If you start with a wave as you draw near, followed by a “Hey, how you doin’?” and then ask for one of Tim’s N.Y. Hot Dogs — maybe a Georgia Hot with cheese and ketchup or a long frank on a short bun (“Or else you be eatin’ more bread than anything else!”) with sauerkraut and chili. You’ll get her to crack a smile. If you leave her a tip — maybe a dollar, or, if it’s the first of the month, a few — you’ll win some more grins. To get Vanessa Campbell to chuckle though, takes a radio, a disc jockey and good timing.
It takes Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” booming through her turquoise spaghetti-string earphones connected to a tiny, silver AM/FM radio resting on her beefy chest. “That’s my song,” Campbell says. As the song nears its end, she gets a little huffy. “Damn,” she says, “they only play it but once a day and I missed it.” Campbell barely catches the final chorus, “Come back baby, please / Cause we belong together,” as she grooves, seated in her green plastic garden chair and swinging her arms towards the low-hanging clouds.
“I don’t get bored,” the 44-year-old says. “I got my radio.”
True, Campbell doesn’t get bored. She sets up shop around 8:30 a.m. at the corner of Temple and Elm streets in the heart of the New Haven Green. Her boss unhitches the rusty Tim’s N.Y. Hot Dogs stand from a truck and unloads two blue Igloo coolers and the green chair. That’s the start of Campbell’s day, which will last until 4, maybe 7 — depending on when Tim can pick her up. “If it rain too bad, I go over there to the Yale Visitor Center. But I don’t be out here when the storm comes. He come and get me,” she explains. “And I really don’t be out here in the winter time — at all!”
Vanessa Campbell is a large woman with a lot of soul. She has rich chocolate skin, yellowing teeth (some missing) and graying hair that she gels back and ties into a short ponytail with a rubber band. On this day, she wore a baggy pair of Sean John carpenter jeans, the cuffs rolled up to give her blue New Balances some breathing room, a stained white shirt and some bling: two silver loop earrings, a black watch, and a silver bracelet with the word Sagittarius (her 22-year-old daughter Sherrod’s sign) spelled in glitzy turquoise. She carries a black nylon pouch on her chest, wrapped around her neck by a string, to carry her cigarettes (Newport 100s).
After six years on the job, Campbell is becoming an Elm City character. She’s already a Temple-and-Elm mainstay. There are the Connecticut Transit bus drivers who swing by to buy a wiener and share gossip; the City Hall staffer who eats lunch with her, squatted on the larger of two Igloos, and freshens up with powder before leaving; the folks ordered to court across the street who leave their stuff at the hot dog stand. “I watch their phones or things they can’t take in,” Campbell says. After all, her stand’s red and white umbrella advertises 800-LAWYERS. (Tim works for 800-LAWYERS on the side, going to accident scenes and taking pictures.)
Then there’s the food: Hot Dog ($2), Georgia Hot ($3), Kielbasa ($3), Chips (50 cents), Soda Can ($1), Water ($1) and Veryfine Juice ($1). There’s more than just what’s advertised on the menu, though. You can order hamburgers and chili, too. “Yeah I eat, uh huh, I eat my own cookin’,” Campbell says. “Everybody complain about the prices sometimes, but they don’t complain about the food.”
One recent afternoon, just past lunch hour, a bus driver — a regular customer — approaches. “What’s that in the middle? Is that a Georgia Hot?” he asks. Campbell, rubbing hand sanitizer in her palms, doesn’t have a chance to respond until the driver says, “I’ll have a Georgia Hot with cheese and ketchup.” She hands him his sausage, tucked inside a bun on a piece of cloudy white wax paper and a stack of napkins.
“I get tips,” she says, grinning and pocketing the extra dollar he gave her. “I got three dollars off today. I usually get like 10 dollars at the end of the day. At the first of the month, I get like 20, when people get their checks and stuff.
“One day this man came and he was working on construction and I got a $20 tip. That was the day,” she adds.
Campbell says she likes working for Tim. “I cook it when I get here. It’s a gas grill and you boil ’em first and then I cook it on the grill. I fry the hamburger right on the grill. I just set everything up and sit down the rest of the day. It’s the easiest job in the world,” Campbell declares.
She also said she likes the people-watching. About mid-afternoon, a young man comes to look for Thomas, Campbell’s boyfriend and occasional co-worker. “You know, the skinny guy with cornrows,” the visitor says. Suddenly defensive, Campbell snaps back: “Don’t call my boyfriend skinny. He ain’t skinny.” She turns around, her defense down, and says, “I know where he be at when I go home and that’s all that matters.”
Campbell is proud of her boyfriend. “We been together 12 years, so we a good couple. We have our little arguments, but everybody do, you know?” She continues, “We was friends before we became lovers. That’s the special part about it. I miss him every moment he’s away from me.”
At home in West Haven they watch a lot of television. “Walker, Texas Ranger” is their favorite show and they watch tapes of the series over and over again. Campbell is also a reader. “I read the Bible most. I read it over and over. I like it. I also read, like, love stories, mysteries — stuff like that.” Why the Bible? “Everything’s good about the Bible. I always had hope, but it makes me more hyper to live each day. It makes me feel good each day. Something touchy like that.” And so what, then, is her favorite part? “The Book of John.”
“It’s just something about it,” Campbell says. “When I turn the Bible, that’s where I go. It’s like telling your life or something, ya know? It makes me feel like they tellin’ about me.”