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.