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St. Petersburg hot dog vendor's victory over City Hall turns bittersweet

Joy McGhee takes a hot dog order on Central Avenue recently. McGhee won the right to sell hot dogs past 9 p.m. Since then, her husband has died, and the bar that helped draw customers has moved.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Joy McGhee takes a hot dog order on Central Avenue recently. McGhee won the right to sell hot dogs past 9 p.m. Since then, her husband has died, and the bar that helped draw customers has moved.

ST. PETERSBURG — Joy McGhee should be basking in her victory over City Hall.

She's the hot dog vendor who last year turned a $200 fine for selling after 9 p.m. into a cause celebre.

But these days McGhee, 49, dishes dogs only at lunch. She has been laid low by a double blow.

First the downtown bar where she was selling at night moved, cutting her sales by more than half.

Then her husband of 20 years was killed in a motorcycle wreck.

Now she watches as others take advantage of a right she fought so hard for.

"Ironic, isn't it?" she said.

• • •

It all started one night last summer when police fined McGhee $200 for selling food after hours.

The city invoked an obscure ordinance originally aimed at ice cream trucks to bar McGhee from selling late-night dogs outside Durty Nelly's, a downtown bar.

After a public outcry and appeals by McGhee and her husband, the City Council amended the ordinance in October. McGhee was back in the late-night game. She could make twice as much money at night as she could during the day at her regular spot at Central Avenue and Sixth Street.

Two months later, Durty Nelly's moved to another downtown spot where McGhee is not licensed to work.

She looked for other opportunities, but the worst was yet to come.

On Jan. 27, her husband of 20 years, Michael, was killed while riding his Harley-Davidson at 54th Avenue N and 16th Street.

He was more than her husband. He was also her business partner, the one who did most of the talking with City Hall, the one who had her back at night.

She just can't dish dogs after dark without him.

• • •

St. Petersburg has 22 licensed hot dog vendors, and 13 of them have registered for the extended hours McGhee won.

A few vendors said Tuesday that they work some nights, but usually only for special occasions.

Daniel James McBride, 71, says he rarely stays late at his stand, at Bayshore Drive and Second Avenue NE. Maybe he'll stay until 10 p.m. if something's going on at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

Andy Kouris, who runs a cart at 325 Central Ave., said he used to work nights outside Jannus Landing, but daytime business has been so good he hasn't had to.

Still, he registered with the city and complied with the pushcart requirements: reflective tape and a lockbox. Kouris said real progress would be to let vendors stay until after bars close at 2 a.m.

"Yes, that was a big step. But that was only half of what we really needed," he said.

• • •

The McGhees were a team, whether riding motorcycles or selling franks. They had done the latter since 1996.

Michael McGhee was semi-retired and just wanted to ride his motorcycle, Joy McGhee said.

Their 20th anniversary would have been March 24. Now that he's gone, McGhee is doing the best she can to finish a seven-hour day shift. Nights are "a whole 'nother ball game," she said.

Without her partner, they seem impossible.

"That's my deciding factor in coming to work at night," she said. "It took two of us to work it at night."

McGhee sets up at 9 a.m. Monday through Friday. Her stand is shielded by an umbrella and decked with stickers, including one that warns, "Look Twice — Save a Life. Motorcycles are Everywhere."

Her regulars offer small talk while McGhee roasts their hot dogs. Those who know about Michael try to squeeze in some encouragement.

"If they don't know, I offer them my chair and I say, 'Sit down,' " she said.

One asks why she isn't serving at night anymore. He guesses, incorrectly, that it's about safety.

"It's not even that," she said. "I'll kick their a-- in a heartbeat."

Bo Hadley, 60, has been a customer of McGhee's for about a decade. His order is always the same: smoked sausage. Michael "was my buddy," he said, and would sometimes prepare Hadley's order as he rolled toward the stand on his motorized wheelchair.

"Joy, you're going to be all right," Hadley said before riding away.

• • •

McGhee took some time off to grieve. A week later, she was back.

"Bills don't stop," she said. "What else am I going to do?"

Getting back to work beats finishing up a half-painted living room wall in the rental home they shared, or avoiding confused looks from Bandit, his mutt of 14 years, or reading through condolence cards, though she tried tackling that last week.

"We were fixtures out here for so long,'' McGhee says. "Now I'm only half a fixture."

St. Petersburg hot dog vendor's victory over City Hall turns bittersweet 03/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 1:41pm]
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