Thursday, February 09, 2006

So long, favorite greasy spoon

I went to Peg's Diner with my dad today. It was okay, but it just wasn't the same. I know life is a constant state of change, but Peg's was one place that had been the same for me since I was a little kid ordering toast, barely big enough to see over the counter.

Personnel changed, but the spirit of the place remained the same.

When I was a kid, it was "Barbara's Place". Barbara was a kind soul with a warm heart. She would occasionally feed one of the local drunks who lived nearby in a building loaded with dicey characters and dirty rooms for rent, cheap. Pete was given countless free meals until his lunch reversed gears on him one too many times, and Barbara couldn't invite him in anymore.

The diner was loaded with local flavor, surly customers, sweethearts and al-around wackos. One of my favorite regulars was a character named Bill Healy, but no one I know ever called him Bill, we called him "Hickey". I didn't know his name was Bill for years.

Hick would sit at the end of the bar, and often pay for other people's lunches quietly on the way out. He had a habit of yelling "GET IN!!!" when he saw you in the street, the meaning of which was explained to me when I was old enough to grasp it.

Another staple at the diner, especially on Saturday mornings, was Donny Blett, a janitor at our local high school. Donny was forever grousing about something, often uttering, "just once... ONCE, I'd like to get what I ordered in this place.

Donny often ranted about the prices, which were and still are extremely low. My dad and I had lunch there today for less than ten bucks, yeah- LESS than ten bucks.

One of the guy's favorite pastimes while eating lunch was to gripe about how bad "Friendly's" was and talk about how if they could just improve to lousy, he'd be a regular there. This would usually be followed by a chorus of patrons rooting for Friendly's to improve both the quality of the food and the service.

I remember one Saturday around noon. Donny ordered a plain hamburger, whipped out a tomato and a knife and cut a few slices, adding them to the burger. When it was time to pay for the burger, he questioned the price. Barbara said, "hamburger with tomato, $2.25."

Blett, a guy that stood about 5'2", pulled out his ace, "But I brought the tomato."

Barbara only pointed to the board showing the prices, "hamburger with tomato, $2.25."

I wouldn't have been surprised if Donny's head exploded and he railed for the umpteenth time, "That's it, THAT IS IT! This is the last time I'm eating in this place."

Gosh, do I miss him.

Barbara's son Steve was a flamboyant, and very funny cook. being it was the 70s and 80s in a little town like Whitinsville, there weren't too many gay chaps hanging out, and he was both humorous and a refreshing change from the same old same old.

Time passed and Barbara retired. Fortunately, Peg had been an employee there for at least ten or twelve years, so the transition was smooth. Peg's son Jim had taken over as cook years before and had the same edge Steve had, if not moreso.

Jim, knowing my dad ONLY eats clam chowder or chicken with rice soup, would occasionally threaten to serve him bean soup and actually tossed a few green beans into his chicken with rice to get a reaction. Peg was a rock, unflappable, and always had a one-liner. If you griped about waiting too long for a refill, Peg would ask you how long you'd been coming to the diner and add, "And you don;t know where the coffee is yet?" as if you were utterly hopeless.

When you hadn't been in in a while, Peg would say things like, "good to see you, boy that parole is a wonderful thing isn't it?" or simply, "whenja get out?"

Did I forget to mention, they used the same coffee urn for about thirty years, and the coffee was magic, the omelettes perfect, it was the ideal greasy spoon, and the lunch menu had a terrific home cooked meal or two every day.

All good things come to end, sadly, that's the way life works. After many years of waking up at 4 a.m., Peg has finally retired. Jim is no longer there either. Peg's son-in-law Mike has taken over the day-to-day management of the place. He's a nice enough guy, tries to smile, but joshing with him feels like trying to high-five an accountant.

I ate there today with my dad, and while the food was good, there was spice missing. Hick passed away about ten years ago. The drunks that used show up are long gone, and though a few of the locals pop in and say something goofy, you can feel that it is the end of an era, and it doesn't feel good.

Eating in Peg's today tought me an old lesson all over again. Really sweet things in life have a lofe span. Sometimes the life span is long, sometimes it isn't, but all things are finite on this plane.

I sit in one of my new local digs, The Diesel Cafe. It is one mf my favorite hangouts where I now live, in Somerville, Massachusetts. The coffee is okay, the food is a touch weird, the desserts yummy, but I feel like this place is part mine, like I have helped shape it in some small way just by showing up and being myself, chatting up locals and doing the do.

I don't feel a comraderie like I did at Barbara's/Peg's, but those things are very very special and don;t come along every day.

Thanks Barbara.

Thanks Peggy.

Thanks Hickey, Donny and Pete.

I hardly knew ye.


Blogger Karen said...

Korte, Give change a chance. Peg was with Barbara since she opened, more than 32 years ago. Peg's dad owned a diner and she worked in restaurants all her life. She bought the place from Barbara after working there for 22 years. I don't think Peg had the wit and personality she has now after just six weeks of working there -- like Mike back in February. Peg needed to have her knees replaced, and yes getting up at 4am for more than 30 years will tire anyone out. She didn't want to see the place close or turn into some gourmet sandwich shop, so family stepped in. Peg's fortunate to have the opportunity to come back and work when she wants to or when someone needs time off. The menu and prices stayed the same. The witty banter will come in time as Kim & Mike get to know their customers. Mike doesn't have the background that Peg had, but he's got the drive and ambition that it takes to make the diner a continued success.

I grew up at the diner, worked there as a teenager, and best of all, Peg's my mom. I knew Donny, Hickey, Franny, and most of the regulars, some of which are still coming in daily and weekly. I would like to see the diner continue to carry on the small town feel of yesteryear. It's been a part of the town's history since 1936.

Give change a chance.

11:49 AM  

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