Originally Published 11/20/97
The match scratches noisily, fizzles, then bursts into life, illuminating a dark, narrow face.
“Doroud. (Hello to you.)”
“Car-o bar chetoure? (How is business?)”
“Khobe bad neest. (All right…)”
The taller man reaches into his pocket and hands a wad of a cash to the short, bald Iranian man hunched inside the trailer.
“Enjoy the hot dog, my friend,” he whispers through his bushy, uneven mustache.
“Have a good night, Manouch,” the student answers.
Manouch after hours
It’s two a.m. and drunken GW students are lined up on the sidewalk behind Tower Records, waiting for their “Hale-hoolie Harmony” dogs – served with ketchup, mustard and onions – after a hard night of partying. (Hale-hoolie is “bad breath” in Iranian) Manouch Nava peers through the window of his hot dog stand-on-wheels.
“Get on the bench, please, my friends. The police are out tonight,” he says, rolling half-smokes in his greasy pan with one hand and dribbling yellow cheese onto pretzels with the other.
These aren’t just any hot dogs, though. A “Manouch dog” is a unique blend of GW tradition and “satisfaction for the Id, Ego, and SuperEgo,” according to the sign on the side of his cart. The wieners are served with Manouch’s gregarious ramblings as a philosophical appetizer. And they’re only available under the cover of darkness – usually from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Move to the city
Manouch has been around longer than the tradition of Commencement on the Ellipse.
And he shows no signs of moving his operation to the MCI Center, either.
A native of Iran, Manouch came to America in 1977 to study at Norfolk State, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in electronic technology. But when his visa ran out, he fled to D.C. as an illegal alien, bouncing between jobs as a cabby and TV repairman.
“When I came to Washington after a college education, I realized I was a stranger with people. There are times in life when you know that you are at the limit,” Manouch says. “You may have climbed a mountain, but you are not social. But I climbed these mountains and spiritually I was lonely and economically I didn’t have money.”
After spending all his money in a go-go bar one night, Manouch decided to open the hot dog stand – a business that allowed him to exchange ideas with people.
“Baby, your biological overrides my logical,” Manouch says, winking at one of his beautiful female customers.
His quick wit, friendly smile and trusting nature led the Washington City Paper to name him 1987’s “Hot Dog Vendor of the Year.”
A Reagan-Era Success Story
In July of 1985, Manouch started his own business with $800 – $500 for licensing fees and $300 for one month’s cart rent.
For the first week, Manouch slept in a park next to his cart because he didn’t have a car to tow it back home to Bethesda. Within a few weeks, he purchased the cart and moved his operation to its present location at GW near the corner of 21st Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
“It was difficult at first; here I was with a college background and I had to put myself down to serving hot dogs,” Manouch remembers. “But I was following my instincts, you see, and I was too independent to work for someone. I had plans for the future to own a business where people would work for me, and I would do nothing but read books for knowledge.
“I could have fixed TVs, but I like to deal with human beings,” Manouch explains. “The corner of 21st and Penn is a nice place to watch and be a part of the world.”
His first regular customers were GW law students who urged him to work late hours to serve the bar-crawling crowd. The large, striped umbrella and the wafting melodies of baroque concerto music gave the “umbrella room,” as Manouch’s weenie-stand came to be called, its name.
The second Manouch-mobile debuted in 1988. The latest model features his own design innovations, including a built-in radiator and more leg room.
When business is light, Manouch hunkers down in his cart and plows through complicated tomes, warming his hands over the fire from his propane stove-top burner. Manouch says he plans to spend November learning Manskrit, an Indo-European dialect.
During the day, he lounges around at a Rosslyn eatery, reading assorted magazines and books.
Manouch used to move his operation to the corner of 22nd and G streets during GW basketball games. He hasn’t done that since the night a Smith Center employee asked if he had a permit.
“I felt uninvited, so I do not sell hot dogs after the games anymore,” says Manouch. “It is like when you go to a meeting of 200 people and one bad person jumps up and speaks against you. It is painful, you see,” he sighs.
Manouch on D.C. cops
Manouch has been fined as much as of $800 a year for selling hot dogs after midnight and violating other city ordinances. He often tallies up $50 a week in fines, but that hasn’t stopped him, Manouch says.
“I am surprised to see there are birds singing around the building and they don’t get tickets,” he chuckles.
“One night, I was working and the police told me to move the coolers off of the sidewalk. When I did, the water spilled over the side and the cop fined me $50 for polluting the city. Then 30 minutes later, he came back and gave me another $50 ticket for having an oversized hot dog stand. Work, work, work, just to pay the city,” he sighs. “What I need is support to help me get my permit to work late hours.
“I sell hot dogs to demonstrate; I don’t demonstrate to sell hot dogs,” Manouch adds. He says he is in the process of filing an application with the D.C. Vendor Regulatory Board for extended hours.
What does the future hold for Manouch?
“I would like to have as much knowledge as possible,” he says. “And write stories about how I see the world. It’s about having fun. And what is fun? It is this majestic source of fusion energy. Not a magic lamp, but a limited source of light which will die in the future. We must take advantage of it today and be the best at what we do.
“I will tell you an old Eskimo saying: If you are not the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”