We are vacationing this holiday season-come-semester break at Susanne’s parents house in the “southern thumb” of Michigan. Yes, when you ask a Michigander (it just keeps getting better, doesn’t it) where they’re from, they’ll hold up their hand and point. It’s actually pretty handy [sic]. Every state should look like a limb one could hold up and point to. “I live in the adrenal gland portion of the kidney,” say. Okay, maybe that’s not the best idea ever, especially given Manhattan’s geography.
Anyway, if they’re from somewhere in the vicinity of Detroit, the state’s most populous city, they may say something like “11 Mile,” referring to the regular spate of roads that run parallel to the north boundary, further and further to the top of the hand. Eminem made his 8 Mile movie, everyone already knows, about the area where the suburbs take over—but as far as I know, there are no plans for a “40 Mile” sequel, all about the drama of car parts factories on the outskirts of the dying automobile center. No wait, that was Roger and Me.
After a few days of meals at home, we descended on a local eatery, the Raiders Coney Island. By “we,” I mean me, Susanne, her mom, two brothers, sister-in-law, and their four kids, ranging in age from 2 to 17. It was a little Jon and Kate Plus 8 meets a Top Chef challenge—the elimination kind, not the simple quickfires, either. Taking up three booths in the small eatery, the waitress was a little overwhelmed.
Upon seeing customers who needed her service, she probably would have drawn a sharp intake of breath on a good day, but on this day she had no backup help, either, it being two days after Christmas and the other staff not having the same level of commitment to the family establishment that she did, since it was clearly her family’s establishment. But my immediate concern wasn’t for her ability to take our drink order, it was for the obvious extreme edema she had in her ankles. It was so bad I wasn’t sure how she’d managed to get her feet into her sneakers. My next worry was if her apparently chronic swelling had anything to do with the food in this place. Perhaps I could suck on a gratis lollypop and call that supper.
She slowly made her way to each table, starting with the ones who were already seated before we’d gotten there. Well, slowly isn’t really the right word. She was hurrying in a way that did little to increase her speed in any measurable fashion. Perhaps in an alternate universe we’d eaten already.
Finally she plunked down our menus, and the “raider” concept hit me. They had a knight on a horse, holding a spear, with a weiner at the end. This was the graphical fusion, I supposed, of the raider and Coney Island. Someone should tell the restaurant owners that Coney Island is about to be bulldozed into a suburban-like subdevelopment a la the Goonies. Only instead of pirate treasure maps we have the near-total collapse of the global economy. That’ll slow ’em down. The raider, however, was smiling, so excited about the opportunity for a hot dog that he was obliquely unaware of the doom awaiting the old amusement park.
“Hey, isn’t that the mascot for your old high school,” I asked Susanne. She nodded. “Well, kind of. The real mascot looked more serious.” She paused.
“And there’s no hot dog in the real logo,” she added, just in case I leave this experience wondering why the superintendent of schools thinks it’s okay for the local high school to model such poor food choices to its impressionable students.
I appreciated that they hadn’t stolen the licensed image from the high school, even as they were clearly looking to it as their reference point. I later learned that they regularly give money to the high school, so I suppose they should go ahead an name themselves after the mascot—they’ve earned it.
“So was your school color orange,” I asked, looking at the menu cover. I went to Syracuse University for college, so I’m familiar with the futility of trying to work school-licensed clothes into one’s general wardrobe.
“Orange and black,” she said, knowing full well I’d be shocked. They were always ready for Halloween, I guess.
“My high school was brown and gold,” I said, “so I never thought I’d hear of worse colors than that.” I made famous a short story from my graduation, when one of the girls asked me why the women wore white graduation caps and gowns instead of gold, since the men were wearing chocolate brown, to which I’d remarked, “because they don’t want it to look like a lot of shit and piss out there.”
There is no restaurant, nice or not, in Hamilton, New Jersey, that has my old high school logo on it. Just saying.
The menu was a strange blend of Greek culinary tradition, pub fare, and Johnny Rockets diner food. I still don’t see my beloved pizzaburger outside New Jersey, but I won’t hold it against them. I tried to order the chicken kabobs.
“We don’t have those made up yet,” the salt-retaining waitress told me, as if any minute now, chicken kabobs would be good to go. “But this other chicken meal is the same thing, just not cut up.”
Wondering why cutting the chicken into smaller pieces would mean it would somehow take longer to cook, I saw that this other dinner also came smothered in green peppers, mushrooms, and provolone cheese, most of which are not to be found on Greek-style kabobs. So okay, I went with that, with a little hesitation about when any of this was going to take to arrive at our tables. Every so often she would call out to her mother for help, and I started to wonder if she wasn’t talking to a ghost or an imaginary friend. But finally, Mom showed up, agreeing to help make the four smoothies and milkshakes the kids had ordered. One look at the mother and I was certain their was some family illness with water retention going on here. Why had no one told them to seek medical help for their obvious swelling problems?
The cooks in the back were doing their best impressions of Wilson from Home Improvement, so I couldn’t analyze whether the male members of the family were afflicted with the same disease, but they put the food up on the counter when it was ready and voila, cheese and fungus-covered chicken was at my table. Susanne and I had finished an impromptu game of dots, with her finding the one and two box spots and me mis-selecting a long chain of 16 boxes for her to label. Damn dots game—you always make me pay for slow diner service by showing me what an awful player I am. Maybe I shouldn’t carry a pen with me wherever I go.
Half our orders were wrong—the mother made milkshakes instead of slurpies, which, 50 minutes after walking in, we were happy to drink anyway. Yes, they needed more serving staff. The food was fine though, and cheap, and finally we were back in the car, heading through the Christmas Week night and jazzed up to play some head-to-head solitaire. Maybe, I thought, we should just cook at home.