After something like a 20-year hiatus, we’ve subscribed to cable TV. Believe me, we were not compelled by the irresistible programming. So far as I can tell, the only distinction between TV in this world and TV in Hell is that here you get a remote control to change the channel as often as you wish. In Hell, someone like Glen Beck or Karl Rove has the remote, and your eyes are propped open like Alec’s in A Clockwork Orange, watching what they want you to watch.We merely decided that it was tidier to have a neat little cable connected to our TV after the living room remodel instead of those rabbit ears.
What HAS captured our attention is The Food Network. Now THERE is entertainment, because, even if the personalities are unappealing and the production is banal, there’s always FOOD. And if Shakespeare said that sleep knits up the ravel’d sleeve of care, well, food comes in a very close second. There’s nothing better after a day of blithering nonsense at work than to come home and watch some hapless group of would-be chefs try to make a meal out of seaweed, salt and marshmallow for a $10,000 prize. That’ll make any life seem meaningful. I’m betting that the employee cafeteria at British Petroleum is playing The Food Network 24/7 these days.
One of my favorite shows is “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” which endlessly recycles the notion that there is nothing better in the world than the food plopped on chipped crockery and streaming out of a cramped short-order kitchen which boasts nothing more than an industrial mixer, a convection oven and a big grill in some greasy hole-in-the-wall joint. World’s Greatest Ribs! World’s Greatest Barbecue! World’s Greatest Shrimp Tacos! World’s Greatest Hamburgers!
What’s funny is that every one of you reading these words knows IMMEDIATELY where that place is. You were there. You ate the food, gazing around at the unique ambiance of whatever godforsaken hellhole haunts your memory, ignoring the scent of Lysol wafting in from the bathrooms and paid up the total scribbled in pencil on the lined green “Your Order” slip at the little chrome-plated NCR cash register. The Food Network program capitalizes on these halcyon memories and lets you know that although you thought you had occupied a seat at the bar in gnoshing Nirvana, there are still uncounted other short-order swamis cooking in their own versions of paradise.
Mine was Herb’s Place. Herb’s Place did not have ambiance. Ambiance was forbidden there. Herb’s Place had a counter and some wooden booths, and in the back it had two pool tables. There was a standard-issue notice above the bar to the effect of “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” There was a card of “Hav-a-Hanks” and some sort of aspirin or lip balms or something. No mule deer antlers over the door. No bric-a-brac or clever old petroleum company signs. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. What made Herb’s Place special was a) that Dad would take us there for lunch on cold days when we were working and needed to get inside and, yes, that b) Mom didn’t particularly favor our being there. Pool tables, I figured, were the problem. Trouble that starts with T and that rhymes with P and all that. What I understand now is that pool tables had nothing to do with it. There’s a word that starts with C and that rhymes with T and that’s clientele. Herb’s, of course, had no “clientele,” per se, because the word had never been spoken or even thought of there, but they had patrons or customers (both of which also start with letters that rhyme with P) and the patrons or clientele of Herb’s probably were problematic. I have to ask Dad what it was about the place, other than that it was heated, but I’m betting that it was the hamburgers.
I can tell you that when you’re 16 and you’ve been sitting on a roof nailing down corrugated metal all morning when the mercury measures in the 20s, it’s very good news when The Boss says we’re going to go sit on a stool in Herb’s and have a bowl of chili instead of eating a peanut butter sandwich in some unheated corner of the barn we’re building. Pool tables? Nah. Never played pool there. Had I, it would not have turned out well. Drinking? Nah. Dad had coffee, and I was a few years short of my first beer. Sure, people in there knew my dad, but they didn’t know him from being in Herb’s; they knew him because he”d been quarterback on the football team and captain of the basketball and baseball teams.
I never went into Herb’s Place except for lunch with Dad. I could’ve. I lived in that town for a long time: another 25 years after those days. But it wouldn’t have been for the hamburgers. It’s an evanescent something that they can’t capture on The Food Network. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, and I say that you don’t go places on your own that your dad took you, unless he takes you there. The Food Network can take you to the kitchen and cook you up a hamburger and fries and some chili, but they can’t put you back on that barstool beside the quarterback of the high school team. Couple of days late for Father’s Day, and this is only one of ten thousand memories, but, thanks, Dad, all the same.
Here’s Herb’s Place today, courtesy of that High School Quarterback, on location. Lucid? Please!