20 September, 2009

In Memory of Monuments

[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "Halloween in the Hoosegow,"  "Only a Fleeting Thing," "On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper," and "Joe." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]

The first to go was Otto's. I can remember precisely where I was standing and what I was doing when I got the news. Not that I'm some naive Pollyanna who thinks anything lasts forever — certainly not when it comes to restaurants — but I had a little investment in Otto's Malt Shop, emotionally speaking. My friends and I went there all the time, as much to soak up the airborne grease from the fryers as the 1950s ambiance of the service-station-turned-diner.

I couldn't understand why the news took so long to reach me. It took a hookah bar to open in the same location before anyone deigned to mention the death of Otto's. No one wrote a conciliatory note: Byron, I'm so sorry to have to tell you, but Otto's closed its doors for the last time yesterday. I know how much you liked it there. It's probably small comfort, but I promise to fix you a Ricky Ricardo when you get out, okay? No one.

The last part may be just as well; my favorite menu item there wasn't the Ricky Ricardo, it was the Graceland — banana slices and chunky peanut butter on a half-pound hamburger. Sour grapes, though, right?

Nichol's Lunch went next. Unlike Otto's, which had been a relative newcomer to Kansas City's assortment of dives, Nichol's had been around since the '20s. There was a copy of their very first menu framed and hung on the north wall. A cup of coffee there used to cost three cents. Alongside the menu were decades' worth of newspaper pieces proclaiming the restaurant the "Best Place to Eat at 2:00 AM," the patty melts a tasty bargain.

It never mattered that the decor was tacky and dated twenty years ago, that the kitchen probably violated a litany of health codes, or that the tall redhead waitress had an Adam's apple and five o'clock shadow. Nichol's was where patrons from any walk of life could agree on something. The cheap fried food brought us all together, in a way. Nowhere else comes to mind at which conservative sexagenarians would peaceably sit at booths adjacent to those of drag queens and drunken frat members. It was a beautiful thing.

At least when Nichol's went out of business, the closing made every channel of the local news. Reverent elegies were delivered, in short on-scene clips, by many of the same fixtures I used to see on my many late nights there. Those brown tiles and nicotine-stained ceilings will be missed.

Very recently, a random craving for a gigantic reuben sandwich caused me to mention the New York Deli to my mother. The New York Deli was Kansas City's renowned home of the eight-dollar reuben. More than twenty-four inches around, piled high with a good three inches of pastrami and kraut, and almost impossible to eat without the aid of a utensil of some kind, there was no wondering why their reuben, specifically, was on my mind. "Oh, Sweetie," Mum lamented, "they closed. Last month, I think."

We used to go there every week when I was little. Their bakery supplied some of the best bagels I can remember eating. I vividly remember my excitement as a little boy at glimpsing their bright orange awnings. The sight was a sure sign a sweet, baked something would soon be mine to savor. When I grew up and went to live on my own, I continued going there, for onion, poppy seed, blueberry, or egg bagels. And for that huge reuben.

My disappointment was evident, sounding almost like desperation. "Seriously?" I pleaded. "Them too?"

Honestly, it isn't that Otto's Malt Shop, Nichol's Lunch, or the New York Deli were heartbreaking in their respective extinctions. I didn't know their owners, and generally wasn't more than passing acquaintances with the staff at any of these places. Besides that, big burgers and bagels, sizable sandwiches and specialty sodas can always be found elsewhere; another diner or deli will always open up, sometimes right around the corner from the old. What is substantially more difficult is accepting that I am becoming a foreigner, against my will and bit by bit, to a neighborhood I once called home. At the same time, in a certain sense, I never even left.

07 September, 2009

The Miracle Mattress

It was like Christmas: I returned from a particularly interminable workday to discover that, in my absence from the cell, someone had not only remade my bed, they'd actually replaced it. A new mattress! What I'd left was an amorphous wafer of aging foam, covered in tan tarpaulin, but what I came back to was a spongy new slab, twice as thick as its predecessor. This sort of miracle ranks right up there with discovering an image of Jesus burnt into your French toast, or that elves have cobbled you a lovely new pair of shoes as you slept.

Mind you, in the twenty-two years before I was abducted by the state, I slept in a fair number of uncomfortable spots. Among them were train station platforms, classrooms, strangers' floors, and even — once — a parking garage. None of these, though, were long-term arrangements. None wreaked the chiropractic havoc I've known from my prison mattresses. Waking with a headache or pinched nerve from daring to sleep on your side is common, as is flopping around in the deep hours to find the sweet spot — a position that won't put your kneecaps to sleep.

My bed — my bed: the one I owned for three and a half years of serendipitous somnolence — was a king-size Serta. About it, one uncompensated reviewer declared, "The most comfortable bed I've ever slept on." "Soooo comfy!" exclaimed another. And certainly there was room aplenty. I'm no big sleeper; I don't sprawl, as a rule. The freedom to loll, or lie crossways sometimes, on a whim, and occupy different space is nevertheless a pleasurable thing. Plus, reclining with a good book, with my cats occupying their own regions of that pillow-topped plane — independent but proximal, like a pride in the African wilderness — was nice.

The downgrade to a heinously uncomfortable single was shocking. Compared to the other assorted travesties of my imprisonment, my sleeping accommodations are far from topping the list of the worst. This hasn't stopped me cursing with deep sincerity each of my 3,011 restless nights.

Of the 1,500 beds at Crossroads Correctional Center, my cellmate and I won the mattress lottery. Only fifty were delivered. I spied the difference immediately, and not just for my cellmate's valiant failure at putting my bedding back to the military crispness I fold and tuck into it. The new mattresses we few were issued dwarf the old ones. They're actually square-edged (no more shapeless lumpenness for me!) and lack those rips, holes, and burrs that sometimes worked their way through the sheet to poke me awake.

I wanted to jump up and down on it. Lacking that kind of headroom, however, I contented myself with hopping atop it. I did that stupid open-handed rub-and-push motion that people do in mattress showrooms the world over, and in those late-night mattress commercials. You know the ones. As if a good indicator of how well I'd sleep on it was how quickly it reformed after a gentle press! Under my weight, the sheets stretched loose of their tucks and receded, exposing the mattress's soft gray cover. To contend with the unexpected thickness, I realized I'd have to make my bed differently now. A trade-off, then, but an eminently fair one.

The rest of the day, I walked around thinking of bedtime. I was like a kid who couldn't wait to get home from school and play with his new remote-controlled car. Maybe it wasn't exactly like Christmas. Close enough, though. Really close. And around here, I'll take what I can get.