Monthly Archives: April 2014

Material goods

April 26, 2014

As Earth Week’s burst of cheerful ecofriendly activity winds down and families return to business as usual, refueling their SUVs, tossing the children’s recycled-paper crafts into their recycling bins, and forgeting to water Arbor Day’s newly planted trees, I’ll probably just be taking another walk. Very slowly.

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On Earth Day, I tested out another pair of new shoes, taking, with adequate trepidation, a stroll in a pair of Vapor Gloves by Merrell. Sunshine was abundant, the magnolias were blooming, distractions from painful feet were burgeoning lushly on all sides. It was the first time I’ve worn shoes in a few weeks since irritating a painful nerve over my heel bone, so careful movement was in order. The Vapor Gloves are soft and giving, with thin, highly flexible rubber soles and ethereal fabric uppers. This particular pair is an overwhelmingly neon green with various shades of bright aquas and cobalts. The swirling designs look kind of like cascading water, or like the planet Earth, if you forget the clouds and crayon it all in with bright clip-art colors.

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One of the many things I love about walking is the minimal equipment required. Anyone can do it, anywhere. No one needs high performance running shoes or trekking poles or tennis rackets or golf courses to experience the benefits of movement and the outdoors. Walking is about as egalitarian as fitness gets (competitive walking being a thing of the past, that is). It should be that simple.

The trouble started when I began looking for a new pair of shoes, a months-long and ongoing process that has been figuratively and literally torturous. A pair of new grey boots wouldn’t break in and slipped unrepentantly over the back of my foot. Limping past Run Detroit one night, I figured I’d give it a try. Despite my reluctance to ever become a runner, maybe something with laces was in order. When I got around to visiting the store one afternoon, co-owner Justin took time out of a busy day to tell me, in an impressively unevangelical way, lots about running footwear and his inspiring daily commutes across the city. As he helped me into weird-fangled shoes by New Balance, Nike, and Altra, and watched me plod around on the sidewalk in front of the store, he also introduced me to what must be the most wonderful term in shoe technology: zero drop.

Zero drop means that there’s no incline in the sole of the shoe that elevates the heel, a common feature of running shoes since manufacturers started making specialized footwear for the sport. This incline is something I’ve never become used to, having walked, run, or climbed in whatever regular sneakers I have at the time. Zero drop shoe soles range from well-padded to the more recognizable minimalist or barefoot shoes, encompassing Vibram’s Five Finger oddity to Merrell’s more socially-acceptable sporty line to Vivobarefoot‘s lovely casual shoes. Run Detroit doesn’t sell barefoot shoes, reasoning that most overpronating people will injure themselves silly with them, but following Justin’s generous assessment of my form, I was told that barefoot shoes should be no problem. After realizing that I could fold or roll up most of my favorite past walking shoes just like the fancy barefoot zero-drop shoes, they seemed like the next logical option.

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Merrell, actually a sort-of Michigan-based company, has a serious corner on the barefoot-whatever market, but the Vapor Glove seems to be their only real minimalist shoe in a line of supposed barefoot footwear. I spent a few days with the heftier Bare Access Arc 3 (what happened to the name for this product?), another zero-drop shoe with 8mm of “cushion.” Cushion may not be the best word for whatever comprises the sole of these things. It’s hard and incredibly rigid, hinging in a strange way under the ball of the foot that makes my toes go numb after a couple miles. The sole has a peculiar contour, dipping back under the heel so that the foot might unexpectedly rock backward across what feels like a sharp plane. There was nothing about these that evoked the purported stability or comfort of being barefoot.

The Bare Access Arc 3s have the wide toebox of most barefoot shoes, but run narrow through the arch and heel, which snugly hugged my foot. The uppers are no less severe than the sole, and despite a superb lacing job, the stiff material of the heel nagged at my foot so hard I felt an eruption of pain, as though my calcaneous had been ripped off. After removing the offending shoe in an alley downtown and actually barefooting it the rest of the way through the usual detritus, the pair was retired vindictively to their box.

I made it partway through Earth Week in the Vapor Gloves before I found myself listlessly staring through my car windshield at a store I needed to navigate. An ad airing on WDET informed me that April was Foot Health Awareness Month according to the useless American Podiatric Medical Association, whose website serves as a referral service for their members and otherwise just instructs readers to wear flip-flops only if they have adequate arch support. I limped across the parking lot, an area about as sad and un-rambling and un-Detroit as it gets. At least with the subtle reflective stripes on my Merrells I might be less likely to get mowed down by drivers as I inched around. Driving on the highway, the pain was unabating and ridiculous. I gingerly withdrew my left foot from the shoe.

The Vapor Gloves sit in their box, now on top of the box holding the Bare Access Arc 3s, which are still muddy from that final alley they traversed a month ago. “Let’s Get Outside!” the boxes mockingly suggest. Even with rest, intermittent icing, and a wholehearted return to my non-APMA-approved flip-flops, I can’t bend my feet, and a deep burning has overtaken my arches. Companies like Merrell and Vivobarefoot aren’t kidding when they advise caution in acclimating to the new shoes, but, shockingly, even utmost caution in wearing won’t save feet from shoes that just don’t fit.

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So here are four more pieces of plastic made somewhere in Asia that will end up in a landfill. I hardly feel like I’ve reduced my carbon footprint in honor of Earth Day this year, but at least Merrell, under their flimsy guise of sustainability and greenness donates returned and lightly used shoes to people in need of footwear both domestically and internationally, so I can be assured that my used shoes will soon be either for sale a a Goodwill shop somewhere, or freighted to whichever part of the world has the most convincing disaster relief fund set up. Additionally, the company touts themselves as one of the largest consumers of wind energy in Michigan, and have created a whole 3.5 miles of walking trails at their Rockford, MI headquarters, outfitted with birdhouses and pious goodwill.

Part of Earth Week is reconnecting people with the planet, which is just what barefoot shoe manufacturers claim to do. This is hardly a comfort, relying on global conglomerates to make me feel better about my connection with the earth by purchasing $100 worth of overdesigned, crummily-produced luxury items. It’s a shame to capitalize on the simple act of walking on the ground. The illusion of barefootedness is fun, but it’s hard to get out and do anything without shoes. As some call for the end of Earth Days, denouncing them as a counterproductive bandaid of a holiday standing in the way of action or conversation about real issues, it’s all the more sad to spend the day walking in circles, preoccupied with these material goods.

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Earth Day

April 22, 2014

Happy Earth Day! While kids make happy crafts, fingerpainting soy-based inks on recycled paper and participating in a macabre-sounding “endangered species scavenger hunt” at the zoo, I’m taking a walk, and keeping in mind some of the world’s most impressive hikers, the sherpas.

Photo by Laurence Tan for Reuters

Photo by Laurence Tan for Reuters

Sherpas are an ethnic group living in Nepal’s northeastern Himalaya Mountain region. They’re renowned for their superior mountaineering skills in their home territory, due to a combination of experience, bravery, and, some have suggested, genetic adaptations to life at high altitude. In a country with few economic opportunities, some sherpas take high-paying jobs on Mount Everest, locally known as Qomolangma, ferrying fuel, food, and shelter for western adventurers, setting up routes for them to follow — basically doing the work of climbing the mountain, while climbers kind of just come along for the (really rough) ride.

Last Friday, the deadliest Everest avalanche in recorded history struck, taking with it sixteen sherpas who were out setting up paths for their clients to follow. That avalanches happen on mountains and are likely to be deadly is a given, an obvious danger recognized by sherpas who work there. After sherpas found inadequate the Nepalese government’s pledges to help with medical funds for injured sherpas and financial relief for grieving families, they’ve gone on strike, effectively cancelling the 2014 climbing season. It takes a lot to walk away from the most lucrative job you’re likely to find, work that lets you send your children to private school in hope of a different future. As the Wall Street Journal quoted one sherpa who lost a friend to the avalanche, “It’s made us pause and question whether the money we make is really worth the loss of our own lives and the harm to our own mountain from the mountaineering.”

Nobody’s saying it, but one wonders whether climate change has anything to do with the rapid end to this year’s Everest season. Avalanches happen, and any would be deadly if there were people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Aside from shaking heads at bad luck and bemoaning tragedy, maybe we need to at least reframe how we approach some the world’s most imposing natural features, since, as a whole, we’re not really into doing much to slow climate change.

Here, things are pretty tame on these walks, big fluffy clouds and lots of flowers. As I gear up for what will be my first backpacking trip, it’s good to temper my enthusiasm with this bad news and not become some righteous outdoors zealot, to not get too lost myopically poking around websites wondering whether I’ll be any happier getting the titanium cookset that weighs 90 grams less than the other titanium cookset.

Read more about the Mount Everest avalanche in the news:
“Sherpas leave Everest; some expeditions nix climbs” at the Associated Press
“Mount Everest’s Sherpas Shut Down the Rest of This Year’s Climbing Season” at The Wire
“The world’s most renowned Sherpa talks Mt. Everest” at Washington Post
“After Avalanche, New York’s Sherpas Recall Perils of a Job They Left Behind” at the New York Times

Thing-finding

April 10, 2014

A lot of the wonders of walking were most elegantly summed up in children’s book I read long ago. Pippi Longstocking, famed pirate heroine and vanquisher of boredom everywhere, knows a lot more about walking than your average grown-up. One morning, while Pippi is busy baking a modest five hundred cordiform pepparkakor, a kind of Swedish cookie, her neighbors Tommy and Annika visit. When she finishes, Tommy, like your average bored, screen-sucking kid, asks, “What are we going to do now?”

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“I don’t know what you are going to do,” said Pippi, “but I know I can’t lie around and be lazy. I am a Thing-Finder, and when you’re a Thing-Finder you don’t have a minute to spare.”
“What did you say you are?” asked Annika.
“A Thing-Finder.”
“What’s that?” asked Tommy.
“Somebody who hunts for things, naturally. What else could it be?” said Pippi as she swept all the flour left on the floor into a little pile.
“The whole world is full of things, and somebody has to look for them. And that’s just what a Thing-Finder does,” she finished.
“What kind of things?” asked Annika.
“Oh, all kinds,” said Pippi. “Lumps of gold, ostrich feathers, dead rats, candy snapcrackers, little tiny screws, and things like that.”

Tommy and Annika thought it sounded as if it would be fun and wanted very much to be Thing-Finders too, although Tommy did say he hoped he’d find a lump of gold and not a tiny little screw.

“We shall see what we shall see,” said Pippi. “One always finds something.”

The children set off on their own, like few children have the luxury of doing today. Pippi thought it would be best to keep to urban surroundings, as most things to be found are where the people are. She tells Tommy and Annika about the incredible things she’s found in the forest, and she would of course tell you too, if you read the book.

Tommy and Annika looked at Pippi to see just how a Thing-Finder acted. Pippi ran from one side of the road to the other, shaded her eyes with her hand, and hunted and hunted. Sometimes she crawled on her hands and knees, stuck her hands in between the pickets of a fence, and then said in a disappointed tone, “Oh, dear! I was sure I saw a lump of gold.”

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Thing-finding, like Pippi instructs her friends, can be as humble a pursuit as finding rusty tin cans and dead rats to hunting down prizes like gold. Today, I investigated a mesmerizing beacon that turned out to be a roadkill e-cig. Any takers?

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It’s not the find but the perceptual game that matters, looking at your surroundings to connect seemingly disparate things together, to find new ways of making sense of the world. This can be as silly and undignified as stringing together some weird narrative to explain all those sad useless mattresses lying around, as the Walthamstow Tourist Board did this week. They’re also doing commendable work with the lost pair of shoes population. It’s all good, as long as, like Pippi, we’re wandering around and paying attention.

Excerpted from 'Celebs that Look Like Mattresses', by the Walthamstow Tourist Board

Excerpted from ‘Celebs that Look Like Mattresses’, by the Walthamstow Tourist Board

Suddenly Pippi gave a terrific yell. “Well, I never saw the like,” she cried, as she picked up a large, rusty old tin can from the grass. “What a find! What a find! Cans — that’s something you can never have too many of.”
Tommy looked at the can doubtfully. “What can you use it for?”
“Oh, you can use it in all sorts of ways,” said Pippi. “One way is to put cookies in it. Then it becomes a delightful Jar with Cookies. Another way is not to put cookies in it. Then it becomes a Jar without Cookies. That certainly isn’t quite so delightful, but still that’s good too.”
She examined the can, which was indeed rusty and had a hole in the bottom.
“It looks almost as if this were a Jar without Cookies,” she said thoughtfully. “But you can put it over your head and pretend that it is midnight.”

Tomorrow is Walk to Work Day, a perfect opportunity to stretch your whimsy muscles and see some strange things. According to the official website based in San Francisco, as few as fifteen minutes of commute-oriented walking count as walking to work, so there aren’t many excuses not to do it (injured feet might be a valid one). You never know what could happen. Maybe Pippi herself will appear and reward you with a pepparkakor from her Jar with Cookies for your efforts.

Walking in the news

April 5, 2014

Announcement! Very important. Unfortunately, the Sunday, April 6 ramble must be cancelled. We apologize for the inconvenience and trust that you’ll find other ways to enjoy the wonderful weather. Check back soon or join our mailing list to be advised of a rescheduled ramble.

“Why do you walk?” asked the guy helpfully navigating me through the intimidating realm of athletic shoes. I can’t even remember the last time I had shoes with laces, but, after a couple hundred miles on crappy shoes from the internet, it’s time to reconsider.
“Are you walking for exercise, or…?”
“No,” I said, hemming, “I don’t really believe much in walking as exercise. I just like it. For all sorts of reasons,” was the only lukewarm, inaccurate response I could come up with.

Every time I go out for a walk, I’m reminded of better answers to his question, but external affirmations are welcome, too. Reviewing a book about the daily routines of geniuses, Sarah Green came up with a list of the most common traits. Like every list about the attributes that make writers and artists writers and artists, a daily walk was prominent. Green wrote,

Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon — and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Tchaikovsky made do with a two-hour walk, but wouldn’t return a moment early, convinced that cheating himself of the full 120 minutes would make him ill. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Erik Satie did the same on his long strolls from Paris to the working class suburb where he lived, stopping under streetlamps to jot down notions that arose on his journey; it’s rumored that when those lamps were turned off during the war years, his productivity declined too.

She forgot to mention one of the more endearing parts of Satie’s walks — that, on this potentially dangerous twelve mile trip, he carried a hammer for protection.

Green’s summary of the great walks of the greats reminded me of a 1988 Sports Illustrated article titled “Frisky as the Dickens.” It’s a lengthy look at Charles Dickens’ lengthy walks.

Dickens’s walks served him in two ways. On one level, they were fact-finding missions during which he recorded with his keen eye the teeming urban landscapes whose descriptions were his stock-in-trade. A letter from Paris to a family friend, the Reverend Edward Tagart, begins innocently enough, “I have been seeing Paris.” But what follows is a foot tour of the city that is characteristically Dickensian: “Wandering into Hospitals, Prisons, Dead-houses, Operas, Theatres, Concert-rooms, Burial-grounds, Palaces and Wine Shops. In my unoccupied fortnight of each month, every description of gaudy and ghastly sight has been passing before me in rapid Panorama.”

But Dickens’s walks played another, more important role in his life. They were, in a sense, acts of self-preservation. “If I could not walk far and fast,” he once confessed, “I think I should just explode and perish.” Unlike his contemporary, Anthony Trollope, who claimed he reeled off 3,000 words each morning before breakfast, Dickens found composition to be hard, painful work. The hours he spent at his desk agitated him tremendously, and walking served as a kind of safety valve.

Then again, walking was, in Dickens’ time, pretty pedestrian. Everybody walked. Why did they walk? Who knows. All sorts of reasons. They didn’t have the attentive staff of a specialty shoe store asking these sorts of questions. They didn’t even have specialty shoes. The bicycle hadn’t really been invented yet. People moved to cities and wandered around. Apparently having little else to do with their leisure time, they became keenly fixated on competitive walking matches, which now, in the days of motorcycle racing, demolition derbies, and monster truck rallies, seems ineffably quaint. During these races, walkers would circle a track for six days, clocking as many as 600 miles, by some measures more tame than the outdoor treks in freezing weather that Dickens put his trainees through, on bad roads and through snowbanks. They make the perfectly admirable customers of the running store, doing 70 mile weeks in exquisite footwear and moisture-wicking tights, look like wimps.

While pulling off this incredible insomniac feat, walkers would wear festive ruffled shirts, deal with crowd control, play the coronet, and occasionally nap on little cots stationed next to the track, according to author Matthew Algeo in an NPR interview about his new book Pedestrianism. What’s more, the sports drink of these guys were guzzling in the 1870s was not Gatorade or other carefully engineered electrolyte-balancing beverage but champagne. Says Algeo,

Champagne was considered a stimulant. And a lot of trainers – these guys had trainers – advised their pedestrians to drink a lot of champagne during the race. They thought that this would give them some kind of advantage. The problem was that a lot of these guys would drink it by the bottle. That definitely was not a stimulant, to say the least.

They might have done better to go with bottomless mimosas. Here’s some very light reading (and/or listening) to go with the equally light weather this weekend.

review of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
“Frisky as the Dickens”
NPR interview and book excerpt from Matthew Algeo’s Pedestrianism

Battlefield

April 1, 2014

Walk around Detroit for five minutes and you’re likely to run into some ketchup. If not a packet or to-go cup of it loitering on the sidewalk, imminently making trouble, the telltale red bursts and splats have left their mark. Detroiters sure love their ketchup, or hate it, judging by how much of it is cast to the ground. Occasionally a few packets of mustard will materialize, maybe some barbeque sauce. Less frequently there is hot sauce, mayonnaise, and rarely, relish. Why all the ketchup? What are people doing or not doing with this stuff? To answer these longstanding questions, I could think of no one more apt than the Singing Hot Dog Man himself, Charley Marcuse.

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Marcuse, for those who live under a rock the shape of a baseball and lack TV reception, was for fifteen years Tiger Stadium’s most infamous hot dog vendor. His first season in the business was the last year of games in the now nonexistent “old” Tiger Stadium. During this incredible tenure, Marcuse, like any intelligent person selling a thing, sought to diversify his product and service from the masses. Aside from providing excellent customer service, he set his hot dogs apart with an operatic chant of “HHHoooOOoooootttttttt DDoooOOoooogggsss!” He is also loved and hated for his provocative views on condiment use, stating often and very loudly, “There is no ketchup in baseball!” I struggle to not render that in all caps.

A more jubilant Marcuse, after the game on Opening Day 2013, wearing a scarf handmade by a fan.

A more jubilant Marcuse, after the game on Opening Day 2013, wearing a scarf handmade by a fan.

Having periodically encountered a mute, rasping Marcuse loading honey into his tea certain unfortunate mornings or late at night after games, it’s apparent that the job involved a level of sacrifice for which few would give him credit. Selling hot dogs was truly a passion. After being fired amidst fierce supportive uproar last fall, this is the first year since 1999 that he wasn’t at work in the stadium, making fans happy, if not healthy. Negotiations may still be under way to reinstate Marcuse as Detroit’s best hot dog vendor (he’s actually won awards), but no deal was struck before Opening Day yesterday. I caught up with the Singing Hot Dog Man after the game to get to the bottom of the battle between ketchup and mustard.

As any Detroiter who braved the streets, sidewalks, and parking lots yesterday can tell you, Tigers fans are not an easy crowd. Passed-out pedestrians got cozy on sidewalks while others screamed and cried gibberishly into their phones. They abandoned garbage using most of the prepositions in the English language. One pedestrian got hit by a car in Grand Circus Park, and traffic veered sloppily around the medical treatment area. Marcuse was a valuable walking companion, having seen it all in his decade and a half of service.

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Several times during our walk, we were interrupted by the more alert fans scrambling to get a picture with the Singing Hot Dog Man. Others were not so courageous. “Look! It’s him, the Singing Hot Dog Man! I saw him on TV!” someone said as we passed. “No, that’s not him,” their friend replied. Marcuse stopped to buy a newspaper, the last one in the box. He turned to the second page. “Sorry, Charley,” read the headline. He wasn’t kidding when he said he’d had a number of interviews already this season.

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1999, Marcuse’s first year in the business, was a transition year in stadium concessions. Management had just phased out the traditional condiment cup with wooden spreading stick that Marcuse remembers from ballgames of his childhood, replacing this old-fashioned, personalized dispensing with plastic packets that allowed the purchaser to fiddle with their own condiment placement. Not all fans were pleased with this tacky, fast-food arrangement, though. “I even got a plastic cup and straws for a group of four guys,” he says, coming up with makeshift mustard spreaders for older fans looking for the authentic hot dog experience.

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“I tried the packets, but nobody wants them. About two weeks into the season, I went out and bought some squeeze bottles.” Marcuse appreciated the control afforded by the squeeze bottle, so he could put a perfect squiggle of mustard on each hot dog. If all this isn’t a labor of love, what is? “If a little kid would ask for ketchup and no mustard, I’d get them to at least try some, put a few dots on the end.”

While he’s always enjoyed mustard, Marcuse was more lenient about condiments in the early years. “I used to do a traffic light,” he says, “ketchup, mustard, and relish. They didn’t have relish, but I went out and bought some before every game. If onions came in squeeze bottles, I’d have done a Detroit traffic light in winter,” he chuckled to himself. Marcuse was the first vendor to offer relish. He says someone else tried later, wearing a pin that said, “Ask me, I’ve got relish,” but, in another oppressive move for rules and standards, management eventually took note and curtailed it.

The turning point in the Singing Hot Dog Man’s fight against the pasty tomato was in 2004, when he was barred from singing during games. After protracted contention, he was permitted to sing again, but only between innings. Working with these restrictions, he switched tactics, emphasizing mustard’s superiority and haranguing people requesting a gloppy mess of condiments on their dog. “The news likes to say that I do this for the attention, to get on TV,” he says, “but I really just want to do my job and sell hot dogs. And this sells.”

Marcuse isn’t alone in reviling ketchup, I found when wandering around Chicago last fall. Advertisements for what might have been a phone service insinuated that their competition was as ridiculous as putting ketchup on a hot dog. Even President Obama, like a true Chicagoan, has taken a stance in favor of Marcuse’s ideals, saying simply, “You shouldn’t put ketchup on your hot dog.”

In 2008 Marcuse launched Charley’s Ballpark Mustard, with the slogan, “It will make you sing!” In this household, no one has ever actually sung for mustard, but the complaints voiced after running out of a bottle of Marcuse’s signature condiment were anything but musical. Even if he doesn’t get his job back, he still plans to relaunch his mustard in the future.

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As we made our way uptown from the stadium, picking past heaps of tailgating garbage of all flavors, we saw plenty of destitute ketchup and mustard containers. Marcuse grumbled about the litter, pointing to a problem even bigger than ketchup versus mustard — that hardly anybody, residents and visitors alike, has enough respect for their environment. Looking around, claims that the suburbanites descending on the city are here to lavish money on it for a few hours seemed to me unsubstantiated. The sports-friendly bars in the area do, and definitely Mike Ilitch’s parking lots, but judging by the trash, many fans stocked up on sundries at their average suburban grocery store before making the trip “down” to Detroit. One has to wonder how many will have the nerve even to stop for gas in the city limits.

The rest of the time, Marcuse said, it’s not as if people are dropping these ketchup packets by accident. I’d always sort of imagined people sifting through their bags of take-out, utterly overwhelmed by the bulk of ketchup packets in the way of checking to see they’d been given the right sandwich. He didn’t seem to share this vision. “They get thrown away because that’s the nature of packets. You use it, and then who wants to put a sticky, residue-y, gross piece of garbage in their pocket?” This only really explains the half-consumed ones, not the full packets waiting to squelch underfoot, or why exactly there are so many to begin with. “Ketchup is traditional for the two most consumed fast food groups,” Marcuse conceded, “burgers and fries.” You can put it on lots of things, just not on hot dogs, nor on the ground.

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How did the Singing Hot Dog Man feel at the close of Opening Day? The Tigers won, but without him in the park, was this also a win for Big Ketchup? He laughed. With the nearby Leamington, Ontario Heinz factory reneging on its closure announcement from last year, it’s hard to say how ketchup will prevail. On the streets of Detroit, I can only wish we had more guys like Charley. The world around here needs fewer plastic packets of ketchup and a lot more song.