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.