Ralph “Gilley” Gilbert may not have the savoir faire of a Mike Romanoff or the Falstaffian good humor of Toots Shor. But to the people of Portsmouth, N.H., where bars are shut down after midnight, Gilley’s mobile hot dog stand on Market Square has been the center of the town’s nightlife for 41 years. Gilley’s tenure has not been all apple pie (250 a slice). Some members of the community thought his establishment an eyesore and insisted upon the enforcement of a city ordinance which prohibits night parking on the main street. Gilley remained, even though it meant routinely paying a 500 parking fine every day for the past 15 years. He usually broke even on the deal, since the policeman who went through the motions of writing out the ticket almost always ordered a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. During his career Gilley collected more than 5,000 parking tickets, entitling him to an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.
Since Gilley also has a more or less permanent place in the hearts of Portsmouth, the town was shocked this month when the wiry, 66-year-old Irishman announced his retirement. Because of the ordinance no one will be permitted to take his place, and townsfolk quickly realized they were about to witness not only one man’s retirement but the end of an era. A celebration seemed in order.
Winding down the town’s main streets for an hour, Gilley’s parade featured four bands, eight antique cars, an antique fire truck and six floats. As guest of honor, Gilley rode with wife Allah inside a horse-drawn surrey driven by John L. Carter, horse breeder and president of a local bank. Among the 3,000 people who attended the festivities were two state senators, Portsmouth Mayor Bruce Graves and New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson Jr.
After Gilley was presented with tickets for a Caribbean cruise, life membership in the Elks, an engraved pewter bowl from the city, and another ticket—this time courtesy of the police department—he heard himself eulogized by his grateful customers. “You fed my generation,” intoned Mayor Graves, “and gave us a place to come in out of the cold. I just feel sorry for the next generation.” Summed up the Rev. John Feaster: “Lord, may you grant Gilley a retirement as pleasant as his hot dogs, as ample as his servings—and may he have peace without parking tickets.”