An excerpt from

A Week at Larry’s

by

Michael E. Weiss

 

Nobody’s ever complained about the food at Larry’s, at least not to Larry. Just a small dive that has been around for many years, this old diner has the charm of generations past. With hubcaps carefully hung over every booth, the ambience hasn’t changed in thirty years. This is at least partly due to the fact that the family hasn’t changed a thing since it opened. Even the ownership has been passed down from Larry to Larry. The son took over years ago when the founder fell ill, but no one noticed. The genuine charm of this place would be destroyed by tourists if it were in Baltimore, but luckily it has always remained just out of the way of too much traffic.

On the street corner by the old high school, Larry’s once thrived on a regular stream of adolescent comings and goings. But ever since the school shut down, it has become more of a landmark to those who once frequented it. Still, the family makes do, and keeps its doors open to those who still want their home fries and crab chips. In all of the years it has been open, the food has never been as good as it is now. That could be because the service has improved because of fewer customers, or because Larry finally broke down and hired a cook from outside the family.

You see, in a traditional business like this, change takes time. It took nearly ten years for them to take down the old neon light once it passed its prime. It wasn’t until just two years ago that they got a computer to help with the business. But even time can’t change the fact that in the first twenty-nine years of its existence, Larry’s was run solely by the family. This made for some very unhappy relationships at the reunions. Luckily it was a big family. Needless to say, every time they got together outside of the restaurant they ordered out.

Regardless, this family tradition was important to the workers and seemed to be important to the clientele as well. To this day some of the original customers still stop by for a malt and some fries. Now they bring their children with them and sometimes even their grandchildren, who all too often act just as rude as their grandparents did thirty years ago. The names often remain the same, just the faces have changed. As this diner is a neighborhood tradition, you still find all of the Whittles and Mortons eating Thanksgiving breakfast there before the big high school football game.

This coming Thursday, another tradition longstanding in Baltimore is arriving. It’s the annual Thanksgiving day football game between the rival high schools in the big stadium. For years it was held in the stadium vacated by the Colts many years previously. This is to be the first year that it will be played in the new stadium. Another reunion of sorts happens there, when all of the alumni come back to cheer on the alma mater to victory. Well, sometimes victory. Most of the cheering takes place simply because it is too cold in Baltimore on Thanksgiving morning to idly stand by and allow your limbs to freeze.

Every year before the game many families dine in the warmth of Larry’s and fill up on their hotcakes before the game. The game is usually about as tiresome as it was the year before, though every year the crowds come back just to say they were there. These games were the most fun when the students were still in school, back when getting up at five-thirty in the morning to stand out in the cold really didn’t seem so bad. But, as years pass, such an event hardly seems as rewarding.

Today Larry’s is quite busy, a mixture of preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday later in the week and serving an unusual number of customers. Piles of home fries are plunging in and out of the deep-frier, crispy and seasoned with a hint of Larry’s special powder, which in all honesty is barbeque and Old Bay, the seasoning of choice for most Baltimoreans. A visit to Baltimore teaches a couple of things, the proper greeting to all residents is "hey hun, howya doin’," and you can only eat steamed crabs doused in Old Bay. When I say doused, I mean smothered from claw to claw with the stuff. If there is one thing that sets their crabs apart from the rest of the world, it’s that unique spice that no one else seems to have, but once you get it you’ll never let go.

Usually it doesn’t get this busy at the diner midday on Monday, but that appetizing smell of freshly fried potatoes and grilling burgers is seeming to attract every person within a mile radius of the place. And when the grills get cooking, that aroma seems to hover over the area for hours. It is the best advertisement that Larry’s has ever had or could ever hope for. With the line stretching toward the door, the waitresses are all trying their best to speed up their service, because waiting outside on a drizzly day like this is no fun. Of course all of the customers are treated like family, so they shouldn’t be waiting in the rain.

The umbrellas all rest in the entranceway, now in quite a puddle from the excess moisture dripping from them. It’s just another lingering thundershower that refuses to let light shine through. The sun hasn’t peaked through the dark gray sky for more than twenty minutes in the last four days. Not that weather like this is unusual for this time of year, it is just the same blasted pattern year after year. This is the time of the year when everyone really thinks twice about taking that job down south just to get away from the murky months. Any kind of affirmation would help, but the sun is powerless behind such a thick layer of clouds. The weatherman on Channel Eleven keeps reminding everyone who is complaining about the current conditions that, just two years ago, the ground was already covered with some white powder. At least it hasn’t snowed yet.

With the customers waiting for tables, and all of the booths full, Larry’s has become quite packed. A couple of little boys are running through the puddles out front, making their mother quite unhappy that they are getting covered in dirty, gravely, puddle water. But there was no reason to stop them, by now the damage had been done. Anyway her table is almost ready. They will be coming in a minute.

The line at the door has been handled well, there are only three families left and tables to seat them are now becoming available. Although the waitresses all enjoy the extra tips they get when the diner is full, they can’t stand being so tired and run-ragged. Delores, the only middle-aged waitress left at Larry’s, usually has to take a break during big rushes because her ankles can’t take much of the running anymore. She has become tired of the waitress’ life, but she has never had another job. A middle-aged woman with no qualifications other then twenty-five years of waitressing would most likely only be a waitress somewhere else. She figured that she likes Larry’s more than anywhere else she’s ever been, so she stays. It also helps that the owner is her nephew, so she doesn’t get any talk when she takes her breaks.

Delores walks over to the woman with the two young, now sopping wet, boys who have just been seated and gives them menus. "Want anything to drink, hun?" She offers with her Baltimorean twang.

"Iced tea for me, water for the boys, and a Coke for my husband when he gets here."

"Sure, I’ll be back in a sec." And with that Delores departs, heading for the soda fountain. Moments later she returns with the tea and waters. A tall, slender man has joined the party.

"Hi, I heard she ordered me a Coke. Can you get me a Diet instead?"

"Sure. Have you decided what you want to eat yet?" Delores asks. After all, the quicker they get food, the easier it is to tame them. Hunger is an animal, and these folks look like they need some grub.

The man was quick to speak up, "Actually, I want to get a big plate of them home fries that I’ve been smelling all morning." He was under the smell of the fried potato wedges because he works just across the street at the used car lot. Apparently the family wanted to meet for lunch today to celebrate one of the children’s birthdays, and since he only gets forty-five minutes for lunch they had to meet nearby.

"Right hun, I’ll be right back with the diet and to get the rest of your order." She once again retreats to the counter.

"So Robby, you’re six now, what do you want to do for your birthday party?" his mother asks him, already having a surprise party planned for him this coming Saturday. It should be great for the kids, it’s a bowling party. There will be a lot of games and duckpin bowling. Duckpin is best for the kids since they all can pick the balls up, even if they don’t get strikes every time.

"I wanna go to Disney World Mommy, like Jake and Aaron did last year."

"Well maybe next year honey. I think you’ll have fun at Aunt Janet’s though," his father adds, trying to slide in the fact that they just can’t afford to take the four of them down to Florida for a week. "You know. There’s more to life than Disney."

"But I wanna go...," he says as tears run down his cheeks. Deep inside he thought all this time that somehow this year it would finally be his turn to go.

"Shut up you baby," his older brother snaps quickly. "I wanna go, I wanna go," he imitates his brother in a boyish manner, shaking his salty brown hair around like someone half his age.

"Timothy!" His mother raises her quiet voice. Her pale face has turned red with a mixture of embarrassment and anger. "Don’t you talk that way to your brother on his birthday. Can’t you be nice for a little while. I don’t want you to ruin his day. He only turns six once, and just because we can’t go to Florida this year, that doesn’t give you the right to torture him."

"Fine!" And with that Tim turns coldly away and fixes his glare out the window, to where the rain is starting to fall a bit harder now.

With the temper tantrum going on, Julie hadn’t noticed that Delores had come back for the orders. "I, uh, um, I’m sorry about that. They’re just mad ‘cause both of ‘em have to make the other one miserable all of the time."

Delores rolls her eyes as if to say she’s been there before and seen it a thousand times. "Do you need more time? ," she asks as she produces a pencil from between her ear and her recently dyed red hair. "I’ll just be over there sittin’ for a sec if you do."

"No, we’re fine," the man replied, "I’ll have a..."

"Dave, I’m not ready yet," his wife says, reminding him that he’s not alone.

"Sorry Jules, but I gotta get back to the lot soon." He turns back to the aging waitress, who seems to be aging more and more as this order takes longer and longer. "I’ll get a quarter-pounder with the works, extra mayo, and could you check on those fries we ordered, I’m starved."

After a pause, Julie orders for herself and the kids. She thinks to herself, What a way to kick off a birthday. She has tried so hard to provide for her kids, but being a full-time mother doesn’t pay what it should.

The rest of the lunch is spent mostly silently, the only chatter between the husband and wife. The kids spent most of the time flicking ice and insults back and forth. The birthday boy receives a slice of homemade apple pie with a candle on top. No song and dance from the waitresses, but it is pie nonetheless. The family departs just in time for Dave to get back to work in less than forty-five minutes. They would rejoin tonight at the house for a small family celebration later on. Only them tonight, the big party would be on Saturday. It seemed so far off.

Delores goes back to the table after they leave to find a quite standard 15 percent tip. She is surprised she got that much because they normally leave around 10 percent. They’ll be back again next week. This was the ragged waitress’ last table of the day. Her shift’s finally done. Quickly she walks to the coat rack, grabs her jacket, and hangs up her apron in its place. She walks out to her car covering her head with a notebook she carries around with her at all times to keep ideas in. Surprisingly, nothing much has come from that book. She turns over the ignition and prepares for the slippery ride home. As usual, she lights up a cigarette, waves to the girls in the diner and backs out of her space. Finally, she sits down after a long day, not even minding the traffic jam that she expects to have to sit in on the Beltway. As long as she’s sitting, she doesn’t mind at all.


About the author:  The multitalented Michael Weiss plays electric guitar in addition to writing fiction and poetry. He currently works at a music store while attending Junior college.



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Copyright 1998 by Michael Weiss. Send comments to jfmorales@baharna.com.