For weeks, her gleaming pushcart, with its natural casing grilled dogs, drew a line of ravenous fans long before last call.
The bartender at the Irish bar counted on the dogs for his dinner meal. Tattoo artists stopped by on their breaks. Concertgoers smuggled bites of sausage into the State Theatre.
After nearly 20 years in the pushcart profession, Joy McGhee thought she had a new niche.
The police saw it differently.
On Friday night, they shut down her business and served her a $200 fine.
Violating City Code Section 16-50.450: Operating a Pushcart during Prohibited Hours.
Unbeknownst to her, McGhee had become a hot dog hoodlum.
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The 600 block of Central Avenue sits bleak and lonely during the day, its half-vacant storefronts the only reminders of an abandoned condominium development.
Midday, hardly anyone walks by. McGhee, 48, won't relocate. This is her block. Has been for nearly 20 years.
She gives free food to the poor, greets her neighbors by name, gets her ink done at the corner tattoo parlor. During a recent street cleanup, she donated free hot dogs.
In June, the owners of Durty Nelly's asked McGhee if she would operate her "Dawg House" cart outside the bar at night. There were no late night bite options on the block and the closest venue, a pizza shop, is four streets away.
"We thought it was a safety thing," said bar owner Stephen Smith. "You eat a hot dog, you sober up."
McGhee informed the city she was moving her pushcart up the street. The pushcart permit clearly states the city does not allow operators to do business after 9 p.m. and before 7 a.m.
But McGhee thought the sidewalk in front of the bar was private property, so she started a new shift.
During the day, she served hot dogs to hungry office workers and passing tourists from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. At night, she fed Guinness guzzlers and rock and roll mavens from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.
She sold late night dogs for nearly two months.
On Friday, the line had already started to form when the police showed up at about 9:45 p.m. and told McGhee and her husband, Michael, they were breaking the law.
As she argued with police, her customers clamored to be fed.
"People were begging me, can you give me one?" she said. "They were telling me this while the police were shutting me down."
Her fans were flabbergasted.
Why weren't the police going after real criminals on a Friday summer night?
"There's a recession going on," said Brandon Pearce, owner of Foolish Pride Tattoo shop on Central Avenue. "Why are you closing a business?"
An hour later, police shut down another pushcart vendor at Central Avenue and Second Street.
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There are 34 pushcart operators in St. Petersburg.
Only one business was cited for operating past the city's curfew in 2008. The two shut down Friday night are the first of 2009.
"I have received the question several times asking where the 9 p.m. limit on hot dogs originated. Looking through the file this afternoon, I am not able to provide a specific answer," Julie Weston, the city's development services director, told the St. Petersburg Times in an e-mail Monday.
City Council member Leslie Curran said she will review the matter and see if the law can be changed.
McGhee set up a "legal fund" bucket on her pushcart Monday. Passers-by were urged to call City Hall in her defense. By 3 p.m., the bucket was nearly full with dollar bills. Two mayoral candidates had stopped by to offer their help to the St. Petersburg resident.
She hopes City Hall will allow her to sell her dogs at night.
She had counted on the extra income to make it through the summer, when office workers resist walking or bring salads from home. She needs to make rent, pay the water bill, keep her lights on.
"Who am I hurting?" she said. "All I am trying to do is make a buck."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]