Mike Mikhail hums as he slaps a little mustard on a hot dog.
A noon hour crowd has gathered around his cart and the creator of Tasty Hasty Dogs is pleased that his net income for the day might top a whopping $30.
He's been on the same Westside corner for two years, and those who work or shop along Wilshire Boulevard consider the Spunky Little Immigrant something of an institution.
Granted, you don't have to be in L. A. very long to be an institution, especially if you're a Spunky Little Immigrant, but it's colorful if you are.
Mike is 5 feet, 4 inches tall, migrated from Egypt and still has an accent. He qualifies easily.
Office workers and shoppers in the area enjoy Mike's hot dogs and, more importantly, no one has ever died from eating one, though health guarantees are not necessarily a prerequisite for purchasing food from a corner cart.
You're more likely to die from drinking tap water than from eating a hot dog, however it is handled and wherever it is sold.
Anyhow, there is Mike humming along with a portable radio, dispensing his Tasty Hasty Dogs on the kind of sun-drenched day that brought Cecil B. DeMille to L. A. An American flag flutters from Mike's cart. Children laugh nearby. Puppies frolic.
Hot dogs, the flag and free enterprise. How better to summarize the American ethos on an afternoon glowing with good will?
What's this? Three patrol cars, their red lights flashing, appear out of nowhere and surround Mike's cart. Six cops line up along the sidewalk facing him, ready for anything.
"I am thinking what's this?" Mike says in a slight accent, remembering how he stared at the policemen. "Is it a television movie? Is it a scene from 'T. J. Hooker'?"
But this is no movie, Mike. This is the real stuff, Spunky Immigrant.
Three city Health Department agents suddenly appear. One has a container of bleach. He informs a startled Mike that his food is not properly protected from contamination.
And then he pours bleach on Mike's hot dogs and bleach on his relish and bleach on his chili and bleach on his cheese and bleach on his sauerkraut.
Mike is cited and ordered to appear in court. The cops and the Health Department agents leave. Thank God, not a shot is fired. But next time the Spunky Little Immigrant might not be so lucky. We don't mess around in America.
Mike was furious. He wrote me a letter full of sadness and rage.
"I had no warning of what was to happen on this horrible day," he wrote. "I thought I had prepared a hot dog for a mass murderer. America? No. This only happens in cruel dictatorships . . . "
The man who poured the bleach was the Health Department's Richard Wagner. I asked him about it.
"If food is questionable, we don't want it sold," he said, "so we render it 'denatured' in some manner. Bleach is a substance so recognizable it works." Then he added protectively, "The USDA uses charcoal."
So what were Mike's transgressions? Well, a food-dispensing compartment on his cart lacked doors. He used the wrong container for storing his onions. Frozen hot dogs in plastic bags were kept with soft drinks.
And, this is important, there were no approved toilets within 200 feet of the food cart.
Up until then, I guess, I was thinking it all seemed pretty silly. But no toilets within 200 feet? The Spunky Little Immigrant was lucky he wasn't pistol-whipped and hauled off in chains.
We take our toilets seriously in America.
The cops weren't there, by the way, to subdue Mike. A cart owner the health agents had inspected earlier had "become physically and mentally out of control," so Wagner had called for help.
After the police solved that problem, they went along to the Tasty Hasty cart to ensure that there would be no repetition of the physical and mental calamity that had transpired earlier. A mad dog hot dog vendor is not a pretty sight.
It all makes perfect sense to me.
Mike should have known how we feel about toilets. If he truly respects the flag he flies from his hot dog cart, he'll make damned certain from now on there's a can within walking distance.
Forget that he spent years saving the $5,000 it took to build his cart and forget that it was all approved by the city in the first place and forget that no one has complained about his hot dogs in the two years he's been selling them.
The point is, if we let him get by with violating the code, Chasen's or Guido's or Prego or Chez Helene are going to want to get rid of their toilets and start storing their Diet Pepsis with the coq de bruyere.
We can't let that happen, Spunky Little Immigrant. The hot dog stops here.
Mike, meanwhile, has demanded a jury trial. It figures an alien would try to use our own courts against us. But he'll probably lose and still be forced to follow our rules to the letter.
When we say toilets, we mean toilets.
No hard feelings, Spunky Little Immigrant. And welcome to America.