PORTLAND, Maine — In an ever-changing city that is always on the move, and forever reinventing itself, Mark Gatti was a constant.
From his sidewalk perch, Gatti saw it all.
He watched the Old Port transform from a barren collection of decrepit brick buildings into a hot tourist destination. Around him, junk shops turned into thrift stores before mutating into pricey boutiques. Greasy diners morphed into hipster coffee houses, then swank restaurants. Many glittered a short time, then winked out, giving way to even more stylish edifices.
But Gatti remained, outlasting most of them, serving up working-class eats from his red plywood stand in Tommy’s Park five to six days a week, in all kinds of weather, almost year-round.
But not anymore.
After 36 years of slinging steamed chilidogs, sauerkraut-slathered frankfurters and celery salt-sprinkled snappers, he’s hung up his tongs for good.
As word got out last week, tributes to Gatti’s longevity — as well as his positive, personable style — started overrunning his inbox and flooding social media pages.
“One of the nicest individuals on this earth,” Darrell Williams said in a Facebook post. “Saw him give free food to people who were hungry. He will be missed.”
“You’re one of the most kind, generous and good hearted people I’ll ever meet,” Mike Birnbach wrote on the post.
Joe Markley kept it simple: “A Portland legend.”
More than one person even suggested they rename the park after Gatti and put up a statue of him there.
Gatti is not quite sure what to make of the attention.
“It’s overwhelming, really,” he said. “I’m happy but also kind of embarrassed. I don’t know that I did anything all that great — but I guess little things in people’s lives can really matter.”
Gatti began serving food at the corner of Exchange and Middle Streets during Ronald Reagan’s first presidential administration. His cart became such a familiar fixture there, city workers measured it before installing new park benches, to make sure he could fit between them.
Gatti first met his wife in the same spot, too.
“I saw him from across the street and had to check out his legs,” Susan Gatti said when she first laid eyes on his trademark outfit of khaki shorts and a T-shirt. “And I’m from New York, so I know hotdogs.”
On his cart’s 25th anniversary, Portland’s mayor gave Gatti the keys to the city. He eventually misplaced them but kept on selling hotdogs until the pandemic struck in 2020.
That’s when he became a frontline healthcare worker.
Gatti had been working a per diem job at Maine Health during the coldest few months of the year since 2017. On the supply chain and logistics crew, he helped get life-saving equipment shuffled among the company’s far-flung campuses and huge Portland hospital, Maine Medical Center.
When spring 2020 rolled around, at the height of the pandemic, there was no way Gatti could go back to his hotdog stand, as normal. The streets were deserted and he didn’t want to risk his health, or the health of his customers.
“It would have been a real rough year to work,” Gatti said, “and I probably would have taken a loss. To me, it made no sense.”
Instead, he stayed at the hospital.
When it came time to make a decision this spring, he decided to stay at the hospital and not go back to his cart. At age 62, the stability and steady paycheck at the hospital were too good to give up.
Plus, some of the joy had gone out of the hotdog business.
“My pail had just run dry,” Gatti said. “I didn’t have much energy left.”
Business wasn’t quite what it used to be. Many of his daily customers had turned into weekly, and then monthly, visitors.
Also, two of his favorite regulars, Doug Bither and Scotty Tounge, died during his pandemic year off.
Bither and Tounge were just a couple of the sometimes large crowd of oddball characters drawn to Gatti’s philosophical style and patient, sympathetic ear.
“I didn’t dispense any great wisdom but I always listened to people,” said Gatti, who actually has a degree in social work. “The job was very enriching for me, in that aspect.”
Bither, a surfer and skateboarder from way back, baked cookies for Gatti. Tounge, who liked his dogs with melted cheese, a hint of ketchup and a healthy slather of mayonnaise, had Gatti’s business logo tattooed on his body.
When they died, two months apart in 2020, Gatti wrote memorial poems for both of them.
Another thing that weighed on his decision was Portland’s exploding population of unhoused people. Gatti often found himself a de facto soup kitchen, handing out free food to those who couldn’t afford it.
“As the years went by, there were more and more people desperate and on the streets,” he said.
Though his heart may have gone out of it, Gatti is at pains to stress how thankful he is to have had the health and good fortune to complete his nearly 40-year run.
“I’m fortunate to get to go out on my own terms,” he said.
One online commenter suggested that Gatti’s homemade food cart — with its happy hotdog dancing with a sassy soda painted on the side — now belongs in a museum like the Smithsonian.
That idea makes Gatti chuckle. But he said he’s hanging onto it for now. In the future, when he’s fully retired, Gatti said he can see himself handing out a few more dogs, though not at his old spot. Instead, he might fire up the cart at family get togethers or private events for hire.
For now, he’s happy with his single job at Maine Health but also hopes he hasn’t disappointed too many people in the Old Port this year.
“I’m proud of what I did but I couldn’t do it forever,” Gatti said. “Life is a cycle.”