“State Diner, 1957” by Michael Steinberg

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“State Diner” by Carole Steinberg Berk

 

Several years ago, on a whim, I took a tour of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. While wandering through the “Automobile in American Life” exhibit, I spotted–sandwiched between the sporty blue-and-white ’56 Chevy convertible, the sleek ’57 T-bird, and the classic black ’59 El-Dorado with the shark-like tail fins–a sky-blue, box-like building that looked like a railroad dining car. The rooftop neon sign flashed, “LAMY’S DINER,” in bold red; and beneath it, in yellow painted script, the words “Booth Service.”

When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, my father, a traveling salesman, took me to a lot of roadside hamburger joints like this one. So I stepped inside LAMY’S to have a look around. It was the real thing, all right.  To my right stood the familiar old cigarette machine–the kind with the white plastic handles–where a quarter bought you a pack of Lucky Strikes, Pall Malls, Chesterfields, Camels, Old Golds, or Raleighs.

Suspended above the marble counter hung the black, glass-encased menu where for from thirty-five to fifty cents you could buy egg salad sandwiches, BLT’s, French fries, malts, and two eggs any style. On the counter two glass bubbles showcased homemade pies and donuts while eggs and bacon danced a choreographed sizzle on the open grill. In that same small space sat the gleaming, stainless steel gas stove, hot water boiler, coffee urn, and electric milk shake mixer.

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Across from the counter were the Formica-topped booths with accordion-shaped Seeburg jukeboxes, where at three-for-a-nickel, you could select the hit tunes of the day by artists like the Andrews Sisters, Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Dick Haymes, Kai Kaiser, and so many others.

The teen-aged museum guide in starched whites smiled at me as he stacked boxes of Rice Krispies, Cheerios, and Grape Nuts Flakes in neat rows. A college kid, I thought; this is probably his summer job. I’ll bet he thinks that all of this stuff is ancient history.

I nodded in his direction, slid into a booth, closed my eyes and leaned back.

It’s 1957 and I remember it this way:

I’m in the middle-class, seaside town of Far Rockaway, standing beneath the El in the parking lot of the State Diner with my companions Bruce Ahrens and Herbie Brownstein. It’s a crisp late September evening, a full moon in the sky, and the lot is packed with choppers, hot rods, and assorted junkers from all over town. As we inch closer to the diner, we see human shadows flickering behind the window blinds and hear muffled strains of rock and roll thump-thump-thumping above the buzz and drone of animated conversation.

Bruce and Herbie stand frozen, trying to muster up the courage to walk into this illustrious inner sanctum. Clean-cut aspiring preppies, they’re here because they know it’s the “in” hangout, the place where the elite Belle Harbor clique–Allen Nelson, Freddy Francis, and Looie Mandell–hang out.  Bruce and Herbie, I know, desperately want to run with that crowd. And at one time, so did I; but I’m careful not to admit that to them.

Back in grade school and junior high, I tried to break into the clique but I was a short, shy, chubby kid who didn’t fit the group’s profile. And when those guys let me know I wasn’t welcome, I took the sting out of the rejection by joining up with the James Dean types.

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“Elegy for Ebbets” by Carole Steinberg Berk

In my last year of junior high, I hung out with Marty Ellis’s gang of self-proclaimed hoods. As an initiation rite, they dared me to hot wire the state senator’s new Cadillac and take it for a joy ride. Me, who back then, would do anything to prove I belonged, took the bait; and for my trouble, spent the night in a jail cell at the 100th Precinct.  After my father waited until morning to bail me out, I decided that it was time to put my gang membership days behind me.

Bruce and Herbie know about my past connections with Marty’s gang: That’s probably why they’ve invited me here tonight: for protection.

“If you’re a freshman and you go in there,” Albie Snyder once told them, “the seniors will string you up on the coat rack and they’ll hold you upside down while they turn your pockets inside out until all of your loose change spills out.  Then they’ll slice off your belt with a switch blade and pull your pants down in front of all the girls.”

I know those stories are a running joke, but Bruce and Herbie are genuinely scared. Me, I’m glad to run interference for them because I’m also curious to see what this alleged hangout for the high schools’ gangs and cliques is all about.

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“Jerry’s Union 76” by Carole Steinberg Berk

So I lead the way, my two comrades hanging back, ready to turn tail at the slightest sign of trouble. As I step inside, I can already tell that their fears are unfounded: nobody even notices us.

The juke box blasts out “Maybelline,” cigarette smoke curls around us, fogging our vision; and the noisy conversation mixes with the whirring of the milk shake machines, the chink of plates colliding, and the aroma of hamburgers sizzling on the open grill.

Herbie deliberately stops at the cigarette machine and buys us three packs of Lucky’s. Like we know what we’re doing, we each light up and place a pack in our rolled-up shirtsleeves. The cigarettes fuel us with instant courage. So we push our way through the maze of bodies and swagger toward the open booth at the rear.

Before we even sit down, the waitress appears. She’s slender with short, dishwater blonde hair, and acne. Attractive, I’m thinking, in a hard sort of way.

Herbie’s asking her in a fake cool tone, “Menus, please?”

Tapping her pencil on her painted fingernails, she says, “Up on the board,” then snaps her gum, takes our order, and sashays away.

“Rough trade,” says Herbie. Bruce chimes in. “Yeah. Steno-typing and Home Ec.”

Both laugh self-consciously. The girls they’re referring to come to school with curlers in their hair. They wear breast-hugging black sweaters, black cloth jackets with “South Arverne Boys Club” embroidered on the back, tight black wool skirts with slits up the side, black, open-toed shoes and nylons that have seams running down the back. In our addle-brained teenage imaginations, they’re the “sluts,” the girls that “put out.”

Their boyfriends, the hoods, are guys with greasy slicked back hair–the ones that take automotive shop and woodworking, and wear black motorcycle jackets with the collars turned up, garrison belts and pegged pants with white stitches running down the sides, and shit-kicker boots with straps and buckles stretched across the arch.

As they congregate at the two tables directly in front of us, I watch them chain smoke, defiantly drop their butts on the floor, and deliberately drape their muddy boots over the tables. One of them yells out to our waitress, “Hey cupcake, I need a refill over here,” while the others direct crude remarks at their girlfriends.  I stub out my cigarette butt, thinking to myself what a jackass I was to even entertain the thought of hanging around with that crowd.

The two tables in front of the hoods and harlots are manned by the popular preppies and their girl friends–the clique that Bruce and Herbie aspire to join, the same clique that rejected me a while back. The disappointment still stings, but I’m trying not to show it.

The guys look like Archie Andrews and Dobie Gillis, and the girls are doubles for Betty and Veronica from the Archie comic strip.

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Nelson, Frances, and Mandell, and their new initiate–Chuck Pinder–who the guys in school call “Pindick”–sport pomade crew-cuts and wear blue or white Oxford button-down shirts, khaki pants, and dirty white bucks. Carol Kahn, Linda Goldman, and Barbara Pierce, their companions, are pretty, well-scrubbed, pony-tailed girls neatly outfitted in starched white blouses, navy, pink, or blue pleated skirts, and white bobby sox with black and white saddle shoes.

They’re the social movers and shakers–future class presidents, boosters, and editors of the school newspaper–the ones who organize mixers, school sock hops, and basement make-out parties.

Like he could care less, Mandell throws us a half-assed wave. Bruce and Herbie jump as if they’d been goosed with a blowtorch. I feel a tingle of jealousy and resentment. Who the hell does he think he is? But then I try to ignore my feelings by flagging down the waitress for a refill. I don’t want Bruce and Herbie to see the envy in my eyes.

Holding court at the three booths closest to the door are the kings and queens of the diner–the jocks and cheerleaders. Football heroes “Moose” Imbrianni, Nick Papouchis, and Angelo Labrizzi are wearing tight jeans and V-necked sweaters with no shirts on underneath, and, even indoors, blue woolen Rockaway High letter jackets with white leather sleeves.

They laugh and banter easily with Linda Franco and Helen Dennis, their girlfriends–the cheerleader co-captains, decked out in white cardigan Rockaway High letter sweaters.

I consciously shake my head in mock disapproval. But as the night wears on, and as I observe those two groups fist-bumping together–ignoring the greasers and us–something inside begins to stir.  A tightness in my throat, a gnawing jealousy, overtakes me. And I can also see that Herbie and Bruce are feeling that same sting of exclusion, the rebuff we all know– know it oh-so-well.

I try to fight it off by boasting of imagined sex I’ve had with made-up girls–you know the fantasy, right?–the who-dry humped-who-in-the-back-seat-of-who’s-car. Then we deny our feelings some more by playing the old Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on first,” while we’re ordering up another round of hamburgers and fries. But the churning in my stomach doesn’t go away. I feel myself getting light-headed, woozy.

And slowly I begin to drift into a daydream. I’m imagining that it’s a football Saturday and I’m running a halfback sweep. I’m in the clear, blurs of green grass and faces whizzing by, while the cheerleaders are jumping up and down chanting my name, and the crowd is yelling, “go, go, go.”

In the next frame, I imagine my picture and byline on the sports page of our school newspaper, The Chat; and below the photo is my column “Sports Shorts.” Then, I dream that I’m at special school assembly accepting the nomination for class president, from, of all people, Looie Mandell. In the last scene, I’m slow dancing with Linda Franco at the senior prom.  She wears my letter sweater.

 

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“Hey, mister,” the young museum guide yells from behind the counter. “It’s five and I gotta’ close up.” He jolts me out of my reverie. I look at my watch: I’d been sitting here for almost two hours.

Why am I thinking about all of this stuff? And why now?

A few of those daydreams, in fact, did come to pass. In my senior year, after three years of pitching batting practice and volunteering to chase foul balls that bounced into the street, I did get to pitch for the high school team. And after three years of begging Mr. Jagust to let me be a gofer for the school newspaper, he did, in my senior year, make me the sports editor of  “The Chat.”

How much of the impulse to please, to humble myself, led to those (and other small high school achievements), I’ll never know. But none of those successes turned out to be nearly as elaborate or life-altering as they first seemed to that fifteen-year-old kid.

Those adolescent daydreams seem so foolish today, so embarrassing. And yet, even now I’m still making similar compromises in order to impress or curry favor with colleagues, friends, superiors, mentors, and editors: the outsider, still trying to prove his worth.

I can now see that I was making those trade-offs even before that evening at the State Diner. And yet, and yet, that night, something inside had broken loose; an urgent voice that was whispering “I want, I want.” And as it turned out, that pattern, those same impulses to please and to prove myself to others, are still a part of who I am.

 

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“Hudson River” by Carole Steinberg Berk

On my way out of Lamy’s, still a little embarrassed and self-conscious, I say to the kid, half-jokingly, “Hamburger, medium-rare, toast the bun; order of fries, and a black-and-white thick shake to go.”

He shoots me a puzzled look before I step out of the diner and move back into the real world.

 

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Michael Steinberg, founding editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction has written, co-authored, and/or edited seven books and a stage play. In 2003, ForeWord Magazine chose Still Pitching as the Independent Press Memoir/Autobiography of the Year. A co-edited anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Robert Root Jr) is now in a sixth edition. Steinberg has taught workshops nationally and internationally in addition to being a visiting writer at many colleges and universities in the US. Currently, he’s the nonfiction writer-in-residence at the Solstice/Pine Manor College low residency MFA program in Boston.

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