Monday, 30 July 2007

Wimpy's Diner

Monday July 16th, 2007

“I am J. Wellington Wimpy, and I suggest we all have a hamburger on the house.” So proclaims Popeye’s sleepy-eyed mustachioed pal Wimpy at the beginning of “Plunder Island”, a sequence of ‘Thimble Theater’ Sunday comic strips that ran from 1933 to 1934. This was the only occasion that Thimble Theater’s creator, E.C. (Elize Crisler) Segar used the Sunday strips to tell an ongoing narrative: usually Segar’s Sunday strips were reserved for self-contained gags. In ‘Plunder Island,’ however, we see a comics master at work, weaving an intricate tale of piracy and adventure full of memorable characters (Wimpy, Olive Oyl, Alice The Goon, The Sea Hag), mystery, danger, and hamburgers.

J. Wellington Wimpy is a True Burger Lover. When captured by the Sea Hag he asks, “Do you, by chance, happen to have a bit of sandwich handy?” To which The Sea Hag replies, “I have fifty pounds of delicious frozen hamburger in the refrigerator. I’ll have the cook fry one for you.” Wimpy’s normally sleepy eyes pop open as he exclaims, “I beg pardon? Did you say Hamburger?” Wimpy then begins kissing The Sea Hag. “Wonderful lady, I cannot restrain myself any longer-- O pearl of sky-blue waters... eyes like distant suns radiant with atomic fire, my beloved hamburge-- ah, I mean Sea Hag.” Later, back on Popeye’s ship, Roughhouse the ship’s cook builds a hamburger stand on the deck to alleviate his homesickness (“You know, Popeye, I’m getting kind of homesick. Say, we used to have a lot of fun in my restaurant back home, didn’t we?”). Unfortunately for Roughhouse, his first customer turns out to be the ever-mooching J. Wellington Wimpy. “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Roughhouse gets so angry he pushes his hamburger stand into the ocean. Wimpy, fully clothed, dives in after it. In the last panel of that strip we see Wimpy inside the hamburger stand, bobbing on the waves and talking to himself: “What’ll you have on your hamburger, Mr. Wimpy? I’ll have pickle, onion and lettuce, both.”

As ‘Plunder Island’ continues we see Wimpy wrestle a live cow (“Hamburgers on the hoof! Relax, you brute! I have you!”), make hamburgers out of five lions guarding The Sea Hag’s treasure (“Good heavens! My lions!” “No, Haggy-- my hamburgers!”) and get beaten up by a gorilla who refuses to be knocked out and turned into hamburgers.

It makes sense that a restaurant named after a character who is willing to risk life and limb for a tasty burger would know a thing or two about hamburgers-- so I head for Wimpy’s Diner on The Danforth. Wimpy’s Diner (“There’s No Place Finer Than Wimpy’s Diner”) is a 50s-and-60s-themed restaurant chain with locations all over the city, but the Danforth location is near the glasses store where I’ve ordered new glasses for my Wedding Day. My old glasses are busted and twisted and scratched and chipped and held together by sheer force of will. If I stopped believing in my old glasses they would turn to dust and waft away in the breeze.

Earlier at the eye doctor I got eye drops and then went stumbling around outside with dilated pupils, the world blurry and washed-out white. I bought new shoes and a cream-colored shirt-- more items checked off my wedding checklist-- and then I dropped off my prescription before heading for Wimpy’s.

Walking into Wimpy’s is a blast of primary colors, red and blue: Red vinyl booths and stools, red and blue neon around the lunch counter. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” is rockin’ from the speakers. The walls are plastered with images, a shrine to pop culture of a bygone era: Popeye, Lucille Ball, Babe Ruth, Elvis, Betty Boop, Jayne Mansfield, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, The Three Stooges.

I sit down and a friendly server brings me a menu. I overhear another customer: “Their burgers are so good.” My napkin proclaims, “Our Specialty: Charcoal Broiled Hamburgers.” I order a hamburger.

The burger arrives lickety-split: a huge ten ounce slab of meat overlapping its bun. The burger is served open and the smell of grilled meat is making me INSANE. I lean closer, taking in the crosshatched grill marks and the condiments and toppings laid out on the bun: mustard, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, onion, relish (I should’ve asked for no relish) and two pickle slices arranged in a cross. The bun itself is a yellow egg bun, toasted, no seeds.

I pick up the huge burger and take a bite: nothing but meat. It’s beefy and salty with that odd Canadian taste that I still can’t quite place. Is it the feed? Something in the water? Additives to the beef? More research is called for!

So this Wimpy’s Burger is not quite right. Still, the toppings are fresh and $5.99 for a ten ounce burger is a good deal. Outside the street rumbles with construction and inside one of two T.V. sets is tuned to Cable Pulse 24: weather, traffic, stock prices scroll across the screen. If my Mom was here she would reach up and calmly turn off the Television, doing her part to reduce noise pollution.

Last bite: Gone! That was a truly mighty burger but I could eat another right now. That bacon burger at the neighboring table looks so good I want to run over and snatch it and then dart out the door. My Doctored Eyes have returned to more or less normal so I could make a speedy getaway. No, No-- stealing is wrong, we all know that. I’ll just have to come back another day.

What is it about 50s diners? The familiarity, I suppose. Familiarity and Nostalgia for the Pop-Culture version of the 1950s we’ve all learned from “Happy Days” and “Leave It To Beaver.” MAD TV did a sketch once where two couples go to a 50s diner on a double date. “You’ll love it,” says Couple Number One. “It’s so authentic.” The couples proceed into the restaurant only to be stopped by a waitress. “Sorry,” she says, “we don’t serve their kind.” The second couple, who happens to be Black, looks properly horrified. The first couple laughs it off. “See? What did we tell you? So authentic!” Seen through a primary-colored lens of Pop Nostalgia, The Fifties was a lot of fun: Davey Crockett Hats, Sock Hops and Hula Hoops... but like any Era, The 50s had its Dark Side: Racism, Sexism, Fear and Hatred. Am I seeing the Hamburger of My Youth through a Nostalgic Lens? Of course. I am seeking a hamburger that might only exist as an Idealized Memory, made up not of ground beef but of the sights and sounds of my Dallas childhood, a childhood that gets more golden with each passing year as The Dark Side retreats, leaving only memories of Happiness. That, of course, is how the mind works. With time, the mind throws out the bad and clings to the good. As Homer Simpsons says, “Everything looks bad if you remember it.” But now and then Memory and Reality happily intersect: a smell, a taste, a place... I still have hope, and so The Quest continues.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Magic Spot Grill

July 3rd, 2007

(Go west) Life is peaceful there
(Go west) in the open air
(Go west) where the skies are blue
(Go west) this is what we're gonna do
--Pet Shop Boys covering The Village People

“Go West, Young Man.”
--Horace Greeley covering John Soule

1851: Newspaper man John Soule of The Terre Haute Express writes “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.” Fourteen years later, in 1865, publisher of The New York Tribune Horace Greeley chops off the end of John Soule’s phrase and renders it thusly: “Go West, Young Man.” And that’s what I’m doing, heading West toward The Magic Spot and the blue skies of Etobicoke.

Etobicoke! From the Native Mississauga word “wah-do-be-kang”, which means “place where the black (and/or) wild alders grow.” Etobicoke! A township in 1850 and one hundred and four years later, in 1954, part of The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto. Etobicoke! In 1998, the place where the black and or wild alders grow merges with five other local municipalities to form the amalgamated city of Toronto. And now, in 2007, I have a vast gleaming metropolis in which to romp and eat hamburgers. Gosh, it sure was nice of The Natives to clear out and leave us all this land!

The Westward trek begins. I walk over to Broadview, past the school where the exterior shots of Degrassi Junior High were filmed, past the school’s playing field now empty of children (SUMMER VACATION!!!!) and reclaimed by seagulls, waddling about all puffed-up and self-important. I know, I know-- there’s no bird taxonomically classified as “seagull” but I am a layperson when it comes to birds so therefore I am allowed to fall back on common usage of grouping various types of gulls under the broad umbrella of “seagull” rather than speculate as to what type of gulls I saw, which in all likelihood were ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis), the most common type of gull in all of Southern Ontario. I once saw a flock of seagulls (an actual flock, not the 1980s band Flock of Seagulls) chowing down on a heap of KFC debris but I’ve never seen a seagull eat a hamburger. I’m sure they would, though, if given half a chance. Filthy Scavengers!

If all goes well two Burger Questers will be joining me today: friend and bandmate Ronnie C. and his lovely wife and fellow bandmate Kristiina. No, that’s not a typo and no, you’re not seeing double (but if you are... lay off the hooch!)-- Kristiina is from Finland and she does indeed have three ‘i’s in her name. We’re meeting at 1:00 P.M. at The Magic Spot: will it work out? Will the spot indeed be magical? Will a magician with a twirly handlebar mustache reach into an upturned tophat and produce The Hamburger of My Childhood with a flourish and a ‘TA-DAAAA?’ Fingers crossed!

I take the streetcar up to Broadview station where I transfer onto the Bloor-Danforth Subway line heading... you guessed it... West. Man, Toronto Public Transit has come a long way since 1861. Back then the privately owned Toronto Street Railway Company was granted a 30 year franchise to provide the public with horse-drawn streetcars during the summer and horse-drawn sleighs in the wintertime. In 1894 the last of the horse-drawn streetcars was retired. One era ended and another one took its place: the Age of Electricity had begun. Watch the calendar: Sixty years flip by. It’s now 1954 and the first Toronto subway opens between Union Station and Eglinton Station. Twelve years after that, in 1966, the Bloor-Danforth line opens between Keele and Woodbine. It is this line (now expanded) that will carry me Westward toward a hopefully Magically Delicious Hamburger enjoyed in the company of friends.

The subway car smells like curry and my stomach starts to rumble. Next to me is a woman cutting her fingernails and leaving a pile of nail clippings all over the seat but neither she nor the fashion victim standing in front of me wearing a bucket hat, a down-filled vest, furry boots with pom-poms and tight (way too tight) short-shorts can extinguish this hunger. Come to me, O Burger of My Dreams!

A quick walk from Royal York Subway and lo, I have arrived! Before me is The Magic Spot, a big square building with a sign proclaiming “Under New Management: Putting The Magic Back In The Spot!” Could there be anything sadder than a Magic Spot that’s lost its magic? Yes, New Management: bring the magic back!

Inside The Magic Spot is a cafeteria-style lunch counter where you place your order. I tell the grill man I’m waiting for friends and then I grab a table up front and kick back. Now it’s a question of which will arrive first: my friends or unstoppable stomach rattling hunger?

Behind me the grill man (baseball cap and tattoos) bellows out orders for pickup: “Pork Dinner! Fish and Chips! “ The grill sizzles: the smell of pork souvlaki fills the air.

My friends are here! Hugs, handshakes and smiles all around. I walk up to the counter and place my order: 1 Homeburger, 1 Root Beer, 1 Onion Rings. I know, health fans, I know... but Ronnie C. tells me The Magic Spot has truly excellent onion rings and as it turns out, he’s absolutely right. I may be killing myself slowly but what a delicious way to die.

While we wait for our food Ron and Kristiina tell me about The Hamburgers of Helsinki, mostly served in late-night Burger Kiosks catering to hungry drunks. The Hamburgers of Helsinki are too saucy, I’m told-- too condiment-heavy and not about the meat. Too much sauce, stacked high with condiments to the point where the burgers must be eaten with a knife and fork.

Our orders are called. We swarm the lunchcounter and select our toppings. Mustard, Onion, Lettuce, Tomato, Pickle and a few Hot Peppers. Final Burger Assemblage complete, the counterman forks ‘em over: A Big Grilled Burger on a toasted sesame seed bun nestled next to a pile of golden brown and perfectly crispy onion rings all served up on a white oval diner-style plate. Looks good!

I pick up the burger-- good heft, good handfeel. The toasted bun is toasted and not soggy. I hold the burger aloft and take a whiff. I’m expecting charred beefy goodness but this burger-- which looks exactly like a burger should, right down to the grill marks-- doesn’t smell burgery at all. Maybe there is no burger in my hand. It’s all an illusion, made of smoke and mirrors. Damn you, Magic Spot!

The First Bite: an odd, spicy sawdusty taste. It’s somewhat familiar but it doesn’t taste like any burger I’ve ever had. Mental Fingersnap: Gyros Meat! Not quite but damn close. Grill haunted by The Ghosts of Souvlakis Past. Behold The Magic of The Gyros-Flavored Hamburger!

I turn from the burger and bite into an onion ring. It’s as good as it looks: hot, crispy and delicious. Ron points to his hamburger. “Would you like to try a bite of the regular burger?” I would. It’s indistinguishable from the homeburger. Outside is a beautiful summer day and we eat and talk and laugh and then the burgers are gone and we are heading back to the subway full of magic onion rings and so-so burgers. No man with a black hat and twirly mustache, no magical burger of my dreams, but we are full and fortified and ready to turn a so-so burger into an afternoon of friendship and fun... just like magic.