Sign Language

By Michelle Railey

If you had to pick the food signs you had seen in your life that sort of mattered, and you were me, you might list these: The Golden Bear, Hamburger Stand. Mr. Steak. Cone Palace. Mr. Weenie and The Dairy Lodge. The Clock. On the off-chance that nostalgia is not your middle name (and why should it be?), allow me to give you the explainer on these signs. The Golden Bear was right next to the Target, née Ayr-Way, at the Markland Mall in Kokomo, Indiana. Think 1980 +/-. It had a rotating, 10-ish foot tall fiberglass teddy bear on the top of the mall; it sat somewhere between the Goodyear tire store and Bresler’s and the Bee’s Wax (don’t touch anything in the Bee’s Wax: it’s all expensive. You can tell.).The Golden Bear, if you walk past it in the mall, is gloriously orange and marigold and harvest– all the colors of the late 1970’s rainbow. It smells of coffee and maple syrup. The cigarette smoke wafting out of the Golden Bear into the mall combines with the new-rubber smell cascading out of the Goodyear Store. When you reach Sears and the end of the mall, you will smell the rubber again. But not the smoke. Not the maple syrup. You will have to loop back, past the Lazarus, close to the Price-is-Right flowers of Ayr-Way, and then, breathe deeply. Coffee, tobacco, and maple syrup. (This is probably someone’s Holy Trinity.) Near as you can tell from glancing within, it has booths and only booths, lots and lots of booths. And there’s that bear that you know is spinning somewhere above your head, above the ceiling, touching the sky. It no longer exists. Like the dinosaurs and urban stability, some combination of cigarettes and Reaganomics (maybe the closing of Continental Steel) killed it, circa 1982.

Hamburger Stand was a thing in Colorado. Remember the old generic grocery items: the ones in plain white wrappers, labeled in even more plain black lettering “rice” and “sauce” and “soda?” I know, you’re used to the fancifying of generics and store brands. You’ve purchased (perhaps) the Happy Valleys of Aldi’s, the Nice! of Walgreen’s, the Market Pantry of Target. These are generics in denial (aka: Egyptian Generics). These are trumped-up pretenders. And, while fancier (much in the same way that ketchup can be “fancy”), these are still just more-intricately dressed relatives of the plain white box groceries of the early 1980s. Anyway. Hamburger Stand had cheap hamburgers, fries, sodas. And every one of these things was clad in plain white with stolid black lettering: “hamburger,” “fries,” “soda.” It was ironic before ironic was a meme. Today it would be a t-shirt (I would buy that shirt, FYI) but at the time, it was a McDonald’s that was cheaper, tastier, and wittier and, oh yeah, again, cheaper than McDonald’s (also: no clowns.). Its sign gleamed in the darkness: a plain white rectangle and black, no-nonsense all-caps: Hamburger Stand. No frills. No spinning bear. Practically no heat. Just 39-cent cheeseburgers, orange soda, and a knowing nod: this ain’t your momma’s generic. This is Hamburger Stand, a bad-ass, if ever.

Mr. Steak, also gone to the past, was not that memorable or very often visited. It was simply a dark and more expensive Ponderosa. But it was across the street from the County Market where my sister would open packages of gross things (pig’s feet, livers, farm-animal-organs in general) to make me squeal and where I got hair ribbons and Mom got glazed donuts and where we returned the Tab and Diet Coke bottles every week to get our deposit back. (Yeah, if you’re under 35, you have no idea what this means. Unless you’re from Michigan.) But Mr. Steak was where we went for a great-grandparent’s birthday. It seemed exclusive (the “Mr,” a sure sign of discretion) and special and, well, neither Laughner’s Cafeteria with its hospital smells nor Ponderosa, with its bizarrely frozen-food pseudo-steaks, mildewed carpet, but really fun salad bar (read for that: two — yes, two— kinds of pudding) could compete.

Cone Palace still exists, thank God. It’s an ice-cream stand on Center Road just south of Kokomo, Indiana. It’s been there forever. They have soft-serve. Their sign, happily still extant, is two smiling kewpie doll ice-cream cones surrounding wispy letters. Cone Palace. Not a palace, but indeed, a place to get a cone. And cheap tenderloins on Tuesdays (see, it’s alliterative) and sloppy joes on Wednesdays and coneys on Fridays. By the bagful. Cone Palace also is notable for (a) serving marshmallow Cokes, which other places refuse to do because they can explode (ask my sister) and (b) being, back in the day, a cement bunker which your parents will take you through the drive-thru on a rainy March or February day and they will talk about going to Cone Palace as teenagers on their lunch breaks. It will be one of the first times you realize that your parents were not always adults. And (c) your high school boyfriend will work there somewhere between graduation and the abyss of college and when he gets off from work he will smell like Obsession and ice cream. As it turns out, this is really not a bad combination of scents. So, Cone Palace, with its coy kewpie doll twin ice cream cones: that’s a sign.

Mr. Weenie requires a drive north, to Peru, Indiana. Sure, Peru is renowned as the birthplace of Cole Porter (you didn’t know that?) and as “Circus City, USA,” but if the gods were just, it would be super-famous as the home of Mr. Weenie, a drive-up restaurant with a ’50s-era sign: a hot dog in a bow-tie. Mr. Weenie! One short step away from the iconic “Let’s all go to the snack bar” trailer at the movies (and drive-ins) of the 1950s and 1960s, there’s Mr. Weenie, screaming “Refreshment.” Root beer and coneys and fried mushrooms and fried everything at rock-bottom Hoosier prices. But mostly it’s Mr. Weenie: a hot dog (snicker, insert your own off-color joke here) in a bow tie and a straw boater, surrounded by Bewitched-type stars. It’s perfect mid-century kitsch. I really, really hope it’s still there.

The Dairy Lodge is Traverse City, Michigan’s answer to Kokomo’s Cone Palace: it’s a soft-serve walk-up with an old-fashioned sign. Instead of Kewpie-doll-bookend-ice cream cones, the Dairy Lodge kicks it pin-up style: a Santa-clad Andrews sister, riding an oversized ice cream cone. There is nothing subtle about the Dairy Lodge sign. It’s a paeon to Bettie Page and blonde-ness and “subtle” sexuality; a celebration of Martini Madness and leopard print. It manages to be simultaneously innocent and dirty, this sign: a blond Bettie Page, in very short Santa costume, straddling an ice cream cone. It’s like Donna Reed After Dark. Or like Ann-Margret. ) Overall, an excellent sign for the person who should’ve been born earlier but wasn’t and it heralds the kind of timeless, normal, but exactly-right soft-serve cone that makes the world a better place. And it’s only two blocks from the very edge of Lake Michigan. In summer, this is delightful.

Which leaves us, the writer and the reader(s), with The Clock. I will tell you now that the Clock no longer exists. If you want a breakfast buffet for cheap in Traverse City, Michigan, seek elsewhere. If you want an enormous ham-and-cheese omelette on special, with hash browns and free coffee, with a beach-front view, seek elsewhere. The Clock is dead. It took its dust-encrusted fake flowers with it; no longer the weird trellis and naugahyde decor; or the sour-smelling, crooked floors of the lake-water bathroom, the faded polo shirts of the staff, the mildewed carpets of the dining room, the fireplace that was never lit, and the Casino staff lingering at 2 and 3 and 4 in the morning after their shifts, chain-smoking Parliaments and eating pancakes.

For a time, these were the better part of *somebody’s* twenties, mis-spending a decade in midnight stints at Denny’s and Steak ‘n Shakes and the Clocks, chain-smoking, reading newspapers and obscure books, writing incessantly, hoping for wisdom, drowning in coffee, longing for something that never quite arrived.

The Clock was breakfast with the ex-husband on weekend vacations, and it became refuge and solace and repudiation after the man-who-should-not-be-named dumped a perfectly wonderful girl in order to play opera and/or army. Which is stuff that benefits no one to relive or replay or explain. And it all worked out, in spades, and in happiness with a redhead too kind and wonderful to be deserved by said girl, who’s really not that wonderful, when all the accounting is done.

But there was The Clock. The breakfast was good (not Shoney’s All-You-Can-Eat Breakfast Bar good, but still plenty solid). The prices low, the servers perpetually disheveled. There were plastic fake flowers strewn around the trellises (garden theme?) and the buffet: both were coated in thick, grimy, gloppy dust; the color of nicotine, the viscosity of pure crude.

With the ex-husband, there were breakfasts before vacation days that were spent walking on pristine grass in Charlevoix, checking out 40-dollar bottles of cedar scented bubble bath at Maison & Jardin. We would buy magazines and cappucinos at Horizon Books, smelling the lake air, pulling on sweaters, debating the merits of starting a restaurant called “Sprezzatura” in the old bones of a very bad, woe-be-gone, lake front disaster of a club-cracker failed restaurant. (We could do this. We’ll tile it in black and white, double-cloth the tables in crisp white linen, the walls will be painted the color of raspberries and we will look at the pseudo-sea, here in Traverse; the man will make biscotti and something else he knows how to cook and we- the others- will paint, and festoon, and host, and greet. It was a dumb fantasy.)

The Clock. After the divorce, somebody will escape the wreckage and travel north to live with two friends who are in what could only generously be described as a star-crossed relationship. Get an apartment. Get a job at the casino (employee of the month + B-level celebrities + excellent insurance). And when you get off your shifts, damn the vacation memories, you go to The Clock.

The pattern is always the same. You stop at the gas station, purchase (1) a Detroit Free Press (2) either a USA Today or a Chicago Tribune, depending on the hour, depending on the gas station, (3) a roll of Creme Savers: strawberry or peach, whichever you hadn’t bought last and (4) one pack of Marlboro Ultra Light 100s, at the high, high Michigan price (you should have bought extra when you visited your parents in Indiana, you idiot, but you didn’t, did you?) Then, you finally un-button the top button of your ridiculous Casino-issued rayon shirt, you take your papers and you go to the Clock. And you stay and stay and stay.

Read the paper. Read the second paper. Read the book or magazines you brought with you. (Dawn.)

Write. Write. Write.

Smoke. Drink coffee. Drink more coffee. Write some more. Go home. Feed the cat. Sleep.

It’s morning. Normal people are just now hitting the beach, well-behaved children in tow. You probably served Courvoisier to a couple bitter, frustrated husbands the night before: easily-discernibly-unhappy men, throwing token-coins on a tray and playing blackjack.

A casino town is an unhappy town, if one is at the casino in the very wee hours.

It’s usually men, in the high-stakes room. They’re at the blackjack table but they play poker. At three-ish, when you’re leaving, only women and the elderly are playing slots. They play slots with glazed eyes. They play slots with both hope and desperation, and when the sound of the machines makes your ears bleed, and you think you will never fill enough plastic cups with bad coffee and worse powdered cream, you will walk among the aisles of machines and collect nickels (why is it always nickels?) and your ears will be buzzing and ringing and pinging: but after that is when you get your Detroit Free Press, when you ask the Polo Shirt for coffee and a ham and cheese omelette, when you fend off the young guy who asks just what you think you’re reading, and into the morning, where you’re still drinking coffee, very bad coffee, and looking at the lake and smelling the sweat of the polo shirts.

The Clock has a huge sign: black and white, nearly generic (Hamburger Stand!). It’s inarguable: the Clock. Time moves for no man. And this sign has been there forever, against the beach, against the motels and the hotels, the winters and the tourists: The Clock.

If you were like me, and a sop for nostalgia, you’d be sold on the sign, the sand across the street, the smell and the sound of the waves, the children with their plastic buckets. It could be 1950, it could be 1980, it could be 2000. It could be 2001.

Mostly, I let the clock tick away hours there. Coffee after casino shifts, softened by cigarettes, the occasional plate of chocolate chip pancakes, but mostly ham and cheese omelettes. And buckets of coffee.

The same drunks I served earlier at the casino would wind up there, seeing my rayon, easily-identifiable casinshirt, and ask what I’m reading (Fitzgerald or a history of the Vietnam War or a biography of T.S. Eliot, what could it possibly be to you?) and give me shit until they get bored and turn their gaze to greasy eggs and I feel both annoyed and bereft: “What is this night?”

The Clock: give me one more hour to read the Paper.  I will cry all over again with Mariane Pearl. I will read the bad book review of the “happiness is shattered like glass” fiction writer. I will, occasionally, substitute Creme Savers and coffee and cigarettes for food, because thin is in, I can do this, and even though the Black Jack dealer said I should not wear that dark of lipstick (she was right), I adore L’oreal Hot Fudge. I hear it’s slimming. And goth. And very Gwyneth. If you know what I mean. (2001 was forever ago.)

The Clock is tied to one year so firmly I cannot dislodge it. It was the same year that Horizon Books hired people by giving them a book quiz. It was the same year Lake Michigan was a foot below its normal average height. It was the same year that the Bavarian-something motel had umbrellas the color of watered-down dandelions, not the year the umbrellas were the color of marigolds or summer squash.

It was the same year the ex and I did not open Sprezzatura, with its black and white Holland tiles, its raspberry walls. It was the year Elle Decor had the Manhattan loft with its tiny minimalist sofa, New York loft, and tropical leaf in a glass vase featured on the September cover. It was, on vacation, the year JFK Jr and his ridiculously perfect, sea-glass wife perished in a plane crash and the 24 hour news went nuts and nuts and nuts.

It was the year of The Clock. And after that, it was the year of The Clock. And I would give anything now to have those hours back. To have returned to me every hour spent chain smoking, with the Detroit Free Press, with USA Today, with chocolate chip pancakes and narrow-ruled notepaper.

I would give anything now for control of the time I spent at The Clock, all the midnights, all the 2 AMs, all the glancing at neon and beaches, all the fending off of drunken fools who did not know who Fitzgerald was. I would like the hours back that I spent writing.

I want to hand this girl at The Clock a map, a New York Times, a pile of world histories, a stack of family photos. I want to punch this girl in the face and tell her to “SNAP OUT OF IT.”  I want to tell her that these hours she is spending will be regretted later. That the seemingly-permanent white glare of “The Clock” sign will eventually go out. And she will know that she misspent, as it were, her youth. That she wasted the waves, the impressive, nearly oceanic waves, of the Great Lakes. That the dissipated men from the casino were not bitter; the wives not brittle, the elderly not glass-eyed, the environment not depressing. Things are what they are: there is some good in casinos, in drinks, in marital dynamics, even in casino coffee.

The Clock held the hours, and she had hours, which she spent poorly. But the sign was great. Bold white neon, black block letters: The Clock. Open 24 hours. In the pantheon of really great nostalgic signs: let’s hear it for The Clock. The sign was better than the place, no less than Golden Bear and Dairy Lodge and Mr. Weenie.

Sometimes the sign is worth the drive. Sometimes the sign is a shorthand for memory and place and culture and could-have-beens.

I’ll take a coffee, please. And an ashtray. And a side of chocolate chip pancakes with a twin cone.

It’s a cruel world that will not return hours. Not even if asked. Which it hadn’t been (see: Frost, Robert. “Come In.”)

I want that time back.

Or at least could I see the signs again? The Clock, The Dairy Lodge. Mr. Weenie and Hamburger Stand. The Golden Bear twirling above a short, stout cinder-block shopping mall.

Time and signs wait for no man. Or woman. With or without L’oreal hot fudge lipstick or peeling paint and latent sexuality combined with dairy products. There’s no stopping the clock. Even when The Clock is gone.


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