It’s a respite from the heavy heat, revving engines and constant stream of strangers walking past. But according to all of the vendors, they wouldn’t give up the open walkway for the confines of a storefront.
“The people of Missoula need to support their street vendors and not think that the street vendors are not in a shop for some negative reason,” says Cohen. “I could have opened up a shop long ago but I’m supposed to be out there, outside where the people are. And I love it.”
The first day she laid her incense out on the table, she says she was extremely shy, but she knew she had to go to a busy corner and be visible. She says she’s still shy today, even after 10 years of selling on Missoula streets.
“I was so scared the first time I was shaking,” she says. “And each season at the beginning, I’m nervous. And then once I get out there it’s fun and not scary. I realize, I know Missoula.”