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"We're just here selling dogs'

Published Oct. 9, 2005

It's high noon on the urban frontier, and Hala Salaman's buns are baked. The dogs are hot. And the customers have begun lining up in the gray dirt behind her lunch cart.

An unmarked sedan skids to a stop, and a figure emerges from the cloud of dust. Is it a preacher come to decry Salaman's indecent exposure? A cop come to bust her for breaking the law? A health inspector come to condemn her for touching .

.

. well, you know?

No. It's a grandmother, armed with a camera.

"I wanted one to take back to Maine," the white-haired woman explains as Salaman poses in her T-back bathing suit and flashes a dimpled smile.

A click, and the tourist is gone. She calls out, "Thank you, dear!"

In recent weeks, Salaman and other young women who sell hot dogs along Pinellas County roadways have found themselves fighting to keep their businesses alive _ and their clothes off.

Salaman and the others wear thong bathing suits that expose most of their backsides to traffic. It's a great way to attract customers, but recently Pinellas County Sheriff Everett S. Rice decided that it also violates laws against peddling food along public roadways with exposed buttocks.

Sheriff's deputies have been writing warnings and threatening to yank the vendors' licenses, impose a $500 fine or even put them in jail. Salaman and her colleagues say authorities are trying to outlaw a service that pleases many people _ businessmen, mechanics, even grandmothers.

"At least we work. We're not trying to collect unemployment," says Salaman, a 25-year-old native of Saudi Arabia. "I thought this was what the States were all about _ but I guess not."

In explaining the crackdown, Rice's office produced a thick folder of letters from the public about the hot dog vendors. Although one or two defended the T-back enterprises, most of the writers ticked off reasons to shut them down: indecency, traffic accidents, crime and the risk of contaminated food.

Salaman says none of the concerns is justified. Spend a day watching her work, and decide for yourself.

"Dear Sheriff Rice,

It is extremely repulsive to drive down any highway in Pinellas County and see the T-back vendors flaunting their bodies.

.

.

. My question to you is: How long will the average citizen of Pinellas County have to be openly confronted with these perverted lifestyles?"

With a head of golden hair, long legs and a few threads covering the rest of her, Salaman is a roadside Lady Godiva.

As the sun pours down, workers and tourists pack U.S. 19 with lunch hour traffic. Salaman has parked her cart just south of Belleair Road and is scrambling to fill orders for all-beef hot dogs, Polish sausages, potato chips and soda.

Behind her, the line lengthens. Executives in white shirts and wingtips. Boys in baggy shorts. Guys with grimy hands and blue collars.

No one is complaining about the wait. They are too busy staring.

Salaman doesn't mind being on display. She says, "I love that!"

For every driver who stops, another 10 honk, holler or hoot their appreciation. That's the only public opinion poll Salaman needs. She says most people like what they see and the people complaining are a minority made up of "church people" and women her age.

Of the church folks, she says, "I see it like it's art. God gave me the body, so why not?"

She saves harsher words for the young women. "They're just jealous," she says. "They're so ugly, so fat, so insecure."

Born in Saudi Arabia, Salaman moved here with her mother, sisters and brother 11 years ago. After graduating from Clearwater High School, she lacked the money to go to college. So she ended up selling hot dogs from a roadside cart.

To Salaman, the job offered a heady blend of social and economic freedom. In Saudi Arabia, women can't wear bathing suits in public. They marry young, have children and hide their faces.

"You just wait around for your husband to support you," she says. "That's not what I want at all."

When she began peddling hot dogs, Salaman drew stares with skimpy shorts. Then she slipped into a thong suit. The undress spelled success; four years after she sold her first wiener, Salaman has become the self-styled queen of Pinellas' T-back vendors.

Salaman lives at home with her mother. She says she saved enough money to buy seven carts, valued at $1,500 to $4,500 each. She hired employees and placed them at intersections in Pinellas' industrial midsection in hopes of luring hungry passers-by.

Most of those who stop are men.

Take, for instance, Todd. He's 24, long-haired and wearing wrap-around sunglasses. Because he's under house arrest on a drug possession charge, he says stopping at Salaman's cart is a rare treat.

"Any time she's out here, I stop," Todd says. "I don't have a social life; she's it."

Or Dan Glasser, a 37-year-old salesman. He makes no apologies for admiring Salaman's olive skin. "Now I can see why the women in Saudi Arabia wear veils."

The men aren't alone. Linda Emond and her husband spend winters in New Port Richey, and they regularly bring their visitors down U.S. 19 for a hot dog and some visual relish.

"This is pure Florida," Mrs. Emond says as her husband observes. "You come to Florida. You expect to see the beach, the T-backs and the hot dog girls."

Mrs. Emond's only complaint: that there aren't more hunky hot dog boys. Having inspected what male vendors there are, she gripes: "They're dumpy, old guys."

"Many times on the highway I have had to slam on my brakes to prevent an accident because of men swerving in the road, stopping with no signal or just becoming more interested in the "bare' on the side of the road than on their driving."

Mike Binns is one of Salaman's regular customers. He points at the line of cars whizzing by.

"It's ridiculous," he says. "Traffic's not slowing down.

.

.

. The tourists who come down here and try to decipher the road signs are more of a hazard."

Rice asked the Florida Highway Patrol to investigate whether any accidents could be traced to drivers distracted by the hot dog vendors.

The answer came back in an April 8 letter from Capt. Earl R. Woody of the highway patrol. Woody said his troopers recalled 14 accidents in the area of the vendors over a 2-year period. None involved T-backs "as a contributing factor."

Salaman's undraped figure may not be a proven car-wrecker. But it brings other hazards.

Smooth talkers, for instance. While Salaman was talking to a reporter the other day, a short man with long sideburns and a vaguely foreign accent walked up. He spoke in a whisper, but after Salaman sent him off with a shake of her head, she recounted the conversation.

"Would you pose for me nude? I'm from Playboy."

"Do you even have a business card?"

"No, I don't have a business card yet."

"Good try!"

Then there are the tightwads. A man with a white mustache and floppy hat walked up with a camera slung over his shoulder.

"I'm over here from Australia for the holidays, and I've never seen the likes of it. Would you mind if I took a picture of you?"

Salaman knows the type. He won't even put down a dollar for a cold drink. She said, "I wouldn't mind, but we do charge for pictures." The man slunk away.

Then there are the people who make remarks not fit for repetition. And the ones who just sit in their cars and leer.

Even as Salaman trades on her sex appeal, she draws the line. A stare or slightly sexist remark will bring a tight smile. But crude talk or groping hands prompt a sterner response. Salaman tells them, "Get in your car or you're going to get Maced."

While some men act badly, so do some women. One time, Salaman recalled, she was leaning over her cart to get a cold soda. A woman customer grabbed, in Salaman's words, "two hands full."

When Salaman protested, the woman said: "I couldn't help myself."

"As a father, I can appreciate the temptations that are everywhere in our culture, but this seems to be a blatant attempt to let sex be the come-on.

.

.

. The old saying is, "Those who advertise usually have something to sell,' and hot dogs do not seem to be the item of interest here. "

Salaman has heard the talk: The hot dog carts are fronts for prostitution, drug dealing and luring customers into nude dance clubs.

"We're just out here selling dogs," she says. "We're not selling anything else."

But don't take her word for it; check with police.

Of the eight women cited by deputies for violating roadside regulations, none has state or county criminal records. And sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Greg Tita said police have no evidence of illegal activity.

"None of these girls has ever been arrested for anything other than simple county ordinance violations," Tita said.

As for working the X-rated clubs, Salaman says she's not interested. "You're in the sun all day. You're pretty tired. You don't want to work anywhere else at night."

"If one of these girls has a bite and scratches her rear end, there are no facilities to wash their hands, and I for one would not want to be her next customer _ even though I know there are enough perverts out there who would fight over it."

Salaman's smile fades. She marches around the side of her silver cart and points to the faucets there.

"We have a sink right over here. Hot water, cold, soap," she says angrily. "That's how a lot of people try to shut us down. Say all we do is play with our G-strings and move dogs. That's not true. I don't like to be served that way. I won't serve that way."

She has a question of her own and an answer. "Have you seen me touch my bottom? No!"

Well, technically, Salaman does touch _ to flick away a lovebug or rub on oil. But in every instance, she says, she cleanses her hands before serving more food.

An official of the state Department of Business Regulation could not locate inspection records on Salaman's carts last week. But the official said all carts are required to have sinks, and inspectors have found few cleanliness problems.

"Generally, there's not a whole lot that can go wrong with a hot dog cart," said Al Gray, a sanitation and safety supervisor with the state office.

"This is to vehemently protest the harassment being brought upon innocent hot dog vendors in Pinellas County.

.

.

. They are doing no harm, and they should sue to safeguard their just rights. "

Salaman isn't the first woman to sell hot dogs in a T-back, nor the first to face a legal challenge. Last year in Palm Beach County, for instance, county commissioners tried to force vendors wearing G-strings, thongs and pasties to work inside a 4-foot opaque enclosure or risk jail time. The vendors have challenged the law.

In Pinellas, officials are enforcing two laws: a state law prohibiting sales on public rights of way and a county ordinance against people selling food while exposing "his or her genitals, pubic hair, pubic hair region or buttocks."

While the state law could apply to many types of roadside stands, deputies have focused on the T-back vendors. Salaman and others have hired lawyers, but she hopes to avoid a court showdown.

She has better things to do with her time: like make money. After paying for supplies, insurance and staff, Salaman says she clears $300 _ in a good week.

She'd like to use some of that money to buy some sunscreen and to chase her American dream.

"I'm either going to open up a sports bar or a restaurant or a car wash," she says. "But I'm always going to be working for myself."

As the afternoon wears on, the dust blows around Salaman, sticking to her skin. The exhaust fumes swirl into her lungs. She opens can after can of soda to fight off dehydration.

She never sits down.

"You have to show your sign," she says. "You can't sit on it."

_ Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Barbara Hijek contributed to this article.