Saturday, September 16, 2017
OK. I give up.
Thomas Wolfe is correct. You never can go home again.
And I know why. Because, while you were not looking, home moved away.
That Columbus moment came to me while I was getting in my steps yesterday morning. Highway 99 once was the main north-south corridor in Oregon before I-5 was built.
My family lived two country blocks west of the highway's commercial district, and I lived a good deal of my life in those few blocks. My memories are still there, but most of the places I grew up with fifty years ago are gone. Or have been, to use the trendy abomination, repurposed.
Take First State Bank. Well, Key Bank did just that long ago. But, in 1960, the bank manager, Dick Jones, needed someone to weed the landscaping. My dad had just the man for the job -- his eleven-year old son he had named Steve.
My dad was a big believer that work not only built character; it was the very essence of character, the reason we exist. He would have been a friend of Aristotle. He early taught me that a good citizen could find fulfillment only as a giver, and not as a taker.
The bank once had rows of landscaping. It has now given way to minimalism after being assaulted by waves of asphalt. As you can see in the photograph at the top, the weeding job would now be a snap.
But that was not my only job on the highway. During the summer of 1967, while waiting for college to begin, I started my first legitimate job where taxes and social security were withheld from my paycheck. (I have been a conservative ever since.) At McDonald's.
Between the bank job and filtering soft drinks through trapped flies and bees, I earned money as a newspaper delivery boy, a mower and tender of lawns, and a newspaper shagger (don't ask). All are what we would now call part of the informal economy.
But in June 1967, I was hired by McDonald's -- a new employer in our area. I loved everything about that experience. My pal Rod Behrens joined me in the work. We had great fun last night reminiscing about how much fun it was. And what we learned about work.
Today? It is this.
The golden arches have been pawned. All That Glitters. One of several pawn shops in my old neighborhood. The presence of pawn shops is never a harbinger that areas are on the upswing. The place ceased to be a McDonald's seventeen years ago.
A block away is another food shrine. The Imperial Garden introduced me to Chinese food that had zing. Until then, my family had eaten only in Chinese restaurants that trafficed in Cantonese -- the equivalent of oriental rest home food.
The Imperial Garden served spicy food. A culinary affectation I still champion.
Before the Imperial Garden moved in, the building housed Sambo's restaurant -- complete with paintings of an Indian boy, tigers, butter, and pancakes. (If you know the child's book of a similar name, you understand the imagery.)
The name could not withstand the advances in racial awreness of the 1960s and 1970s. It was apparent the restaurant would not survive. And, it didn't. Instead of a pancake house with south Asian iconography, we received a palace of Chinese flavors. It was a fair trade.
And it is still there.
What is not still there was the company that introduced me to pizza. Shakey's. It was just across the street from the Imperial Garden.
My high school friend (and co-playwright) Jay Myers introduced me to Portuguese linguica. I had never tasted it before. And I now never order pizza without it -- along with pepperoni, kalamatas, and anchovies.
Like McDonald's, Shakey's is long gone. But the building is still there. In the guise of one of the restaurant-bars that try to serve a bit of this and that.
I suspect I was introduced to Mexican food at home. You may have been as well. Through one of those taco kits with the hard shells.
But I learned to enjoy Jalisco cuisine at El Tapatio, tucked between McDonald's and Shakey's in a small strip mall. Colette and I enjoyed many a meal there. And it is still where I left it when I moved away from Milwaukike in 1991.
But my favorite eatery on Highway 99 (or McLoughlin Boulevard, as we knew it) was Lew's Long Coney Islands. It was a favorite teen hangout -- complete with a cigarette machine.
A diner, it was not. The original operation was effectively a shack housing the kitchen with a couple of uncovered picnic tables. Most people would grab their meals and drive home. Mine was always the same: chip steak sandwich, crinkle fries, and a cherry ice cream soda.
All of that changed when Lew decided to build a proper restaurant to serve his food. It was never the same. Far too fancy for what came out of the kitchen. Informality was the charm of the original place.
Before long, Lew retired. I seriously considered buying the restaurant. Instead, one of my clients did. I ended up merely writing the contract.
Over time, the restaurant changed hands. Candidate Obama stopped buy to eat a weiner. But every time I visited, the food declined.
Even knowing that, I still looked forward yesterday to lunching on a coney island (the chip steak sandwiches had disappeared decades ago). When I rounded the corner onto McLoughlin, it was gone. Not just Lew's. The entire building.
In its place was a shiny new pizza place. I didn't bother stopping. Nor did I snap a shot. What was the point? Lew's was gone. Another part of my youth run over by the steamroller of time.
At my reunion last night, most of our conversations centered around the years we had shared together. Some of us, all the way from grade school through high school.
Our high school graduating class had less than 200 members. My friend Janis had prepared a memorial of our classmates who have died. Twenty-eight.
I have no idea if that is average or not. But it is sobering. Twenty-eight people with whom I shared memories are gone. Just like McDonald's and Lew's. And, before long, that list will include all of the names that once graced our grauation program.
But that day is not today. I am on my way back to Barra de Navidad -- having been refreshed by an evening recalling that our shared past still survives.
And Thomas Wolfe is ahead on points.