Essays: What I Learned at the EZ Way Inn
Lesson 1: When in Rome
A friend of mine from college visited me in Kankakee one December when we were off for winter break. Since there weren’t all that many sights to show him, at the end of our brief tour, I brought him to my parent’s tavern, The E Z Way Inn. My parent’s place was not a restaurant or a bar or a lounge. Don and Nellie’s EZ Way Inn was a tavern, The dark interior, the small curtained windows, made it perpetual dusk on the brightest of summer afternoons, but on the short. shaded days of an Illinois winter? You could barely see your hand in front of your face.
My friend–let’s call him Frank–was not a drinker. He didn’t care for beer, didn’t touch whiskey, and, since the EZ Way Inn was a shot and a beer kind of place, he wasn’t sure what he should order. Nellie, my mother, all formidable five feet two of her, stood in front of him, tapping her foot, bar rag in hand, her arm in constant motion, wiping up spills before they happened.
“What’ll you have?” she asked, looking around to see if anyone else was watching this bearded long-haired college boy and thinking, as she was – if he’s smart enough to go to college, why can’t he make up his mind and just order a drink? Couldn’t he see she had other customers?
Frank was peering over Nellie’s head and around her, looking at the bottles lined up along the back of the bar. This was the 1970s—not so many name brands of alcohol in those days and certainly no fancy brands of liquor at the EZ Way Inn. No designer vodkas, no small batch whiskeys, no single malt scotches. Imperial, Seagram’s, Old Grandad, Walker’s, White Horse Scotch and if you were feeling like something special , Wild Turkey. Miller’s on tap and about a dozen American bottled beers in the cooler. No imports. No garnishes either. No bleu cheese stuffed olives—no olives at all—and no twists of lemon or lime. There was a rack that sold beer nuts and, if you were still hungry and fancied yourself a gourmet, there were Slim Jims.
Frank still dithered about what to order. I was getting nervous. Just order a coke, I wanted to shout. You don’t drink, you don’t have to order a drink. It won’t impress my mother if you order a drink. Despite the fact that Don and Nellie ran the EZ Way Inn for 37 years, Nellie never really approved of the place. She didn’t mind making the soup and sandwiches they served at lunch and she liked washing and polishing glasses till they gleamed and she loved swabbing the bar down and wise-cracking with the customers, but she could do without the alcohol. Nellie hated drinking and spent a good deal of her time behind the bar admonishing the boys—as she always referred to the factory workers who were their steady customers—telling them to go home because their wives had dinner waiting.
Her whole body twitching with impatience, Nellie repeated to Frank—“What’ll you have?”
Frank had finally spotted a bottle that he recognized lined up with all the cheap whiskeys and bourbons. It was so dust-covered , I’m not sure how he could read the label, especially in the glow of the twenty-five watt bulbs in the light fixture over our heads.
“Blackberry brandy,” Frank announced, a little too loudly. I’ll have a little blackberry brandy.”
I literally felt my jaw drop. I had never heard anyone order brandy much less a flavored variety of brandy. My mother leaned in toward us, giving me a sideways look to which I could only answer with a shrug. “No blender drinks, Frank,” she growled.
Everyone seated around us began to laugh. All the regulars knew that when a stranger came into the bar and tried to order any kind of a cocktail or mixed drink that Nellie had never heard of, she gave the same answer. No. Blender. Drinks. Whether someone wanted a daiquiri, a concoction that might actually require a blender—an appliance they certainly did not have at the EZ Way Inn—or whether someone wanted a manhattan or a side car or a rob roy or even a glass of white wine—none of which needed a power cord for mixing or pouring, Nellie always answered, No. Blender. Drinks.
Frank started to point to the bottle and explain that his drink didn’t require a blender, but he was cut off, mercifully by my father who had been watching this unfold from the other end of the bar. His arms crossed, a small smile playing around his lips, he loved watching my mother in action. He also had a kind heart and in sympathy for poor Frank, called over, “For god’s sake, Nellie, pour the boy a glass of brandy. It’s right there.”
My mother made an elaborate show of dusting off the bottle and pouring a shot of brandy into a glass, brandishing a coaster and setting it down with a flourish in front of Frank.
He looked at me and I knew he wanted ice in it and with every fiber of my 21-year old being, I willed him not to ask for it.
“On the house,” my mother said magnanimously.
“Thank you,” said Frank.
“Bottle’s about a thousand years old,” said Nellie. “Probably make you as sick as a dog.”
“Bottoms up,” I said, toasting Frank with my bottle of coca cola.
The lesson here is simple. When in Rome, order a shot and a beer. Or a coke. But don’t get fancy. There might be a time and place for a blender drink, but that place was not the E Z Way Inn.
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Lesson 2: Don't Judge ...
Don and Nellie didn’t believe in babysitters. This wasn’t a problem during the school year when I was occupied daily at St. Patrick’s Elementary School under the guidance of Sister Ann Elizabeth and Sister Rose Cicely. Religious holidays that fell between September and June, however, presented a challenge. For some, a day off from school might mean a play date or an excursion to a museum. For me, a day off from school meant a field trip to the E Z Way Inn.
I’d pack up books and crayons and puzzles and connect-the-dots and a foot-high stack of comics and settle in on the daybed in the dimly lit combination storage room/ rest area right off the kitchen known always as the backroom. The daybed was shoved under the slanted roof and, if a tall adult napping there slept soundly and rose quickly, he faced a strong chance of a concussion. For me, the daybed was just right. Cozy and hidden away, it was a perfect spot to eavesdrop on the busy life of the barroom and kitchen just outside the backroom door.
I learned a lot listening in on adults. None of it made sense or was particularly useful, but here’s a partial list.
Adult joking around consists of saying the opposite of what is meant.
The Cubs manager just made a real smart decision!
Adults ask questions of children and never wait for the answers.
Do you like school, sweetie? Hey, I was sitting there, that’s my beer there. Move over!
Adults will give you a quarter for the jukebox if you stand looking forlorn in the kitchen doorway.
C’mon honey, go pick out some songs. Play “Kansas City”, play “ Donna”, and then you pick. But no Elvis.
Until Nellie spotted me lurking in the doorway and sent me packing into the backroom, customers waved and winked and gave me quarters and it was a nice break from my Little Lulu and Donald Duck comic book marathon. I enjoyed the show from that doorway, Nellie and Don trotting from customer to customer, slapping down coasters and napkins, Nellie barking at everyone, Don smoothly drawing draft beers for the regulars.
Occasionally I had to flatten myself against the doorway when my dad ran out to the big cooler, a railroad refrigerated car nestled up alongside the tavern, accessed by banging out through the kitchen door with a wheeled dolly, to bring in a few new cases of already chilled bottles for the reach -in cooler behind the bar. As long as I stayed on the kitchen side of the doorway, my dad didn’t seem to mind me there, spying on the workings of rush hour at the E Z Way Inn.
These workers who poured through the door at noon for lunch or at 3:30 when the whistle blew at the stove factory were rough and tumble guys. They had worked hard for eight hours and now they wanted to drink beer, watch a ball game, argue, play cards and unwind from their days. I pointed out once to my dad that several of these men were missing fingers. “Those are press room boys, honey. Most of them lose a finger or two,” he told me, matter of fact. He might just as easily have been explaining that if one walks in the rain, one might get wet.
In addition to drinking beer and playing cards, the boys all liked to swear. Cuss. That was Nellie’s word for it. And she could cuss with the best of them. Their swearing wasn’t particularly forceful or angry, it was matter of fact. “Hand me one of those g*d**m napkins, will ya?” Just part of the everyday vernacular. The f-word was never uttered—just not part of the conversation in those days. But the hells, the damns, the bastards, and the Lord’s name in vain were as common in the E Z Way Inn as Budweiser and beer nuts.
There was one exception. Thanks to me, standing in the doorway peeking out with my thinly veiled plea for jukebox quarters, the language was tamed. Somebody would start to talk about the Cub’s pitcher being a no-good bas***d, and the guy sitting next to him, would nudge and do a head-fake over to me in the doorway.
Adjustments would be made. The Cub’s pitcher would turn magically into a no-good bum.
I will never forget Henry or Barney or one of the Wheelers, slipping up and letting a word or two escape, then looking over at me and politely saying, “Pardon me, Sharon.” Or “Hey Sharon, sorry about that, didn’t see you there.” They never failed to formally apologize to six-year-old me.
Those boys, those factory boys were the first grown-ups who ever took the time to acknowledge me and certainly, the first to apologize to me. They set a high standard, those factory boys, who I now realize were, in fact, boys. Many must have been in their twenties, thirties. They were indeed boys who, in their behavior toward me, were every inch the gentlemen.
The lesson here? Never judge a book by its cover. Or a man by his job, his clothes, his vocabulary or the missing two fingers on his left hand.
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Something about Movies, Playing Hooky and Dental Hygiene
This weekend, I saw two movies. At the theater! It’s hard for me to believe that I go to the movies so rarely, since my entire childhood and young adulthood was predicated on going to the “show,” every Saturday or Sunday. It didn’t matter what reviewers said about the movie, because we never read reviews. Were there any? My friends and I just found a parent to drive us, showed up and bought our tickets.
I also saw movies on the occasional school day afternoon. In fact, at least twice a year, sometimes more, my father would show up at school and ask for me to be excused early. My classmates would look up nervously when they heard the rumble of my dad’s deep voice.
“Excuse me, Sister, could you please excuse Sharon for the rest of the day?”
What could be so serious that Sharon’s dad showed up to take her out of school? I shrugged, got up, gathered my things and tried not to look too excited. I knew there was no family emergency. I knew I was going out to the movies with my dad. And, afterwards, he would drink a cup of coffee and smoke a cigarette while I slurped down a chocolate ice cream soda sitting at the counter at Kresge’s Dime Store.
How did I swing this fantasy afternoon every six months?
My father, Don, was a firm believer in good dental care. I’m not sure where or when his commitment to oral hygiene began, but committed he was. In addition to vigorous brushing and twice a year visits to the dentist, Don also had his own unique routine of preventative care. Every morning and evening, he enthusiastically gargled with straight hydrogen peroxide that he swigged from the bottle. He bought the stuff from the drugstore by the case. Nellie rolled her eyes at this ritual, and advised me against it.
“You could swallow it and die,” she said. No need for childproofing cabinets in our house.
But how did brushing and flossing lead to a half day of school and treats?
Nellie feared and loathed the dentist and Don, although not the most modern or thorough parent in many ways, decided that he had to take over the dental care chapter of my upbringing. Because he did not want me to fear the dentist or allow my friends (or Nellie) to influence my feelings about regular preventative care, he never informed me in advance about a check-up. On the day of the appointment, he would wink at me over breakfast.
“How about a date today,” he’d say. ”Want to see a movie and have a soda this afternoon?”
“Sure,” I’d say, pleased, but also suspicious. ”Um, why, Dad?”
“We’ll be downtown anyway. After we go see Dr. Hallmaier, we might as well go to the show.”
Every single childhood dentist appointment I had was a “date” with my father. And since we saw a rather laissez faire old-fashioned dentist who only filled the occasional cavity and rarely found anything to complain about with my teeth (despite my lack of peroxide mouthwash) those afternoons at the movies with my dad remain wonderful memories, with only the slightest whiff of dental disinfectant mingling with the smell of hot buttered popcorn and chocolate ice cream.
It was brilliant, really. Don never read a book or article on child-rearing in his life. I am certain of that. His own father died when he was six and his mother remarried a man the age of her own father who proceeded to lose everything in the Depression. My dad had to quit school to get a job to help support his family, giving up every dream of his own higher education. He loved to read and do crossword puzzles, but he usually came home from work so exhausted that he fell asleep in his chair underneath the Kankakee Daily Journal every night. But despite his lack of child psychology texts and the good example of his own father whom he could barely recall, he worked out the perfect scheme to instill solid dental care habits in me.
He also might have had the tiniest ulterior motive. After the dentist, we would walk over to the Paramount or the Luna Theater and Dad would buy two tickets. He also bought popcorn for himself and a large box of Dots for me. So much for the dental visit now already forgotten. My dad never checked out the movie in advance. No matter what was playing, he bought two tickets and in we went. The movie had already started–perhaps it was the middle, perhaps closer to the end–and we would settle into seats in the almost empty theater. My dad would eat his popcorn, then whisper to me to wake him up when we got to the part where we came in. My dad could sleep anywhere. He didn’t need to be under the newspaper in his recliner to catch a nap. And while Nellie tended bar and handled the afternoon rush hour on her own at the E Z Way Inn, my dad would power-nap while I watched whatever appeared on the screen. Whatever appeared on screen. This was one of the movies we–I mean I– saw. The Bramble Bush with Richard Burton. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053673/plotsummary
If you’re curious enough to read the synopsis, you will note that this is probably not appropriate subject material for a nine-year old. That night as I gave Nellie the play-by-play of The Bramble Bush, as near as I could understand it, she folded her arms and her eyes got wider and wider. She looked over at my father, already asleep in his chair.
“How much of that movie did your dad see?”
I said he’d gone to sleep right after he finished his popcorn which took him about five minutes.
Nellie shook her head and shrugged. ”Well, don’t tell Sister what you saw at the movies,” she warned before going back to doing the dishes.
No need to worry. I knew what to tell my teacher and my friends about my surpise day off from school. ”I had a dentist appointment,” I would say, tugging the corners of my mouth into an appropriate frown.
The lesson here is complicated. It probably should have something to do with creative parenting and dental hygiene, but equally important, I think, is the fact that we never went to the movies on time. That the storytelling started when we got there and ended when we left. I think that lesson has stayed with me as a writer. A story always starts in the middle. Oh, and another lesson? If you’re going to use a bottle of hydrogen peroxide a week, buy it by the case.
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Lesson 4: Be Prepared
The EZ Way Inn was a small ramshackle building planted in the middle of a parking lot. The outer perimeter of gravel lot belonged to Roper Stove factory and was reserved for employee parking. On a working weekday, the tavern stood camouflaged, amidst beat-up Fords and Chevys, rusted out pick-up trucks and a few motorcycles. No one from the factory ever parked directly behind the tavern. Although a sign was never posted, that spot was always reserved for Don and Nellie.
A typical day at the EZ Way Inn for my parents started around 7:30 AM when Don swung his big sedan into the spot behind the tavern. Don took out his Don and Nellie key ring–one of the annual Christmas gifts (along with pens and coin purses) my parents gave out to customers in December, and unlocked the back door, the padlock on the walk-in cooler accessed from the back porch, and Nellie went inside to start flicking on the light switches. The neon sign in the front window began to buzz, the Hamm’s bear sprang to life on the lighted sign in the dining room and Don plugged in the juke box and the cigarette machine which, at closing the night before, had been unplugged, unlocked, completely opened, their cash reservoirs emptied.
Once, on a school holiday when I accompanied them on their morning rounds, I asked my dad why he bothered to empty the coins out every night.
“Do they get too full of money?” I asked.
My dad smiled and shook his head.
“Saves the machines,” he said.
“Because the lights would burn out?”
“No, honey.” My dad was already pushing the dolly out the back door to the big cooler to bring in cases of bottled beer.
“Why what?” he said, wrenching open the boxes and placing the bottles into the reach-in cooler behind the bar.
“Why open up the machines every night?”
My dad straightened up and stretched. The bad back that would plague him his whole life had to have gotten its start with the lifting, carrying, bending and unloading that he went through three or four times a day.
“Because when we get broken into, the idiots always smash the machines to get the money inside. For a couple of bucks, they’ll hammer out the whole machine and wreck it.” Don went back to putting the bottles into the cooler. ”So I finally got smart. I just open everything up and leave it empty so I don’t have to replace the whole machine.”
“Understand?” he asked. When I nodded, he shooed me off to the kitchen to help my mother who already had the soup pot simmering on the stove.
I understood the gist of it. But I didn’t exactly get the when part. Shouldn’t my dad have said if we get broken into?
“How often does somebody break into the tavern?” I asked my mother.
“I don’t know, once a month?” said Nellie, carryout a dozen yellow onions from the backroom in the pocket of her apron. ”Nah, maybe every other month, I’m not sure.” She began peeling and slicing. ”Why do you want to know?” she asked.
“It’s scary,” I said. ”Burglers.” I was picturing men in convict stripes with black masks over their eyes, money sacks thrown over their shoulders, like in my comic books.
“Nothing scary about it,” said Nellie. ”you aren’t here when they come. And they don’t want you. They just want money,” Nellie chopped away at the onions with tears streaming down her face, the only time I saw her cry. ”I just hate it when they make a mess. Break a window and get glass all over. Smash things, toss stuff around. No need for that. Don’t they realize somebody has to clean that up?” said my mother, sighing, wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron.
So my dad shrugged off the inevitable break-ins at the EZ Way Inn as the cost of doing business and seemed pleased he had, at least, figured out a way to protect his equipment. My mother had nothing to say about criminal action, but found the disregard for cleanliness completely immoral.
Don’s lesson? Be prepared. Bad stuff might happen. No. Bad stuff will happen, so think ahead and minimize your losses.
Nellie’s lesson? Be prepared to clean up the mess. Because nobody ever thinks about who’s going to clean up the mess.
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Lesson 5: Nothing Can Ever Prepare You ...
Friday was payday. I don’t know how it started, but my dad and the EZ Way Inn morphed into banker and bank for the Roper boys every Friday. Don went to the First Trust bank mid-morning, got a sack full of cash, and set up a station at his desk in the corner behind the bar. I suspect it was more complicated than requesting a “sack full of cash,” but times were simpler and somehow, Don as adjunct banker worked easily and well–for the boys and for the business since the Friday lunch rush was busier than any other day of the week. Sometimes he asked his friend and regular, Ted, to be the “teller,” and Ted stepped behind the bar to cash checks, giving up his own lunch hour to help out.
“He’s good with numbers,” my dad explained.
Other times, Don himself accepted the Roper paychecks, stamped them and stacked them, preparing to take them to the bank after the lunch rush to deposit checks and return surplus cash. Don was good with numbers, too. Simpler times, indeed.
One Friday, around 11 am, two strangers entered the tavern, one through the front door and one through the back. They carried sawed off shotguns. They tried to herd Don and Nellie, their bartender, Carl, who happened to be helping out for the Friday lunch rush, and Francis, the bread man, into the ladies’ bathroom.
Both the men’s and ladies’ bathrooms at the EZ Way Inn were small. In fact, they were so small that the one sink for both was located outside of the restrooms themselves. The EZ Way Inn was an early adopter of unisex design.
As one of the robbers bagged up the check cashing money, the other looked for a larger place to stash the witnesses. They pushed and prodded them into the back room.
“There’s a Roper guard who eats lunch here and he’ll be coming through the door any minute,” Nellie said.
“Quiet,” said Don.
“Can you let me stir my soup? It’s oyster stew and it’s going to stick,” said Nellie.
“Quiet, Nellie,” said Don.
One of the intruders began to tape their hands and feet, and set his gun down on the wooden counter where Nellie chopped her onions. She inched toward it.
“No, Nellie,” said Don.
The robbers argued about what to do next, about the impropriety of setting one’s gun down during a robbery and where they were going to put everyone. And as they argued, Nellie’s scolding and chiding continued.
“The guard who eats here has a gun,” said Nellie.
“If you don’t make her stop,” began the taller of the two.
“For god’s sake, Nellie, shut up,” said Don.
Don, Nellie, Carl and Francis were taped up and tossed into the back room. Nellie flopped on to the daybed and wiggled around, still threatening that the robbers would never get away with it.
They got away with it.
Except for the second packet of cash from the bank that lay on the day bed. Nellie had spotted the bank bag and pushed it onto the floor behind her when she sprawled on the bed.
I ran to the house from the bus stop, getting out my key to unlock the front door. Jim, the paperboy, was running toward my house holding up the paper, shouting “Extra, Extra, read all about it.”
He ran up on the porch with the Kankakee Daily Journal and unfurled the paper, holding it in front of my face.
“2 Gunmen Take $3000 At Tavern” read the headline. Below was a photo: My mother in the foreground holding up the tape with which she had been bound. Next to her, police officer Rivers Brown stood holding the butcher knife Nellie used for chopping onions, the one the robbers had used to cut the tape. My father was a ghostly presence in the background behind them. The story said that Mrs. Schmidt freed herself, then used the knife to free her husband and the others.
I called the EZ Way Inn.
“Is it true?” I asked, knowing it was a stupid question but not having another.
“Of course it’s true. It’s in the paper, isn’t it?” said my mother. ”Call back later, we’re busy, it’s the middle of rush hour.”
As we did most every Friday night, we ate dinner at Blue’s Cafe. My father’s eyes remained wide. My mother shook her head and claimed she could have gotten a hold of the gun. People stopped by the table and they told and retold the story. I asked them why they didn’t call me at school. They looked at each other.
“Why would we do that?” asked Nellie.
“It had already happened, honey,” said Don. ”No use upsetting your day.”
Blue and Venita, owners of Blue’s came out and squeezed into the booth with us and Don and Nellie told the story again–Nellie claiming that she could have stopped the robbery if Don hadn’t warned her off of grabbing for the gun and Don explaining matter of factly that Nellie almost got them all shot.
“Are you okay?” I asked my dad at home later, not knowing what to say, but feeling like something should be said.
He nodded. ”We’re fine. Lucky. Your mother almost got us killed, but we’re fine. But…” he trailed off.
“I don’t suppose that I’ll ever have a day when I don’t think about this,” he said. “I expect I’m changed.” He added, ”But I know we’re lucky.”
Lesson? Lessons? As prepared as you might be, you can’t prepare for everything. Oyster stew sticks to the pan if you don’t stir it. Read a newspaper everyday or you might miss something. If you’re smart, you’ll prepare for whatever you can and when you can’t prepare, you’ll know enough to appreciate when you’re lucky.
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Lesson 6: The Honor System
Here’s how it worked at lunchtime.
Just after 11:30 am, the first wave of factory workers poured in through the front door of the EZ Way Inn. The boys shouted their drink orders to Don–a draft or bottled beer by brand–unless, of course, Don already knew what they wanted and had whipped out a paper coaster and set their drinks down as they stepped across the threshold.
Next, the boys lined up at the kitchen door where Nellie stood in front of the huge cast iron stove, apron tied over her shirtwaist dress, and faced them with her arms folded and a metal spatula in hand. No order pad, no stub of a pencil. She just stood there, tapping her foot, waiting for them to give their orders. Nellie liked to stare down her customers, daring them not to know what they wanted when it was their turn in the doorway.
Daily choices were hamburgers and cheeseburgers which Nellie cooked on the large well-seasoned grill that was almost half the surface of the eight burner stove. These were not, by the way, pre-formed frozen beef patties. There was a daily delivery of freshly ground beef from the neighborhood grocery and butcher six blocks away and as soon as the box arrived at 9 am, Nellie was ready for it. She used a stainless ice cream scoop to gather the meat into a ball, then pressed it between two squares of waxed paper into a patty with a metal press. The summer I was eleven, I was “hired” to work in the kitchen and this was one of my first jobs.
In addition to the burgers, each day Nellie offered a “special” sandwich. Roast beef, Polish sausage, cubed steaks, barbeque and on Fridays, tuna and egg salad. There was also a daily soup special; chicken noodle, vegetable beef, beef noodle, chili, oyster stew.
One by one, the boys shouted their orders:
Double cheeseburger with extra pickles. Two Polish with onions. Chicken noodle and a hamburger, no onions. Bowl of chili and a cube steak, extra onions. Two barbeques with lots of pickles. And so forth. The orders came in a steady stream for over 40 minutes.
Nellie never asked anyone to repeat. She remembered. She started throwing burgers on the grill, dishing up soup and handing bowls off while the orders kept coming. She flipped the burgers, garnished them and held up the paper plates, shouting back the orders– and when the hungry factory worker heard his sandwich order repeated back, he hopped to, ran over, picked up his lunch and brought it back to the spot he had scored at the bar or one of the dining room tables.
Since Nellie wrote nothing down and no bills were delivered, how to pay? The E Z Way Inn worked on the honor system. As they left, the boys repeated their lunch order to Don who did the math in his head and collected the money–or wrote down what they owed on a small white scratch pad for the regulars he allowed to run tabs during the week.
Every day, Curtis ordered the same sandwich.
“Double cheeseburger, Mom.”
“Don’t call me mom,” said Nellie, without turning around from the grill.
One day, Nellie overheard Curtis and his friends checking out with Don.
“What did Curtis say he had?” asked Nellie.
“Cheeseburger,” said Don.
“He had a double,” said Nellie.
“Charged him for a single,” said Don. “He always has a cheeseburger,” added Don.
“Did his friend tell you had tomato on his sandwich?” Nellie asked. She charged an extra nickel for a slice when tomatoes weren’t in season. Don shook his head.
The next day, when she was all caught up on orders, Nellie emerged from the kitchen, wiped her hands on her apron and approached the table where Curtis and his friends sat eating their lunch.
“Can I sit down with you a minute?” she asked, and sat before they could register surprise. Nellie never sat down during the lunch rush. Quietly she asked the guys if they worked hard over at Roper. They nodded. Yes they did. She then told them she worked hard in the kitchen.
“You wouldn’t like it if your paycheck was short, would you?” she asked. They shook their heads. No they wouldn’t.
“I don’t like it either,” said Nellie. ”If you have a double cheeseburger, it costs more and you’ve got to tell Don when you pay. And tomato is extra on a sandwich.”
“Tomato cost extra?” Curtis’s friend asked, incredulous.
“Out of season,” said Nellie, shrugging.
The guys nodded and apologized. Curtis explained that he was so used to a double cheeseburger, it was what he called a cheeseburger. And no one knew Nellie’s tomato rule. There were no signs, no posted menus or prices. Nothing was written down, after all.
“Sorry, Mom,” they said, when Nellie got up to return to the kitchen. She didn’t correct them.
The lesson here is that the honor system works. Both parties have to be honorable, of course. And both parties have a responsibility. Be clear on your prices especially if you don’t write things down. Be ready with your order. And make sure you ask if the tomato costs extra after August.
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Lesson 7: Portrait of the Artist
While waiting for Don and Nellie to finish up at the end of the day, I could sometimes get away with sitting at the almost empty bar.
By five o’clock, most of the regular customers who had wives and children had gone home to supper. Some of the boys were still finishing up euchre games at a table in what we called the dining room, although it wasn’t really a separate room. It was just the other side of the tavern, opposite the bar, where eight tables filled the space. The few regulars who remained seated at the bar were the customers I knew best, the ones who were always there in the waning light between five and six, the hour that always seemed to me to be the loneliest time of day.
Since that lonely hour often stretched into the longest hour as I waited for my parents to finish their workday and for our bartender, Carl, to appear at six, my dad often tossed me a scratch pad from behind the bar and a pencil or pen, so I could entertain myself. Once in a while, I could interest Barney or Milt or another regular with whom I felt comfortable in a game of tic-tac-toe, but I was shy and if they were engaged in a conversation or watching a ballgame, I found it impossible to intrude.
So, mostly, I sketched.
At age eight, I had decided I would be an artist. I loved to draw, I had a lot of crayons and my favorite activity was using Venus Paradise colored pencils on a color-by-number landscape or still life. The artistic life seemed like a good fit.
Sitting at the bar one late afternoon, I began to draw a portrait of one of the men nursing his glass of beer before heading off to his own home. My dad picked up the pad and said, “By God, that’s Chuck, isn’t it?”
I nodded. At the time I was flattered that the likeness was recognizable. What an artistic prodigy I must be! Looking back, I realize that it was the short straight lines I had drawn radiating from the top of a flat head that connoted Chuck’s severe crewcut that made the portrait so true to life.
Without hesitation, my dad tore off the sheet of paper and scotch taped it to the ceiling beam that ran over the bar. When asked what it was by those too far away to admire the well-defined and articulated crewcut, Don announced with pride that I had drawn a portrait.
“Freehand,” I remember him saying, although I don’t know what other method I had at my disposal while perched on my barstool.
“Hey, Sharon, can you draw me?” Vince asked from across the room.
I looked at Vince and nodded, but I didn’t draw his picture. Instead, I moved along, drawing each man, making sure to define them by the way they parted their hair or the shape of their eyeglasses. But not Vince.
The beam filled up with drawings. I began to sign them with a flourish, blushing when my subjects told me that the pictures would be worth something when I was a famous artist.
During my mad drawing sessions, Vince, almost always at the bar during the lonely hour, continued to call out each day, “Hey, Sharon, draw me.”
“You’re too ugly, Vincie! She don’t want to draw you,” said someone from across the bar. Laughter erupted and the insults would start flying back and forth. Vince, a swarthy man, who probably needed a second shave as soon as he finished his first one, took it all like the good sport he was. I promised to draw his picture. Soon.
The truth was, I didn’t want to draw Vince. I wouldn’t have called him ugly. I was too polite for that. But I found his looks scary. Intimidating. Even though he was sweet to me, always kind and gave me a Christmas present every year, I just had a hard time looking him in the eye. He also was one customer who I noticed drank too much. I’m sure there were several who over-imbibed, but Vince was someone I noticed.
One night at home, in the brief waking window between the time my dad opened up the Kankakee Daily Journal and fell sound asleep in his chair, I asked him why Vince drank so much beer, and my dad shrugged.
“He’s sad. He’s lonely. He has a family somewhere, but his wife left him and took his daughter. That’s probably why. He’s a good man, though, that Vincie.”
That’s how my dad answered questions. Both Don and Nellie, if they weren’t too busy to answer at all, always gave me more information than I wanted to hear. They must have kept their own secrets, but when I asked direct questions? I got direct unvarnished answers.
The next day, I asked my dad for both a pen and a pencil for my drawing session. He smiled, raised an eyebrow and handed them over. He probably thought next I would demand a beret and an easel.
I used the pen to make pinpoint holes in the paper all over the lower portion of the face I had drawn. Then I held the pencil at a 45 degree angle and shaded the jowls. Below heavily lidded eyes, I had found the perfect method to render Vince’s five o’clock shadow. I printed his name at the top and signed my own at the bottom and trotted over to him so he could see that I had finally fulfilled my promise.
“It looks just like me, Sharon! You’re going to be a famous artist someday!” said Vince, smiling with delight and handing the drawing to my dad so he could hang it with the others in the “gallery.”
What lesson did I learn? Behind every face is a story? Well, yes, I know that now, but at the time? I think I learned that even though my parents were overworked and too busy to spend today’s “quality” time with me, they did provide me with my own art gallery and, more or less, supported my dreams. Everyone deserves that. And everyone, even Vince, maybe especially Vince, deserves, at one time or another, to have his picture drawn and displayed.
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Lesson 8: About the Generation Gap
The Generation Gap was a popular expression in the mid to late 1960's, used to describe the divide between parents and children--parents who didn't understand their offspring's taste in music, clothes, popular culture, and politics. The offspring, of course, didn't care about understanding their parents' point of view. They were busy following their own self-generated tenet of the times--Don't Trust Anyone Over 30.
In other words, it was a one-way gap.
Looking back, I realize I knew about this gap before it was named by the popular press, but then, it had nothing to do with a chasm between Don and Nellie and myself. The generation gap that affected my early life was the one between my brother, Emory, and me.
Emory was seven and a half years older than I and my only sibling. Although we both grew up under the hawk-like vigilance of Nellie and the benignly neglectful eyes of Don, our childhoods were vastly different.
When I was 3 and Emory, 10, Nellie joined Don at the tavern, agreeing to help out for "just 6 months or so" until they got the business on its feet. In my earliest memories, Emory was always supposed to be watching me.
My brother claims he taught me to read, and although I can't remember the exact magical moment I associated shapes on paper with storytelling, I do remember sitting at a table in the dining room of the EZ Way Inn, where we were waiting, always waiting, for Don and Nellie to finish their workdays. I remember the table piled high with comic books and I can remember Em making me sound out letters, and, eventually, words. I'd like to think that POW or BLAM were among my first.
Emory and I both observed the comings and goings of the regulars at the EZ Way Inn. The age gap, though, made for different views.
When I was 8 and Emory was 16, he disappeared. He did not run away or get sent to boarding school. He simply got a driver's license and the gift of a used car from our dad.
Generous? Yes. Trusting? Sure. Ulterior motives? Plenty.
Since Nellie didn't drive, had never driven and since Don believed the world a safer place because of it, Emory's newly minted license served another purpose. It was also Don's "Get Out Of Jail Free" card.
Emory could now drive our formidable Grandma Henry (Don's mother) to her beauty salon appointments every Friday evening. Emory could drive Nellie to the grocery store on weekends. Emory could drive me to church on Sunday.
And worse, much worse, Emory could, on occasion, drive home a customer who had been over-served at the E Z Way Inn.
The regular customers who I observed and sketched and loved for their jokes and their stories and their peculiarities were people I observed in late afternoon while they were having a beer or two after a hard shift at work.
Those same people, however, occasionally stayed late or got involved in a long euchre game or perhaps just decided to blow off steam on a weekend. When that happened, long before the term "designated driver" became part of the vernacular, Don and Nellie took away their car keys and called a cab.
That is, until Emory got his driver's license.
"What if he gets sick?" I can remember Emory wailing, the first time he was asked to drive an inebriated customer home.
"He won't," Nellie would say. Then she would shrug and hand Emory some towels.
I can only imagine how grateful Emory might be--in hindsight--that cell phones did not exist. Becoming unreachable on a Friday or Saturday night was easier then, and I can understand why Emory disappeared whenever possible.
The same person I saw through rose colored glasses as a colorful character was, to Emory, all too real and vivid as the potential weekend drunk, an unpredictable passenger in my brother's back seat. The regulars who starred in my day time movies, as I spied on them from the EZ Way Inn kitchen doorway, were the kindly Dr. Jekylls who in Emory's nighttime, more grown up world turned into the Mr. Hydes.
So a lesson on the generation gap? It's not always between parents and children. People can simply witness the same events through different lenses. I saw my parent's tavern as an ongoing story peopled with characters from all walks of life who came together for a few hours a day on the stage of the EZ Way Inn. It was the Don and Nellie show that might as well have been performed for my benefit. Emory never really got to sit in the audience with me. Instead, he had a much harder job as stage manager, bringing people on and bringing people off.
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Lesson 9: Field Trip!
Long before there were lawn services and landscapers, there were weekend gardeners like my dad. He never planted a flower, never wanted a tomato plant or a trellis full of clematis. He wanted perfectly lush green grass, no dandelions or wild violets.
He demanded precision edging around the sidewalks. He wanted evergreens clipped into all-American crewcuts, their errant branches raked and bagged and burned in the alley. He wanted trees that greened in the spring, grew into lush summer foliage that turned miraculously into a crayon box of golds and ochres and burnt siennas in the fall and, in the winter, held their bare branches up in mute surrender to the cold and snow.
Nellie was his partner in this weekend battle to tame their patch of nature, to bend it and break it into manicured Eden. Just as each had his and her designated morning tasks at the EZ Way Inn, Nellie bringing the kitchen to life with chopping and scrubbing and cleaning and cooking and Don, hauling and filling, ordering and checking, and cleaning and swabbing, they had an unspoken weekend division of duties maintaining their hard won patch of earth.
Don mowed, Nellie edged. Don pruned while Nellie, on hands and knees, with a paring knife, dug out the weeds. Don cleaned the mower while Nellie swept away the clippings on the sidewalk. Don barbered the hedges, while Nellie raked and bagged. In the fall, Don burned the leaves, while Nellie stood by with the hose.
Witnessing the summer weekend Don and Nellie show, away from the EZ Way Inn, was entertaining in a different way than watching them serve up the regulars at the tavern, sparring with each other as they cut paths back and forth behind the bar.
The EZ Way Inn show was the talkie, full of fast-paced dialogue and witty repartee. Don and Nellie in the Saturday replacement show, mowing and weeding, bending and sweating, then finally cleaning and replacing all the lawn tools and collapsing into lawn chairs to admire their daylong efforts, Nellie with an iced tea and Don with a beer, was the silent movie.
The paradox , of course, was that the talkie, lit by only by the 40 watt bulbs, was in black and white and the silent movie played out in full sun-lit Technicolor.
Is there really a lesson here? Or is this little fit of words brought on by the fact that just after I entered my home office this morning, the lawn crew arrived. I sit typing, while they mow and edge with power equipment that enables two men to finish in twenty minutes what used to be a daylong event?
I watch the company truck and trailer drive away, then see the ghosts of my parents standing on the front lawn outside my window. Don holds wooden handled hedge clippers and Nellie shows me the blister she raised from doing the edging by hand. Nellie, as always, seems vaguely disapproving and Don looks puzzled. It’s clear they do not understand why I, or anyone else, would choose musing instead of mowing.
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Lesson 10: Silver
When Don cleaned out the cigarette machine and the jukebox in the evening, he had, as you might imagine, a hefty amount of change. He also added in the change from the cash register every night. He scooped all the coins into a white cloth bag with a drawstring across the top. Eventually, he got a fat briefcase in which he placed the day’s receipts, but before he acquired that business accessory, he left the E Z Way Inn carrying one big heavy bag of money.
At night, after dinner, or sometimes, early in the morning, Don would dump the coins on the kitchen table to count. I remember thinking when I saw that plump white bag, it was just like the ones in the Scrooge McDuck comic books, except in the cartoon drawing, Uncle Scrooge’s money bag had a big fat $ on the side, instead of a stenciled FIRST TRUST AND SAVINGS.
I loved watching Don count money. He stacked the coins, made neat piles, all the while jotting down figures on a scratch pad, then adding up the columns. He whistled and hummed as he did this. Much later, when I was an adult, he confided to me that he had wanted to go to college and study math, maybe become an accountant or maybe even go to law school someday. Instead, because times were hard and his family strapped, he had to quit high school at 14 and go to work. He never sounded bitter, just wistful.
I noticed one morning Don had added sorting to his counting. Sitting there, sipping his coffee and humming, he had set aside a few dimes and quarters, away from their respective piles.
“What’s wrong with those?” I asked.
“Not a thing, sweetheart,” he answered, motioning me closer to examine one of the coins with him. “They’re silver. See the date? Anything before this year, 1965, was made of silver. I’m saving them. They’ll be worth something.” Don paused then and winked at me. “You’re still saving silver dollars, right?”
My dad and I had a history with silver coins.
In August of 1963, my parents were about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. I had learned somewhere, probably from one of the free advertising calendars hanging in the backroom of the E Z Way Inn, that a 25th wedding anniversary was special, a silver anniversary.
I was old enough to go into a store in downtown Kankakee by myself and that’s exactly what I did. On a Saturday shopping trip with Nellie, I told her I had to get something and took myself into the Kankakee Book Store and found the greeting card section that catered to anniversaries. One giant, colorful piece of cardboard appealed to me. It was an oversize tree with twenty-five indented slots to hold twenty-five silver dollars. I bought it, brought it home and pulled a cigar box heavy with precious metal out from under my bed.
Whenever Don and Nellie received silver dollars at the E Z Way Inn, they gave them to Emory and me. They alternated between us, I believe, or at least tried to, although Emory and I always claimed that the other had gotten the last one.
I kept mine in one of the many empty cigar boxes that were part of my E Z Way Inn loot. I counted out my dollars that day, trusting that I had at least twenty-five. I filled each coin slot on the anniversary tree and slid the now impossibly heavy card into the thick padded envelope that had come with it. At least I wouldn’t have to mail it.
On August 12, 1963, I gave my parents their anniversary present. Twenty-five silver dollars! They really seemed thrilled with it! My dad was especially happy. He had tears in his eyes when he hugged me. Nellie even gave a solid half smile and nodded.
Yesterday, August 12, 2012, would have been Don and Nellie’s 74th wedding anniversary
When my dad died in 1978 and we opened his safety deposit box, we found a white cloth moneybag loaded with silver dimes and quarters and silver dollars. And my dad was right. Those coins were worth something.
This lesson is a no-brainer, right? Figure out what’s valuable and hold on to it. It will be worth something someday.
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Lesson 11: Bar Food
Just in case you were wondering, today’s mozzarella sticks and buffalo wings did not arrive in your favorite bar without a history, without forerunners in the field of a bite to eat with your beer.
In the barroom of the E Z Way Inn, there were two low cabinets on either side of the doorway that led to the kitchen.
On one side was the coffee cabinet that held Fire King jadeite cups and saucers on the shelves behind its sliding doors. On the top of the cabinet was a four-burner coffee warmer where there was always a pot of dark sludge simmering throughout the day. Sugar in a ribbed glass canister jar with a metal spout and a pitcher for cream stood at attention.
On the other side of the doorway, was a similar cabinet, however its surface was filled with much more interesting fare than Nellie’s chewable coffee.
This was the snack cabinet. One tall metal rack held bags of potato chips, another held plastic bags of beer nuts and cashews. A display box of Slim Jim’s stood between them.
Don also tried out more exotic snacks occasionally. I remember a giant jar of something sitting on the bar that my dad called pickled pigs feet–which I first believed was just the amusing name of some kind of harmless food product. Imagine my surprise when Nellie disabused me of the notion.
“Why the hell you think they call them pickled pig’s feet?” she asked when she saw my jaw drop as I studied the jar more closely.
Who would have thought the floating objects floating in the brine were actually the feet of pigs!
One month, Don experimented with canned fish. Small tins of anchovies that you opened with a tiny metal key were available and came with a small packet of saltines. There were also some packets of crackers with a container of plastic-y almost spreadable cheese briefly offered for sale on the snack cabinet. Those poor-selling, inedible cheez-n-cracker packets briefly migrated into my school lunch bag before they were discontinued entirely at the E Z Way Inn.
Nellie always had a stack of hard salami, sliced wafer-thin and a deck of American cheese (real cheese, not spelled with a z ) slices in the kitchen refrigerator. If someone needed some food at night, long after the grill was cold and the soup kettles had been put away for the day, a cold sandwich could be easily slapped together by the bartender.
And on nights when the bartender was late and we couldn’t all leave together for our nightly stop at Blue’s Café for dinner? I got to choose my supper from the available bar snacks. A salami sandwich with yellow mustard and a side order of Beer Nuts wasn’t a bad meal. I did notice, though, that it took quite a bit of 7-up to wash it all down.
When Carl, our regular bartender, finally arrived to relieve my parents, and we could leave for home, I was still licking my lips and complaining of thirst.
My dad nodded sagely.
“That’s the idea, sweetheart.”
When I didn’t catch on immediately, my dad explained that salty snacks were good for business.
“They make you drink more beer,” said Nellie, clearly disapproving of the practice.
“Or 7-up,” said my dad, with a smile.
Simple lesson, right? Be prepared when you order that platter of wings and make sure you have a designated driver. Another pitcher of beer just might be in your future.
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Lesson 12: The Frosted Mug
Every kid has a marker for summer. Last day of school, dandelions punctuating a swath of green grass, the sound of a lawn mower, a pool pass clipped on a backpack, a glass jar with holes poked in the lid for catching lightening bugs.
At the EZ Way Inn, there were summer markers, too. The bang of the screen door when you entered through the kitchen, the red, ripe tomatoes Fuzzy picked for Nellie and set up in a row on her scarred wooden cutting board, the constant loop of Cubs and White Sox games playing on the television perched on the high corner shelf and of course, the iconic harbinger of the dog days of summer, the frosted mug.
I marked the beginning of summer when Don took out a piece of white cardboard and, in fat, black, permanent marker, printed, FROSTED MUG, 50 cents ! A regular draft in a slimmer, handhold-friendly curved glass was 35 cents. The mug, appearing larger, seemed to contain an ounce or two more beer, but more important, it held the ultimate promise of cold and quench, the very taste of summer.
“Yup,” said Don, taping up the sign, “they all complain about the price the first week, but they know it’s worth it.”
Then he taped the second sign in the window.
HOME OF THE FROSTED MUG
Don had a small glass-doored freezer next to the rinse tanks that were situated behind the bar, just west of the taps that dispensed already cold beer. I could tell he was proud of that little freezer with the gleaming mugs lined up in rows on two shelves. He liked being an innovator, offering the boys something new and improved. Holding up a mug by the stem so his fingers wouldn’t begin to warm the frosted glass, Don always smiled as he set the frosted mug down in front of a customer. By the time the glass hit cardboard, it was already sweating in some kind of ecstasy of condensation.
I had never tasted beer, of course. Not in a frosted mug, a regular glass or a chilled bottle. I was, after all, nine years old. The smell was not particularly enticing. But the look of that frosty mug with exactly the right measure of foam on the top? Seeing Don or Nellie place one in front of a regular customer, who grumbled as he coughed up the extra 15 cents on a 80 + degree day, then watching the corners of his mouth curve into a blissful smile at the first sip? That was summer all right.
When my dad went on errands, I often rode shotgun. It was the era of no seatbelts, so I could wiggle around in the front seat and look at the sights of greater Kankakee as we made the rounds. We’d cross the Station Street Bridge on our way into downtown. We might stop at the stationers for scratch pads and pens and pencils, the hardware store for more of Nellie’s beloved 40 watt bulbs, and finish up at Kankakee Candy and Tobacco for a few wholesale purchases—a carton or two of Hershey bars (plain and almond), a case of gum and another of Luden’s cherry cough drops, all items sold from a low shelf under the bar and, of course, boxes of cigars, and cartons of cigarettes so my dad could fill the machine when he got back.
One day, a detour to the bakery took us across the Washington Avenue Bridge and gazing out the passenger side, I read something in a tavern window that shocked and horrified me. I wasn’t sure how to break it to my dad or even if I should tell him what I read there, a brazen claim for all the world to see.
HOME OF THE FROSTED MUG
I swallowed hard and told him what the sign said.
My dad, an expert whistler, particularly while driving, stopped and asked me what I had just said. Had he really not heard or was he as horrified as I was?
“Home of the frosted mug,” I whispered. My father was a gentle man, but he was also big and strong and I knew by the respectful way he was treated that he could be tough. I fully expected a screeching U-turn and a march into the rival tavern, demanding the sign be removed immediately.
My dad, however, kept driving, changing neither his speed nor his direction. He resumed whistling.
“But, Dad,” I said, “aren’t we the home of the frosted mug?”
My dad pulled into a parking place in front of Myers Bakery.
I peppered my dad with questions. Wasn’t he the first in town to serve the frosted mug? He thought he might be. Doesn’t that make the E Z Way Inn the real home of the frosted mug? He smiled and said that maybe it did. I asked him if he would insist that the other tavern owner take down his erroneous sign. He shook his head.
“Honey,” my dad said, patting my knee, “we’re all the home of the frosted mug.”
Since my dad went back to whistling and offered to buy me a chocolate donut or a cherry turnover, I went with him into the bakery and dropped the subject. The lesson of course, is generosity. My dad believed in sharing credit, glory—he was confident and comfortable in his own skin and had no ego that had to be served. At least not when it came to the frosted mug.
And perhaps he knew what I only learned later as a writer. You can’t copyright a title. If someone wants to use a title you used, he or she can. The key, of course, is to just write the better book—make your title the only one that counts. For years, I watched my dad clean the coils of the beer tap, observed both Don and Nellie wash the glasses, clean out the little freezer, keep everything in their tiny bar immaculate. I always saw them both treat the customers with respect, honesty, dignity and good humor. So maybe my dad knew that in every way that counted, the E Z Way Inn was, if not the center of the universe, at the very least, the true Home of the Frosted Mug.
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Lesson 13: Everybody's Leg Hurts
What did everyone have in common at the E Z Way Inn?
It felt like a kind of club, a sort of blue-collar fraternity, but what were its tenets? What was the code, the colors of its flag? What defined the EZ Way Inn community?
The customers were all different and their personalities were hard to pin down. Milt might drink too much beer on a Friday, but he still ushered at St. Pat’s on Sunday. Stu was a good card player, but no one wanted him for a golfing partner. Barney’s English was broken, but his stories were so rich you could hear a pin drop when he talked about the old country. So what made all of these customers brothers?
Perhaps it was the code of their housemother. Nellie, after all, had hard and fast rules of behavior and while in the E Z Way Inn, she expected the boys to behave.
On doing unto others:
Nellie believed that all unkindness stemmed from jealousy. If I told her that someone had been mean to me, she cut me off before I got to the specifics. “They’re just jealous,” Nellie would say, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Jealous of what?” I’d ask as Nellie waved me out of the way and into the back room. She’d look around at whatever was near by. “Your crayons,” she’d say. “Look at all those crayons you got.”
On having the proper work ethic:
Nellie believed that physical labor trumped all and reading was, at best, a necessary evil. Although she consented to buy me books on our Saturday shopping trips downtown, they came with her warning. “I’ll buy you these, but don’t read them,” she’d bark. The clerk would look at her nervously and Nellie would shrug and offer a slightly softer, “Don’t read them all at once.” When I got home and raced to my room with two new Nancy Drew, I’d hear her complain to Don that reading was going to be my downfall. “How will she ever get a job? She’ll always be sneaking off. Reading.”
Nellie’s most important universal? No complaining. She turned a deaf ear on customers who didn’t like the raise in prices on a draft beer. “We got to make a living, don’t we?” She had no sympathy for the Roper boys who groused about their foremen. “You get a paycheck, don’t you?” And if someone took a sick day for a simple cold? Nellie just shook her head sadly. “You poor baby.”
Nellie dismissed complaints from me, too.
If I came into the tavern after school, wanting sympathy for my scraped knee, I looked for my dad who would listen to my story and blow a kiss toward my band-aid. Nellie would come over and assess the situation, pat me on the shoulder and shoo me off into the back room. “But my leg hurts, Mom,” I’d protest. Nellie would sweep her arm, taking in all the customers sitting at the bar.
“Everybody’s leg hurts.”
That was Nellie’s supreme law. No matter what ailed you, there was no use complaining because everyone suffered.
I think about these snippets from the book of Nellie daily. As I get older, as my friends get older, we sit, we walk, we talk, we stretch and we assess our exercise routines or lack thereof and when we rise, we creak, we wobble, we shake our heads about aging. I try not to complain. I try to remember the rules that bonded the brotherhood at the E Z Way Inn. When I say something snarky about someone? I am usually jealous. After a life spent reading? I am unfit for most jobs. What Nellie taught me and the Roper boys all those years ago might not have seemed true at the time, but now I know it to be gospel.
Everybody’s leg hurts.
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Lesson 14: Smoke 'em If You Got 'em
Don, like most men of his generation, was a smoker.
Since he had constant access to cigarettes at the EZ Way Inn, he left half empty packs on the standing ashtray next to his recliner at home. Often a silver-colored lighter was tucked in next to the cigarette pack. After all, Don could easily pick up another lighter at the tavern where they were sold from a display rack on top of the cigarette machine along with bright yellow packages of flints and cans of lighter fluid.
Incidentally, if you recognize those last two products, I know how old you are.
At around age 14, sitting in my dad’s chair, home alone, watching television after school, I picked up the habit of flicking my dad’s lighter. It was, indeed, an attractive nuisance. The sound of opening the top, the weight and feel of the cool metal in my hand, the acrid smell were inexplicably wonderful. Using one hand to operate, thumbing the lid up and off, running same thumb down to strike the spark? It was a mysterious, satisfying gesture. One day, I fished out a Tareyton from the crumpled pack, slipped it between my lips, and used my perfected one-handed lighter skills to fire it up. I was still wearing my high school uniform, plaid skirt, green blazer with the Bishop MacNamara patch sewn on the pocket proclaiming that I was “Committed to Christian Excellence.” I didn’t inhale.
Thus began my high school habit of sort of smoking, non-inhaling about two cigarettes a week.
I loved holding the cigarette, waving my hand, stabbing the air with it to emphasize a point to my imaginary companions, flicking the ash casually or impatiently, and I adored stubbing it out angrily, thoughtfully, or deliberately. Cigarettes were perfect props, demanding so many gestures which displayed so many emotions. Yes, the tar and nicotine made them addictive, but even if the poison hadn’t been the evil hook, I would have become addicted to the great theatrics of smoking.
After I had not inhaled my first Tareyton, I noticed a few days later that my dad had switched brands. The next week, again, there was a new brand. Lucky Strikes, Winstons, Kents, Parliaments all made appearances on the standing ashtray. My dad, who I knew as a decisive solid thinker, appeared to be entirely fickle when it came to his smoking habits.
“So Dad,” I asked as casually as I could, “didn’t you used to smoke Tareytons?”
“Uh-huh,” answered my dad, not looking up from the paper.
“Why the switch?” I might be a new occasional sneak smoker of two or three cigarettes a week, but I was a steady watcher of television and the cigarette advertising that dominated commercial breaks.
“You don’t like the charcoal filter anymore?”
“What, honey?” said my dad, still not looking up.
“Do you prefer the recessed filter of a Parliament? I asked, “a neat, clean quarter inch away?”
“Huh?” asked my dad, lowering the paper so he could look at me more carefully.
“Winston taste good like a cigarette should?” I said, unable to resist repeating the most addictive jingle of them all.
“What are you taking about?” asked Don.
I explained, over-explained actually, that I was just curious about why he kept switching cigarettes. I said I had noticed the different packs and that it had nothing to do with actual smoking, since how would I know anything about that? I was just curious about why he hopped from brand to brand.
My dad glanced at the pack of cigarettes next to him. He let the newspaper fall on his lap, knocked one out of the pack and lit it, expertly handling the silver Zippo and drawing in a lungful of smoke.
“They’re all the same, honey,” said my dad.
“So you’re searching for the brand you like best?”
“Everybody knows they can’t be good for you, ” he continued, “it’s just common sense.”
My dad picked up the pack and pointed to the newly mandated warning placed on packages that cautioned smoking cigarettes may be hazardous to one’s health.
“You know, I quit for a month or two last year,” he said.
Then I remembered that he had tossed out his cigarettes, just like that, because he had read a report on the hazards of smoking. He quit, cold turkey, for almost three months.
“Why did you start again?” I asked.
“I gained ten pounds and Doc said the weight was more dangerous for me than the cigarettes.”
My dad picked up the paper, conversation over, but then I remembered that he never answered my question.
“But, Dad, why do you switch brands?”
“I smoke whatever brand isn’t selling. Whatever we’re long on, honey. Whatever is left when I fill the cigarette machine. Understand?” asked my dad. When I nodded, he went back to his paper, cigarette burning in the ashtray.
What’s the lesson? How can any good lesson come from a discussion of cigarette smoking? Well, I think the lesson is that pragmatism works.
My pragmatic dad simply picked the least popular brand of the week for purely practical reasons. Pragmatism, using knowledge and experience, served him well as a saloonkeeper, a businessman, a father, a husband and a friend. And if only he had remained pragmatic in all things, and trusted his own knowledge and experience about the ills of smoking, if only he had quit for good, trusted his own common sense and disregarded the dubious medical advice he had received from his doctor, perhaps he might have avoided the lung cancer that took him too early at age 68.
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Lesson 15: Politics
When I was growing up, according to my dad, Kankakee was a Republican town. According to many who live there today, it still is. I don’t know about any of that—my fictional character, Jane Wheel, who still lives in Kankakee, only knows what she reads on vintage campaign buttons.
But I can tell you what I learned at the E Z Way Inn about politics.
One early November morning as I observed Don and Nellie go about the pre-opening chores—the sweeping, the scrubbing, the polishing, the chopping, the simmering, the stewing, I settled in to watch my dad swing open the door to the cigarette machine and assess which brands needed filling. He had full and half full cigarette cartons in a big box and, as he requested them, I rummaged for the Lucky Strikes, Camels, and Winstons. Don was as serious as a surgeon calling for scalpel, retractor and sponge. Equally serious, I was the operating assistant slapping the cellophane-wrapped packages into Don’s outstretched palm.
“Go grab me a new box of matches, honey,” said my dad, lighting up a Tareyton of his own. “Next to the cash register.”
I jumped at the chance to travel behind the bar.
The wire rack next to the front door had a shelf for bread and rolls, boxes of doughnuts and buns and pastry snacks to provide corner store convenience for customers whose wives wanted them to pick up a loaf of Butternut on the way home. Salty snacks had their own rack on the countertops next to the kitchen, but behind the bar? At my eye level, on the low shelves to the left of the register were all the intriguing “extras”.
Chocolate bars, cough drops, Wrigley’s Spearmint, Doublemint, and Juicy Fruit gum, Rolaids, Tums, Alka Seltzer and tiny tins of aspirin. The EZ Way Inn was a small establishment, but in addition to the drinks and homemade lunches it served, it presciently combined the drugstore and the grocery in those pre-mall, pre-superstore days for customers who preferred one-stop shopping.
“These matches, Dad?” I asked. I was puzzled. Large white matchbooks with bold letters that spelled out VOTE DEMOCRAT couldn’t be the matches my dad wanted me to find.
“Yup,” said Don, smoking and sipping Nellie’s tar-like coffee from a thick green fire-king mug.
Shaking my head, I trotted over with the matches. My dad set the box on top of the machine and swung the heavy door closed.
“But they say to vote Democrat,” I said. “We’re not Democrats, are we?”
“W-e-l-l,” my dad stretched out the word. “It depends.”
He handed me the almost empty box of matches that he had taken off the top of the machine and I saw that the remaining two matchbooks read, “VOTE REPUBLICAN.”
I was puzzled and my face must have showed it because before moving on to the arduous job of filling the reach-in cooler with bottled beer before lunchtime , he took the time to give me a lesson on politics.
“The Republicans come in and give me these matches and the ones for their candidates, right?”
“Then the Democrats come in and give me the matches with their candidates’ names, right?”
“Uncle Ray says the difference is that Democrats like the little guys like him and Republicans like the big wheels,” I offered, pleased to show off my knowledge of politics at such an early age.
My dad, no fan of his brother-in-law, but always polite, just shook his head and said that it wasn’t that simple.
Nellie, emerging from the kitchen with a tin tray of ketchup bottles and mustard jars, waved me over to set the pairs on all of the tables alongside the salt and pepper shakers and napkin dispensers.
“You vote for the man not the party,” said Nellie. “That’s what I do.”
And, in those days, it was the man, not the man or woman, as I recall.
“But the matches?” I asked. “Are you a Republican?”
My dad lifted his palms and inconclusively moved his head.
“Or a Democrat?”
Same lifted palms, this time with another grimacing simultaneous nod and shake.
“When a Democrat comes in and asks me to put out the matches, I say sure, And when a Republican comes in, I do the same. That way, I don’t take sides. I support everybody. That’s what a businessman has to do.”
“The customer’s always right,” added Nellie, prompting a quizzical look from both Don and me. Nellie rarely behaved as if anyone was right, least of all a customer.
“Look, honey, on Election Day, someone’s going to win,” said my dad. “And if I hand out the matches from both sides, I’m always supporting the winner.”
“And the loser,” I said.
“Yup. Loser needs support, too. And,” my dad added, “You never know, next time, it might be the other way around.”
I suppose the hard and fast lesson here is that a small businessman, especially a small town saloonkeeper, needed to stay on the right side politically in case problems arose– if the bar happened to stay open after hours on a Saturday or opened before noon on a Sunday, for example, and a newly elected Sheriff of either party happened to drive by and count cars in the parking lot. But I like the implicit compromise suggested by Don’s reasoning. Someone’s going to win. Someone’s going to lose. Might as well support them both. After all, whoever did what, the cigarette machine would still need filling and the ketchup and mustards still needed to get put on the tables. Most people I know would give their eyeteeth for simpler times and simpler solutions. And don’t we all wish that everyone had learned the lesson that the customer is always right?
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Lesson 16: Holiday Cheer
My mother, Nellie, did not drink. No beer, no whiskey, no wine, no cocktails. Her beverage of choice was hot thick black coffee, the kind that left a half inch of sediment in the bottom of the cup. In the summer, she opted for iced tea, unsweetened with as many lemon slices as she could squeeze into the glass. If Nellie were a radio station, the tag line promo would be ALL CAFFEINE, ALL THE TIME.
Since she spent almost all of her waking hours inside the E Z Way Inn, people were and are often surprised that not only did Nellie abstain from alcohol, she actively disapproved of drinking.
“Your mother’s the best bartender in the world,” my dad often remarked. “Doesn’t drink up the profits.”
She also was the cleanest, fastest and liveliest bartender in the world. She just wasn’t the best purveyor of alcoholic drinks.
“Buy you a drink, Nellie?”
“Nope, and you shouldn’t have another one either. Go home now.”
My dad would shake his head, comforted by the fact that he did, after all, have the fastest, cleanest and least troublesome bartender in town, if not the most profit-motivated.
If someone was especially persistent about buying her a drink, always a not-quite regular customer, who coaxed, wheedled, and nagged, Nellie would get a sly look and collect for a shot of their best whiskey, open the register with a flourish and drop the money in. The buyer would shout with pride, making sure everyone knew he had successfully persuaded Nellie to have a drink with him.
The drink, of course, was never poured.
“You wanted to buy me a drink, right?” said Nellie wiping off the non-existent spills in front of the pouting big shot. “You bought it and I’ll drink it when I drink it.”
The exception, the only time Nellie jumped off the wagon, I discovered, was at Christmas.
The EZ Way Inn usually closed early on Christmas Eve. Whoever was there just before the lights were turned out around dinnertime would offer to buy Nellie a Christmas drink. Instead of her usual disgusted headshake, she would dust off the bottle of peppermint schnapps and pour herself a shot. She threw it back to the amazement of all who had remained for last call. Everyone, including my brother, Emory, and me, dropped our jaws. Watching Nellie down that schnapps seemed like some kind of Christmas miracle.
“There. You satisfied?” she asked, scraping the money off the bar for her drink and ringing up the sale. Thanks to Nellie, another angel got his wings!
Then Don and Nellie shooed out the regulars, exhorting them to go home to their families. And the regulars without families? They were a worry to all of us. Don usually opened on Christmas for a few hours in the middle of the day, just so Barney and Vince and a few others would have a place to be on Christmas. But what to do when a bartender couldn’t be found and my mother had laid down the law about my dad staying with us at my Grandparent’s for Christmas dinner?
There were a few years when our family, Don, Nellie, my brother, Emory and I, solved the problem by inviting two of the loners to come with us to my grandmother’s.
Barney and Vince, all clean and shiny in their best suits, joined the party at my Lithuanian grandparent’s small house next to the railroad tracks on Union Avenue. We were all crowded in, eating the feast in at least two shifts at the dining room table, so what difference did two more make? Grandpa Schultz was glad to see them. They were both better euchre players than my Uncle Joe and my grandpa who spoke no English except to swear while listening to the baseball game on the radio (for years I thought gottamcubs was a Lithuanian phrase I was supposed to learn) always got stuck with Uncle Joe as his partner. Barney and Vince made the card games more interesting, evened up the odds a bit, and, even more important, they showed up with gifts of whiskey and a case or two of beer so they were welcomed by Grandpa and the Uncles. Even the Aunts poured a shot or two of whiskey into their glasses of coca cola, enjoying what they always referred to as a highball or two for Christmas. Nellie cut her eyes in disapproval, never joining in on the highballs poured in the kitchen as the women washed and dried the plates for round two of Christmas dinner.
“Not even a drink on Christmas, Nellie?” my Aunt Veronica would tease.
“Nope, I don’t drink,” said my mother, giving me a look that warned against any mention of peppermint schnapps.
On the way home in the car, I asked my mother about the schnapps and why it was a secret from her family that she did occasionally make an exception to her no-drinking rule.
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” said Nellie. “Besides, I just have that schnapps to see the look on everyone’s face when I drink it. It’s not like I enjoy it.”
My dad laughed at that and so did Emory and I, although I’m not sure why. Nellie started laughing, too, which was rare enough that it made us all silly happy. To this day, I can’t tell you why it was so funny, but it was. Maybe the lesson has something to do with being careful, being selective in what you give away and what you keep to yourself. In Nellie’s case, saying no throughout the year certainly made saying yes at Christmas all the sweeter.
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