You Want Some Sartre With That?

Most corporate credit cards offer tangible economic benefits, like discounts, frequent-flier miles, or milelong lines of credit. But at a hot-dog stand outside Tower Records at 21st and I Streets NW, a vendor is issuing another kind of credit to his customers.

It's the hot-dog Gold Card, handed out by Manouch, a 44-year-old Iranian vendor. And only Manouch, who prides himself on mixing street-vending with philosophy, can describe just what the Gold Card confers. "A credit-card company keeps track of your bad credit," says Manouch. "Manouch Gold Card keeps track of your goodness. [It] reinforces altruistic behavior. It appreciates activities like you caring for your community, other people as well. I enforce people being nice to me. Cleaning the neighborhood. I give them a Manouch Gold Card, to be part of a club," he explains.

And in case recipients of the Manouch Gold Card wonder what they're getting, they need only read the card's inscription, a variation on a Meredith Owen poem: "We may live without poetry, music and art; We may live without conscience and live without heart; We may live without friends, we may live without books; But civilized man can not live without cooks. Have it all at Manouch!"

Manouch says that his card offers rewards that have nothing to do with spending habits: "Iranian poet Hafez has words I translated and put on my Gold Card: 'In Love We Trust,' which is opposite against cynical activities. Then it says, 'Destructible is every building you see, except the foundation of love, which is indestructible.' I always convert that hate into love somehow."

Gold Card notwithstanding, Manouch hasn't drummed up much goodwill with the District's vending police, who routinely hassle him about his location because he doesn't always conform to their version of reality. "I'm an easy target," he says. "I don't want to talk bad about anybody. I want to talk all nice things!" A recent crackdown on Manouch prompted the president of the George Washington University student association to write a letter on the vendor's behalf, citing his constant crime-deterring presence as a neighborhood asset.

Manouch immigrated to the U.S. in 1977, one year before the shah was overthrown in his native Iran. He dabbled in a variety of occupations before deciding on the weenie trade in 1985. He had visions of becoming a small-time vending kingpin, with an employee or two tending to the business while he launched a career as a major modern thinker. "One of the reasons I came into this business is to have a writing career," he says.

While Manouch never hired a helper, he did finish writing a 500-page book in 1992. Ahhh and Ahhh is an idiosyncratic mix of Iranian history, etymology, and poetical musings that has eluded publishing houses so far. Manouch runs a diversified operation, peddling barely intelligible philosophy as readily as a bag of potato chips.

"Happiness is the only good. Twenty-five cents," Manouch says to a woman buying a pack of Wrigley's Doublemint.

"Jean-Paul Sartre was the best part. Man is in charge, the first time, 20th century, this philosophy exists," he continues.

"When I took [a] psychology [class at GW], I was obsessed with the hypothalamus. And when I came across Freud's ego, super ego, and id, I liked it a lot. Not [following] Freud, but using them on my own terms the way that I wanted," he says.

Manouch specializes in crafting nicknames for what most vendors are content to call hot dogs. For instance, when a customer asked Manouch for a hot dog with onions and mustard to celebrate the World Series triumph of the New York Yankees, Manouch served up a "Victorian Halitoli," to fete both the Yankees and the condition—halitosis—that comes from munching fresh onions.

A "Romantic Halitoli" comes with onions and ketchup. "Ketchup is like a symbol of romance or Valentine," Manouch claims.

Over the so-loud-it's-distorting blare of classical music on his tiny radio, Manouch asks a college boy, "Tell me the name of this composer and the piece, and I'll give you the hot dog for free."

"Stravinsky. 'Rites of Spring,'" the student replies.

"No. Rimsky-Korsakov. 'Capriccio espagnol.' One twenty-five, please," Manouch responds. No Gold Card for you, pal. CP

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