In the spirit of my doctor fucking off, I decided that today was a perfect day to go back to the bowling alley to see what was left. My wife joined me, and it happened to be on St. Patrick’s Day so the place was filled with randos in green drinking cheap colored beer. The wonderful, familiar smell hit me first thing walking in the door as we walked past the bar to the restaurant counter.
It looked mostly the same outside but the insides were gutted. The chipped linoleum tables and dingy red plastic chairs were all gone, replaced by bowling lockers. No more sitting inside to eat your food. It was bewildering for a moment and I asked the bored girl behind the counter when they took out the tables and chairs. She didn’t know. I asked her how long has she worked there and she said for about a year. I took a chance and asked if there was anyone who had worked there for a long time, and she said, “Oh yeah. Sue.”
“Is Sue here by any chance?”
I’m kind of freaking out right now. “Can I talk to her?”
“Sure, let me go get her.”
The girl disappeared into the bowels of the kitchen and a minute later, the face of an older lady peeked around the corner, a confused but curious little smile on her face. My wife standing behind me saying, “Oh my God, this is so cool.”
I said Hi to Sue and asked her a bunch of rapid-fire questions. She started working in the kitchen 40 years ago, almost as long as I’ve been alive. I told her about coming with my mom on Thursday ladies’ league nights, and she yepped and remembered. I told her about how I and the gangs of other bored kids used to get in trouble running around from the arcade to the long hallway at the very end of the building where we would have paper airplane flying competitions and sometimes get into fights and she yepped again and remembered it all.
“Kids are still getting in trouble down in that hallway,” she said.
Sue told me about the Kalafats, Peggy and George, long since retired. About the tables and chairs being removed and the lockers put in about six years ago. I thanked her for taking the time and asked if I could take her picture and she got a little embarrassed. I wondered about the last time a stranger had asked to take her picture. Maybe never.
We couldn’t eat inside the restaurant so went down to the bar. We laughed about meeting Sue, how it was a little surreal that she just happened to be there, like my own personal time machine taking me back to 1985. I wondered if she’d had her tattoos since then or if they were new. What else had changed in her life during that time, if anything?
We sat there looking around the bar, watching the impatient bowlers come up to the order window to get a drink, looking over their shoulders every few seconds to see if it was their turn to bowl yet. The girl behind the bar running back and forth, working hard. She made two Jack-and-Cokes and my wife pointed out that she wasn’t stingy with the Jack. I liked that and gave her a little extra tip.
Our burgers came, and we ate them pretty much in silence. I couldn’t even finish my beer, but it was a massive 32-oz. plastic cup of Bell’s Two-Hearted, which was a notable change. They definitely didn’t have locally-brewed IPA on tap there back when we were bowling in leagues 20 years ago. And the burgers came on a fancy Kaiser bun and weren’t as greasy as I recalled, but still pretty great.
There was a table of about nine people hanging out behind us and they asked the bar girl to change the TV to the Notre Dame women’s basketball game. When we left, none of them were watching basketball. They were all looking at their phones and my wife wondered if they were playing a game together. It was strange and I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t really say anything.
I’ll be 42 in three weeks and maybe I’ll have a mid-life crisis soon and start up a food truck business. My original idea was a School Lunch truck in an old school bus that serves meals like pizza and corn and a little square of brownie on a plastic tray. But maybe it should just be something simple instead.
The Rolling Diner, specializing in burgers and fries. Maybe I can hire Sue to run it with me.
Steve Lowe is the author of seven books, including YOU ARE SLOTH! and the soon-to-be-reissued MUSCLE MEMORY.
To this day, I still crave the cheeseburgers at Kalafats’ diner inside Chippewa Bowl. It was run by the Kalafats, a Polish family who also ran a German restaurant called Hans’ House a few miles down the road. I never went to Hans’ House. I don’t know why. Usually when we went to a restaurant when I was a kid, it was the Wagon Wheel on the southside of South Bend, Ind. for Friday all-you-can-eat perch night. But also cheeseburgers at Kalafats’ on Thursdays. That was mom’s league bowling night.
This was in the 1980s. Since I was small back then, I remember the women behind the counter being really big. Tall and broad, front to back as well as side to side, all breasts and rumps that balanced them out perfectly. Hearty, loud, grandmotherly.
The men behind the counter worked the flat top grill and they were always small, especially next to the women. Short, skinny junkie types with grubby hats and bony arms and bristly mustaches, flipping burgers with metal spatulas and cleaning the grill with a scraper that looked suspiciously like it could be used to remove paint from the side of a house, too.
Oh man, those wonderful, greasy burgers, though. Hard to find them like that anymore. There’s a diner across the street from where I work that closes down in the fall and opens in the spring that still makes them like that. Bonnie Doon used to be a big deal in this part of the world. Their ice cream was famous and their restaurants were the old fashioned drive-ins where you could order from your car over the garbled, scratchy intercom, and the carhops would bring the food out on trays that hooked to your window. It’s where kids around here from the 50s and 60s used hang out.
Bonnie Doon is pretty much dead now. The ice cream no longer exists, and the diner across the street from me is the last one in existence. The burgers probably aren’t even that good compared to my nostalgia for them, but it’s the last one. I think about that a lot. Every time I order a magical greasy cheeseburger and crinkle fries from Bonnie Doon, there is a distinct possibility that it will be the last one I will ever get. Eventually, the owner will finally hang it up. Nothing lasts forever.
I need to go back to that bowling alley and get a cheeseburger. I want to see if it’s the way I remember it. That smell of lane oil and cheap shoes, and the lingering fragrance of a million cigarettes smoked. They banned indoor smoking years ago, but that building has so much cigarette smoke in its bones it’s impossible to hide, no matter how many coats of glow-in-the-dark paint they slap on the walls. It’s infused in the yellowed ceiling tiles, just like the grease from the grill in that restaurant.
I had a physical the other day and got the word that my cholesterol is too high. I have to change my diet. No more fast food, which is fine. I can cut that crap out. But not Bonnie Doon. Not Kalafats’. These cheeseburgers are not fast food. They’re my youth. There are only so many opportunities left in my life that I can say, “Bonnie Burger, fries and a coke, please.”
I’m not ready for that to end yet. My doctor can fuck off.
Steve Lowe is the author of seven books, including YOU ARE SLOTH! and the soon-to-be-reissued MUSCLE MEMORY.
“LOAF ME! LOAF ME HARD!” I’d call out as I stumbled into Charlies Chowder House.
One of the teenage waitresses would laugh in a way that seemed more than a little stoned, then yell to Charlie, who would be working in the kitchen, “GRIMBOL IS HERE! HE NEEDS TO GET LOAFED! HARD!”
He’d laugh and wave hello.
I’d sit and wait and drink coffee. If it was busy, I would go behind the counter and pour myself a cup. Then I’d be served a massive plate of Buffalo Meatloaf, wrapped in crispy bacon, a meal they stopped making shortly after I left. That’s fine. I also loved their fish taco and their gumbo.
I ate there as often as possible. Sometimes I would get there for lunch, hang out all day, then get dinner. Once things slowed down at night, I’d have a drink with Charlie. We both loved reading Bukowski and Fante and other disheveled writers like that. He’d tell me about Astoria’s past.
Often we talked about our friends who also hung out at the Chowder House. Helmet John was easily the most infamous of the Chowder House folk. He was known for wearing a motorcycle helmet like it was a baseball cap. He pushed around a grocery cart full junky treasures and talked to himself and laughed loudly. His laughter was contagious and I was always happy to see him. One thanksgiving we all gathered at The Chowder House and Helmet John poured red wine on his pile of turkey meat. Then laughed and smiled at us. Later that night, Charlie and he got up and pretended to perform a bunch of Beatles songs, using old tennis rackets as guitars. I usually hate the holidays. But that was a good night. We drank and laughed and listen to Jimmy Buffett and danced around and ate amazing food and laughed some more.
When I think of Charlies Chowder House I get sappy. I often wish had never left Astoria. Its a scrappy town that loves rain and fog horns and weed. I got a visit a while back. Charlie had some meat loaf waiting for me. We drank and he told me about some of our friends. Some had passed away. We drank about that. Then we listened to Jimmy Buffett. Usually, I have a hard time listening to that kind of music. But Right then, with a belly full of loaf, in that Chowder House, in that grumpy town on Columbian River, Jimmy Buffett sounded good to me. It sounded familiar somehow. Like I had been listening to Jimmy Buffett my whole life without realizing it.
Near where Beacon’s Main Street and Route 52 intersect there stands, like a gleaming chrome temple, a diner of the highest quality. The Yankee Clipper not long ago was a boarded up wreck on the short list for demolition, but like most of Main Street Beacon, has been saved by the tide of rising property values. The glossy red painted rail-car inspired building is heavily decked out in chrome and mirror, with wide windows welcoming the sun. The fare is just what you would expect from a Greek diner, with a large laminated multiple page menu to browse, and large portions that have never failed me in either taste or appearance. The family friendly staff there is prompt and courteous, stopping by the table often enough to keep the patron satisfied without undue interruptions, and the dining rooms impeccably clean, and bright. The next time you are in the area and find yourself hungry for a cheese burger platter, or a stack of fluffy pancakes, you should stop into the Yankee Clipper.
This place has been around since the beginning of time. My father tells me it hasn’t changed since he was a child. The walls are lined with fake wood paneling and the seats have been worn in and have become a friendly shade of orange.
When I lived in Racine, I went to the Park Inn frequently. My dad would come pick me up and we would eat cheese burger baskets. We went there so often my dad started calling his Minivan the Park Inn Express.
I gained a lot of weight from going there so often but I don’t regret it. Okay, I regret it a little bit. But I still miss the place and the next time I am in Racine, I won’t be able to help myself. I will need to go there and scarf down a burger basket. Because, when you are visiting a place like Racine, a city with such history, its the only reasonable thing to do.
There were a lot of older women in the diner and they were all wearing fleece jackets. One sat at the counter a few stools away from me. She had a new boyfriend and she was excited to tell her waitress about it.
“You’re a lucky woman,” the waitress said.
Then they talked in a hushed tone and laughed.
“Did you hear any of that?” the waitress asked me.
Before I could answer she started laughing. She had a great laugh. It was loud and intense.
“Hope you didn’t hear any of what we just said,” she added.
Now both women started having a giggle fit.
I gave them a confused and polite smile then ate my grilled cheese on marbled rye, which, was easily one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I had ever had. The coffee was a little burnt. But I like it that way.
Justin Grimbol is the author of COME HOME, WE LOVE YOU STILL and MINIVAN POEMS. He lives in Vermont.
Bridgewater Diner in Bridgewater New Jersey is my go to diner. It used to be called Felix No. 9 but sometimes a new owner will buy an establishment and totally fuck up the name. The place sits in an extremely dangerous location in the middle of a highway, Rt. 22. That’s one of those highways with lights where everybody speeds like it’s an interstate. You could totally get killed going to this diner. They make a serious pork roll sandwich on a hard roll. Some people don’t know what pork roll is because you can only get it in New Jersey, but it’s basically fake ham that is better than ham. It’s what spam would be if it didn’t suck ass. When I was broke I used to get two eggs scrambled and a water, you get home fries and toast with that. I call that the poor man’s special. I still get it a lot even though I’m not as broke, but now I add pork roll to it.
When I lost my mind in 2008, I sort of found it again hanging out with good friends at this place. We used to overstay our welcome and then loiter outside for a while smoking cigarettes. Sometimes cops would show up to get food, but they never accused us of loitering or anything. You’re sort of allowed to do that stuff at a diner. One of my friends used to hit on a lot of waitresses at this place. We used to laugh about it after a while because the guy just loved waitresses. It never got weird though, like where the managers were telling us to get out. I don’t want to imply that he was being a creep either. This guy is always a gentleman. Sad thing is I haven’t been there so much lately, life can get hectic. it’s a great diner because they’ll split a check twelve ways without us having to threaten the manager.. That’s important to me.
Justin Mank is the author of The Hammer Headed Shark. He lives in New Jersey.