“Two eggs sunny side up and I want them snotty. A side of bacon and an order of whole wheat toast and I want it cut horizontal, not on the bias,” said Charlie, the undertaker, in a quiet but assertive tone.
|Red, Chuck and Whitie, owners of the |
Teddy Bear Restaurant.
“Tell me, Chaz,” said Whitie, the almost platinum blonde man with the pop-bottle-thick spectacles and middle-weight’s build who was taking the order from the other side of the counter, “what the hell difference does it make which way your toast’s cut? I mean, no shit, I really want to know.”
“When you cut it on a diagonal,” said Charlie, his expression remaining deadpan, “the points poke me in the throat.”
“Ask a stupid question...” Whitie trailed off as he turned, carefully laid out three strips of lean bacon to cook, then selected two eggs from a stack of two-dozen-egg cartons and cracked them, sputtering, onto the sizzling grill.
Just then, Miss X, a new elementary schoolteacher walked in. She was pretty and shy and blushed at the slightest provocation. But crinoline petticoats were in style and Miss X’s made her full skirt bloom out around her like a bell, so that, with her bouffant hairstyle and buxom build, she looked a little like the pleasant country girls who square danced with rangy gents on Dayton TV’s Midwestern Hayride.
Charlie watched her cross the dining room to the counter and smiled. She smiled back and cheerily said, “Good morning!” Charlie leaned in close and—confidentially, but loud enough for everybody close-by to hear—said, “Hey, Hon, I think you forgot to let the air out of your underwear.” The teacher went red to the roots of her teased-high hair as a wave of laughter went up among the men at the front table just behind Charlie, and she placed her order with Whitie’s older brother Red, without ever looking Charlie’s way again, while Chuck, the third brother behind the counter, held his ribs and guffawed unabashed.
This was typical of the banter that formed part of breakfast at the Teddy Bear Restaurant. If you wanted to know what was going on in Wapakoneta when I was a kid, all you had to do was spend any weekday morning sitting at the long table at the back of the Teddy Bear’s dining room, next to the kitchen—or in one of the two booths next to it. Sitting in one of those booths was the easiest option if you weren’t a “regular”, because in order to sit at the “front table”, as it was called, despite its being the furthest table from the front door, you had to form part of one of several “in” crowds who sat there.
That table seated eight, and the eight who sat there rotated throughout the morning, and indeed continued to rotate throughout the day. But as the day wore on, it became less and less frequented, and unless a very large family were to come in and usurp it, people just didn’t usually sit there without being part of one of its standing populations. It wasn’t like there were any hard and fast rules chiseled in stone or anything, nor was the table “reserved”, but it just wasn’t done. That was also “the owners’ table”, where Red, Whitie and Chuck sat to socialize with their friends and habitual clientele whenever one of them found five minutes to take a break. The front table was the front table for a reason, and it was kind of naturally reserved as such, unless rush hour precluded sitting anyplace else.
Now, you didn’t have to be a VIP, exactly, to be welcome to sit at the front table. But you did have to have some outstanding trait that made others want you to sit there. You had to be interesting or distinct in some way. For instance, the police chief sat there, not because anybody thought he had a winning personality (he didn’t), but because he’d been the police chief since anybody under the age of forty could remember. Charlie regularly sat there too, not so much because he was the undertaker, though, as because he was the funniest man in town and kept the whole table in stitches whenever he was there (some people in our town, depending on their sense of humor, got some of their best laughs in at the funerals he directed). His jokes were mostly clever and cute, like, “Hey Whitie, did you hear about the girl with three breasts? Yeah, two in front and one on her back. She wasn’t much to look at, but she sure was fun to dance with.”
|Whitie and regular "Pudge" Hepp take a break at the "front table".|
Then there were business types who had the skinny on commerce: Mark the hardware store owner, Jim the realtor, Scotty and Dutch from the insurance company, Mac McMurray from the bank, Zimmy from the newspaper, Fred who owned the local fertilizer plant, Cecil from the seed and grain company, Vernie the county auditor, Dick who worked at the Marathon oil depot in nearby Lima, Doc Schaefer from across the street, Larry the grumpy junior high principal that the boys called “Bear”, the aging former City Service Director George Washington Anderegg (not so much because of his office as because he knew everything about everybody in Wapak), townspeople from all walks of life, really. Then there was another George, who managed the local J.C. Penney’s. He joined the front table by another means since he was “from out of town”. He was introduced by Whitie, who’d taken a liking to him right away and said, “He guys, scootch over. This is George, the new Penney’s manager.”
“Hey George, grab a pew,” said Charlie who that day was sitting at the head of the table. He offered George his hand and said, “Charlie. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too, Charlie,” said George. “So tell me, what do you do?”
“Me? I deal in underground novelties,” Charlie quipped to an immediate peal of laughter from everyone at the table, except George, who looked baffled.
Happy Vosler, the justice of the peace sat there too, and so did a former prosecutor (though extreme cheapskate that he was, it was hard to call him a customer since his order often consisted of a ten-cent cup of coffee and all the free refills he could hold, or free hot water, free ketchup and free crackers with which he made himself some “soup”).
There were others, though—local personalities of sorts. Like a fellow some of the guys called “Ace” who was on the work crew for the Gas Company who sat there when the gas gang took its mid-morning break. But he could also sit there any other time he wanted because he had a story, a past, an experience. Ace walked with a very distinct limp. He was an older gent and it seems that when he was much, much younger, well before The War, he had ridden the rails for a time, picking up jobs where he could, doing this and that, seeing new places, barely surviving economically, but actually living along the way.
Local legend had it that it had been Ace’s misfortune to meet up in his travels with an infamous character of nationwide repute, a sadistic railroad detective who had been written up on numerous occasions in a periodical called the Grit—founded by an industrious German immigrant in the 1890s and which, by the 1930s, boasted a circulation of four hundred thousand in rural communities throughout the forty-eight states.
|Started in the 1890s the Grit has a 400,000 circulation |
by the 1930s.
Known for haunting the boxcars of trains wending their way across America from coast to coast, the railroad enforcer took wicked pleasure in the work of keeping his company’s freight cars bum-free. To make sure any that he caught hitching a ride on his trains never came back, he often tied them up and beat them with a rubber hose, club or sap before unceremoniously chucking them overboard. It all depended on his mood. On occasion he’d put his revolver to a rail hobo’s head and give him the choice of jumping or taking a piece of lead in the temple. Other times he’d pistol whip them and shove them half-unconscious out the door. Still others, he’d enjoy kicking their ribs in for a while before forcibly ejecting them from the moving train.
The story was that he’d eventually gotten his due from a gang of some of the less submissive rail bums who laid an ambush for him by putting one of their number in plain sight and the others hiding in the dark at the far end of the boxcar. When the detective started in on their friend with his nightstick, the others jumped him, disarmed him and beat him within an inch of his life with his own club before knifing him and dumping him off along the tracks. So ended, they say, the infamous career of a high-profile railroad legend...but not before he met up with Ace, who spent days, badly beaten and both legs broken after being kicked off of a moving freight train, lying in the ditch by the tracks in the middle of nowhere before someone found him by chance and saved his life. The fact that he sat at the front table in the Teddy Bear and chewed the fat with the rest of the regulars, then, was a not-so-small miracle.
Then there were Web and his wife, Reena. They had a roofing business and worked shoulder to shoulder. Between Web and Reena, it was hard to tell which was the tougher or crustier and they both dressed identically in plaid work shirts, blue denim bib overalls, engineer caps over their shaggy white hair and well-worn Red Wing work shoes on their feet. One difference, Reena wore gray cotton railroad socks with her clunky shoes while Web was partial to black ones, one of which—you could see when his dungaree legs were hiked up—was held up by a red thumb-tack, a singularly disturbing sight unless you happened to know that, from the knee down, that leg was made of wood.
Web never said much. Drank his coffee and ate his donuts in silence, clearly glad to have a table full of other men to have to listen to his wife’s constant jabber for a while. Besides, every time he opened his trap, she’d say, “Oh pipe down. You don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ about anyway.”
Reena, on the contrary, always and authoritatively had something to talk about and the stories she told were so hair-raising that nobody wanted to miss them, so the couple were also regulars at the front table. No matter what she did, it seemed to turn into a folk narrative. Like the time she and Web were quarreling while they were on a roof working and under confusing circumstances, Web ended up rolling off the roof onto the ground. It knocked the wind out of him but he readjusted his peg leg and dragged himself to his feet. While Reena was hollering down, “Hey, answer me, y’old fool, are you okay?” Web quietly took down the ladder, loaded it onto the pickup and drove home, leaving his partner on the roof. “Bastard left me there all night,” Reena complained. Web just nodded and smiled as the other men at the table roared.
Or the time Reena told about her pitched battle with a huge rat that had gotten into their house on the edge of town. “Tried to shoot the damn thing with my shotgun, but all I did was blow the screen door off its hinges. I finally got it cornered but didn’t have anything to hit it with so I just reached down and grabbed it, but only caught it by its hind quarters, so it kep’ a-flippin’ back and forth and a-bitin’ me on the wrists, see?” She pulled up the cuffs of her work shirt and showed her chewed-up wrists to her fellow diners at the long table. “But I couldn’t let it go, so I finally got one hand around its neck and choked the bastard. Wanna see it? I got it out there in the truck...”
“No!” a collective shout went up.
“Thought I’d send ‘er down to Columbus, see if it had rabies.”
Guys like Charlie and Fred found Reena hilarious, but some of the more squeamish customers on occasion ended up leaving their breakfasts half-eaten when she was in. Like the time she came in and said, “Well, I sure screwed up this time. Just look at this!” and set a little rectangular cardboard jewelry box with something lying on a bed of cotton in the middle of the table.
The guys all leaned forward to look. Some put on their reading glasses. Somebody said, “What the hell’s that, Reena?”
“Well, can’t you see? It’s my damn finger. Cut it off at the first knuckle with the tin shears this morning. Came to ask Doc Schaefer to sew it back on, but he said it was too late, so I guess I’ll keep it for a souvenir.”
Reena was generous to a fault, though. Once, right in the middle of the noon rush, she elbowed her way through the people waiting to place their orders and slung a stringer full of crappies, bluegills and rock bass onto the counter before the horrified stares of the clientele and squawked, “Here, Whitie, these are for you. Caught ‘em at Turkeyfoot this morning. Don’t say I never gave ya nothin’.”
Practical jokes were the order of the day among the livelier boys at the front table, and sometimes among the boys behind the counter as well. For instance, Charlie was always razzing Whitie about the size of the eggs the Teddy Bear served—not because there was really anything wrong with the eggs, which were farm fresh from Frosty Erb’s poultry shop across the street, but just because it was so much fun to needle Whitie, who went livid with irritation instead of simply saying, “Screw you, Charlie,” like the other two brothers did. So, every time Whitie served Charlie his eggs and bacon, the towering funeral director would raise the plate halfway to his nose, gaze disdainfully at his breakfast and say, “Hey Whitie, where the hell’d you get these eggs, out of a sparrow’s nest?” or, “Since when do you guys have Cornish hen eggs on the menu?” or, “If I’d have known the size of these things, I’d have called ahead and had you scramble me up a dozen or so.”
Sick of the wisecracks, when Whitie was buying the eggs across at Erb’s Poultry one morning, he said, “Hey Frosty, don’t you have any bigger eggs than these?”
“What’s wrong with these?”
“I don’t know, Charlie’s driving me nuts about how small they are all the time. Makes me so mad I could just spit! Always razzing me about sparrow eggs and Cornish hen eggs and whatnot.”
“They don’t get any bigger than this, Whitie,” Frosty chuckled, lovingly caressing the large white eggs stacked in their cartons on the counter. “These are grade A farm eggs. You know Charlie, Whitie. He just likes to josh you.”
“Yeah, well, it gets friggin’ old, I can tell you,” Whitie complained. “I serve the best quality stuff I can find.”
On the way out the door of the shop, however, he passed by a crate that caught his eye. It held the biggest eggs he’d ever seen. Twice as big as even the most respectable of hen’s eggs.
“Hey, Frosty,” he said, “if those are grade A large, what the hell are these?”
“Oh, those? Why, Whitie, them’s duck eggs.”
Whitie picked one up, held it up between his middle finger and thumb, then laughed and said, “Wrap me up half a dozen of these babies.”
Next morning, as usual, the undertaker ordered two eggs, sunny side up and snotty with a side of crisp bacon and whole-wheat toast cut horizontally, not on the bias. When the order was ready, Whitie set the platter on the counter, a wide grin on his face and said, “Okay, Chaz, your order’s up.”
When Charlie stepped up to the counter, he was stupefied at what he saw: two perfectly cooked eggs that not only completely covered the plate but hung amply over the sides, so that his bacon was lying on the egg whites instead of beside them and his order of toast had been served on a separate saucer, because there was no room for it on the platter.
Charlie seemed stunned into silence.
Still grinning, Whitie said, “So what’ve you got to say about those goddamn eggs, Charlie?”
“Well...tell you what, Whitie,” Charlie said, “I think you better put me on another couple of orders of toast. I’m gonna be here a while.”
Charlie never again challenged the size of the Teddy Bear’s eggs.
And then there was this one March seventeenth when Red went to pick up the big waxed-cardboard boxes of breakfast rolls at the City Bakery and when it was time to pay Mr. Bennett, the baker, he said, “No charge, Red. Mac McMurray said to tell you that, this being Saint Patrick’s day, breakfast is on him.”
“No shit?” said Red, open-mouth.
“Scout’s honor, Red,” said Mr. Bennett holding up three fingers with one hand and crossing his heart with the other. “That’s what Mac said.”
And when Red got the rolls back to the Teddy Bear and unboxed them, every single donut, long-john and jelly roll was iced a bright shamrock green.
There was this other time when another front-table cut-up and wild thing, Dick “the Marathon man”, who was always complaining that the coffee was too strong, when asked if he wanted a refill, said, “Hell no, I don’t want a refill! In fact, Whitie here shouldn’t even have a license to sell coffee! He should be banned, shunned, shut down. In fact, I have half a mind to toss a stick of dynamite in here and blow this sonuvabitch up!” Then he drank down the rest of his coffee in a single gulp, shuddered, stormed out the side door into the alley, got into his pickup and peeled out of the parking lot spraying gravel.
So convincing was his planned mad and exit that some of the more naïve patrons at the front table said, “Hey, what the hell, who bit him in the ass?” But minutes later, Dick was back, screeching to a halt at the front door and shouldering his way in with a Zippo lighter in one hand and what looked, for all the world, like a stick of dynamite in the other. Like John Wilkes Booth shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” after shooting Lincoln, Dick histrionically yelled, “I warned you this’d happen you white-headed bastard,” lit the fuse and tossed the hissing cartridge into the dining room in front of the counter. Some of the guys who were used to Dick’s antics grinned dumbly waiting for the punchline, but Dick was already back in his truck, burning rubber up the street (though not very far before parking to watch what happened). Now even the three boys behind the counter, who knew wild man Dick well, were laughing a little nervously. As for the clientele in the booths and at other tables, some had jumped up and raced out the door as soon and Dick threw in the “bomb”, while others screamed or hit the deck. And even Dick’s buddies at the front table had gone pallid and were standing to make a run for it by the time the fuse sputtered, went psssssft, and went out, leaving the whole place in shocked silence under a pall of blue smoke, staring at the harmless, red-painted length of broom-handle that lay on the floor by the counter.
Another morning, Reba Mae, Whitie’s pretty young wife, who also worked at the Teddy Bear Restaurant, was working in the kitchen when she saw Charlie and Louie sail like a streak past the side door toward the parking lot in Charlie’s Cadillac ambulance and wondered what the rush was. Louie was Charlie’s assistant and friend from high school days. They were practically bookends in size, two huge men who pretty much filled the broad front seats of the funeral home’s matching Caddy ambulance and hearse whenever they rode in them together.
On this particular morning, no sooner had the ambulance zipped by than Charlie was back, on foot, rushing in through the side door and into the kitchen, grabbing Reba Mae around the waist and hauling her, with her feet barely touching the ground, toward the storage room at the back of the shop.
“Quick, Reba!” Charlie urged her. “Hurry, we have to hide you!”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Reba squealed.
“No time, hurry, SAVE YOURSELF!” Charlie cried.
“Why, Charlie?” Reba Mae asked, trying to twist free from the big man’s grasp. “What the heck’s going on?”
“Louie’s got a sore throat,” Charlie answered, “and he said he was coming in here to get something to suck on!”
The front table at the Teddy Bear Restaurant had a life of its own. Like the Teddy Bear itself, it was unique, familiar, a singular place in a singular town. It formed a tradition and part of the story of Wapakoneta that seemed stable, unchanging, never-ending, like a rock that would always be there. But in the end, it turned out to be a memorable chapter in an ever-changing world.
(This is the first essay in a random series on the Teddy Bear Restaurant)