At eight o'clock on a Thursday night Joe Perl's standing at the bar with a bucket of meat. In his left hand he has a four-pound ham. In his right a small knife. A half dozen men at the bar are unwinding with shots and beers. Perl's workday is just beginning.
"Braunschweiger, kielbasa, summer sausage, you name it," he says, passing out bright yellow menus from the left pocket of his white butcher jacket. Under the jacket he's wearing camo fatigues. Perl's head is as square and solid as a butcher block. He's six foot three, 240 pounds, easy.
"GI Joe!" someone shouts. "Why don't you put your meat where your mouth is and cut us some."
"Here you go," Perl says, slicing off bite-size slivers onto a napkin. "Help yourself, pal: the summer sausage and the garlic sausage and the German hard salami here."
The men gather around and snatch up the pieces.
"Hey, take it easy--you get a sample, not a meal," he tells them. "The free haircut and shave is coming."
Perl is a traveling sausage salesman. "Want sausage? Will travel" is his motto. Tonight he's starting in this Niles roadhouse. By sunrise he'll be asleep in his truck at a gas station outside Gary. Friday he'll be in Grand Rapids and, depending on how things go, he'll be back in Chicago sometime on Saturday. He's been in business for 25 years. His secret? "I always take care of people," he says. "We can't please everybody, but we try."
It doesn't hurt that he's generous with his samples. As the men in the bar get a taste for sausage, Perl makes the rounds taking orders.
"You know what, I've had alligator bratwurst before," one man says. "They get too dry."
"It's a lean rich meat," Perl says, "almost like a chicken breast. You got to be careful with it."
He moves through the room slapping people on the back. The men are almost all Vietnam vets in their 40s. Perl had met one of the guys while on R and R in Bangkok during the war. He visits this bar only twice a year, yet everyone seems to know him.
"Every time I see you I spend like 200 bucks," one man slurs.
Perl holds a box of steaks he brought in from the truck. "Look at these rib eyes, evenly marbled, excellent taste. Not tenderized or no crap like that. Omaha steaks--if you bought a box of them you'd pay a fortune. They quadruple their money. I make my money and that's it."
By the time's he's filled the last man's order, the first one walks up for seconds.
"What kind of bags of beef jerky again? Not the roadkill"--the menu says From the Interstate to Your Dinner Plate--"I didn't like the roadkill. It was a little tough."
Perl pulls a bag from his coat pocket. "Ten dollars. Three for 20 bucks. Take all three, my man."
"I don't have $20. I want one. You always catch me when I'm broke. I'll call you on the fucking hot line," the man says, referring to Perl's 24-hour New Sausage Emergency Number (773-255-6327).
"We'll hook up on the fly," Perl tells him. "Give me a holler, you know that. I'm not going nowhere."
He hands some freebies to the bartender, grabs his bucket, and waves. "Don't barbecue naked, guys, but have fun."
Perl's truck is parked at the curb. It's a Ford pickup with a white refriger-ated box over the bed. The rear door has a painting of a giant sausage with arms and legs and a smiley face. In one hand the sausage holds a knife, in the other a bucket of his brethren. Above him is stenciled "Deli Direct, Perl's All American Sausage Co." A bumper sticker reads, "Wanna Get Laid? Crawl Up a Chicken's Ass and Wait."
As Perl pulls up outside a bar called Roman's near Devon and Milwaukee, he's telling the story of the first and last time he ever drank on the job.
"They're always trying to buy me drinks," he says. "And one time in my younger days I did get loaded. I gave away basically my whole truck that night. Everybody had sausages. They were saying, 'Here's the sausage man, giving it all away. Come and get it!'
"Now I just stick with the energy drinks," he says, pulling a Styrofoam box from the truck. "That's all I need."
Inside Roman's a man is yelling, "Oh, come on, it's over. Over! Quick count. It's over!"
Four men in their 30s and 40s are watching a WWF match between Triple H and the Rock. Triple H has just lost the count, but of course it isn't over.
"I had an opportunity to wrestle a couple years back," Perl says. "They sent some WWF scouts out to find me. But the only problem is I'm almost 50 and I'd have to sign a two-year contract and give up my business."
He did two tours of duty with the 101st Airborne, in 1970 and '73. While in the army he played football and boxed. After the army, he says, he was "kind of a jack-of-all-trades." He worked as a commodities trader at the Chicago Board of Trade for a few years and got into sausage in the mid-70s. "Now I'm sticking with what puts bread on the table. I have a lot of responsibilities, but everyone is taken care of. I never want to see my children be without."
Perl walks up to the screaming man and shakes his hand. "Twenty pounds of Alaskan king crab legs," he says, setting the Styrofoam box on the bar. "These are beautiful legs--not those little crabs. You go to Dominick's and Jewel, you'll never find this stuff."
"Three bills?" the man asks, thumbing a small stack of hundreds.
"I've known Joe for eight, maybe nine years," the man says. "He's always been good to me. The day Joe starts selling me gristle, I'll never talk to him again."
No one else in the bar is buying, so Perl cuts enough sausage for everyone to snack on and leaves.
Back in the truck he's talking about his sideline working for Ted Nugent. After he tasted Nugent's exotic jerked meat in a Michigan bar, Perl explains, "I said, man, I better give Wildman Ted a call." He says he's now the exclusive agent for the product in Illinois. "I'm rockin' with Ted--Paul Newman's not a pussy, but I've got to keep it in the meat line," he says. "Ted's stuff is excellent. He's a big-time hunter, and he doesn't like the animal rights people too much either. Those PETA people. In fact, he's got a bumper sticker--it's called PETA, for People Eating Tasty Animals."
Perl has had a couple of run-ins with hostile vegetarians. "They come up. 'How can you eat meat? How could you sell carcass?' And I just tell them, 'Hey, this is what I do. If you don't like it, that's too bad. I'm just doing my thing.'" He looks like he takes it personally. Vegetarianism should be his sworn enemy, but "even though it is bad for business, I don't say that."
As soon as Perl steps into the next bar, a young woman leaps up to kiss him on the cheek.
"You meet a lot of interesting people this way," he says. "Sometimes if I find somebody interesting I'll sit down and talk to them. Like her, she has an interest in ancient Egypt, so last time all the sudden we started to talk about the hieroglyphics and this and that. Sometimes it's a good way to meet women too.
"You meet all types. Strippers and prostitutes and high-class women. I've had several women in my life, and some of them I've met on my travels."
Perl has been married twice and he has ten kids. He says his wife of the last five years was on the Brazilian volleyball team. "She's an amazon," he says. "Over six feet. She's got a temper like you wouldn't believe. We had her friends come in from Brazil when they had the Olympics going on in Atlanta and they're all volleyball players. I had these six amazons in my house and my tongue was hitting the floor. She told me, 'You lay one hand and I'm gonna cut you, I'm gonna give you a Brazilian necktie.' She told me she was going to finish me off, man."
One guy has a question about the hot sauces on the menu: "How hot is hot?"
"Well," Perl asks, "are you feeding children?"
The man replies that it's for his wife.
Perl suggests the Screaming Sphincter--A Burning Painus Within the Anus, rated triple X on the menu. "This has flavor, but there's heat here also. You don't want to hurt the little lady."
"She ain't little," the man says. "She's 300 pounds."
"Oh, like Lil' Bambi," Perl says, referring to his Indianapolis distributor. "How much is she up to now? 460 pounds?
"She's a former stripper, and she'll tear you in half," he says. "Bad to the bone, but the guys love her. She oughta be a professional wrestler."
He hands another bottle to the man. "I like this one--Who Gives a Rat's Ass." The man picks out GI Joe's Holy Shit Hot Sauce, which gets five Xs on the menu, and Bad Day at Baghdad--Saddam's Final Warning, which tops the chart with six.
"Now this one's hot," Perl says. "It's called Sudden Death. Be careful, it's not for normal people."
At midnight Perl drives south on Milwaukee. He's headed for Calumet City and the four o'clock bars. He says the long hours are the hardest part of the job. "The only way to make money in this business is to put in long days. I put in 16, 18 hours a day, but I've conditioned myself, so I'm used to it."
After Saint Patrick's Day this year Perl gave away 80 pounds of corned beef to the Victory Church in Chicago. "There are like four groups that I donate to," he says. "Otherwise the food winds up in the Dumpster and it's just feeding the rats. I'd rather see it feed the food pantries, the homeless, the veterans.
"It's not a bad gig," he says. "You meet interesting people. I have a good entourage of people who know me and like me. I've been around so many years. Some people, my competitors, try to come into business. They don't last long. It's good to have competitors, it's good to have competition, but I feel I'm on top of the heap.
"I'm king of the streets," Perl says. "No one beats my meat."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.