A concerned-sounding customer leans on Thomas Nolan's Court Square hot-dog cart, mopping the sweat from her melting face with a tissue. "I don't know how you stand it," she says, handing Nolan a moist wad of cash and greedily snatching from his hand a perfectly grilled six-inch dog with sauerkraut. "It's so hot out here," she adds, fanning herself with her dog-free hand.
"Oh, I don't think it's too bad," Nolan replies affably. "Well, at least as long as the sun stays behind that cloud."
Soon after the woman walks away, Nolan expresses his true feelings on the weather.
"Sometimes I just want to tell people that it's not really all that hot, and they don't even want to know what hot is," he says authoritatively, wiping down the surfaces of his shiny chrome cart until the sun's reflection is almost blinding. When not hawking his hot dogs downtown or making abstract paintings at his fine-art gallery on South Main, Nolan works as a firefighter, so when he talks about heat, he knows what he's talking about.
"I was on that one," he says, nodding in the general direction of the gutted husk of the First United Methodist Church, which burned in October 2006.
"People don't want to know what hot is," he says, recalling the terrifying moment when the church's steeple collapsed.
"I want one of your Memphis dogs," says a regular customer, rushing by the cart without stopping. "I'll be back to pick it up in a few minutes," he calls behind him.
"He's a believer," Nolan says of the hurried man. "He bought a dog on the very first day I was out here, and now he comes by to get something at least every other day."
Nolan didn't have hot dogs in mind when he graduated from Southside High School in 1982. He had a baseball scholarship to LeMoyne-Owen College and dreamed of playing in the big leagues. Or of at least working as a professional artist. Or maybe both.
"I worked in a lot of restaurants," Nolan says of his college days. "And I'm going to be cocky about it. I got really good at cooking. And if you've got something inside of you, you've got to let it out.
Nolan's downtown hot-dog cart is part of his latest attempt to be all that he can be. He describes the high-intensity training he does for the fire department as filling the void that baseball once occupied in his life, and he calls dressing dogs an extension of his abstract painting.
"It's all about the color," he says. He begins building a Chicago-style dog by pulling a grilled all-beef kosher frank out of the fire and laying it gently on a bed of sweet neon-green relish. "There's the green and the yellow," he says, adding a squirt of mustard and a handful of whole pickled chilis. "And, of course, the red," he continues, piling on thin slices of fresh tomato.
"It's like I'm trying to bring a little bit of New York or Chicago to Memphis," Nolan says. "I've got my cart and my park and my jazz," he says, patting his radio.
"Man, what is that playing on your radio? Coltrane?" a man asks, walking up to the cart and ordering a Polish sausage.
"I don't know," Nolan answers. "It's on satellite."
"Well, I don't know either, but it's hot," the man says, picking up a menu. The dog-man grins.
"Yeah, it's hot," he agrees, dropping a sausage down on the grill.
Thomas Nolan's hot-dog cart can be found on Court Square for lunch most weekdays throughout the summer. He parks his stand outside of Raiford's Hollywood Disco in the evening on weekends.