Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jersey Cheeseburgers - Part One

NYC & Englewood, New Jersey - 1958

It’s early on a Saturday, and Sophie wakes me up. That’s weird in and of itself because she’s usually up even later than I am. But she’s decided we need to go to New Jersey. Why? Her mom is dating someone from Englewood, wherever that is. And Sophie just has to check it out.

    Gordy’s at a baseball game with his dad, so he can’t go with us.  It’s just Sophie and me, and somehow we get ourselves over the George Washington Bridge (not nearly as pretty during the day as it is at night). The bus goes through Fort Lee to someplace called Englewood Cliffs and then Englewood. There are seven hills that we find out later are called the Seven Sisters. (At least, that’s what Sophie’s mother says). On the way down we pass a mansion that’s really a private school.

     I didn’t think about it before but now I’m here, it’s pretty amazing. There aren’t any hills where we live and these are really HILLS. I see why they call them sisters ‘cause there’s one after the other and some of them are huge.

     I’m thinking how cool it would be to run down them when I realize I forgot to look for lawns and stuff. There’s mostly woods on the way down to the main drag (Palisades Avenue) and not many people, or even cars.

     We get off the bus and look up and down the street. Stores everywhere, but not as close together as they are on Bleecker Street. We go into a restaurant and a little bell rings when we open the door. It smells so good I could like, eat the air.
     There’s a girl behind the counter who looks about 17, and behind her is an opening in the shape of a rectangle. Inside the rectangle is a room, I think, and inside the room there’s a woman making sandwiches.

     At this point, it kind of turns into a movie. (The Wild Ones?)

     The girl asks what we want. Sophie picks a cheeseburger and I do too. The girl tells the lady behind her and then another woman comes out to help the girl behind the counter. She pours and serves as more people come in, joking around the whole time. At one point she looks over the counter at a girl with pedal-pushers and says, “You should have a party. Invite your pants down!” The girl laughs ‘cause they’re all wearing them -- every girl in there, except Sophie and me.
     We’ve got black leotard tops, pants and flats, but it’s not how they dress in this place. Besides the pedal pushers, they’ve all got pony-tails, saddle shoes and bobby-sox, which are these white ankle-sox with turn-down cuffs. I think Sophie’s mom would call the girls bobby soxers if she were here.

     There’s a bunch of girls my age and a little older in a booth, and a grandmother with a little kid at the counter. The stools are chrome with green seats on the top and the counter’s chrome too. It looks like diners in movies, except bigger, with tables.

     The girl keeps staring at us. Finally she asks if we’re Beatniks.

     “No such thing,” I tell her. She looks puzzled.

     “We’re, uh, maybe we’re in the Beat Generation. But it’s not like you think,” I say.

     “What is it?” she says.

     “I don’t know,” I say. Talking about stuff like this always makes me feel shy. She keeps looking at me, though, so I try to explain.

     “Beatniks is, uh, not our word. I mean some guys talk about getting beat up by life and all and there is a kind of beat when they read. I mean a rhythm—“

     I stop and look at them, but they don’t seem to have a clue about what I’m talking about. Sophie chimes in to help.

     “People want something else, you know? Besides living in a suburb and going to the office.”

    The girl looks like she wants to say that is just fine, thank you, and I’m starting to think I better shut up. “But hey,” I say, which is what I always do when I want to stop talking. “It’s really no big deal.”

     Right then the lady in back brings out our cheeseburgers and they’re the biggest ones I’ve ever seen. I pick mine up and the juices run down into the plate.  The fries look really good too, crisp and brown on the ends and they crunch when you bite them. They give me some ketchup but I don’t use it ‘cause I like the fries the way they are. 

     One of the bobby soxers puts a nickel in the jukebox and Little Richard’s song “Long Tall Sally” comes on. The girl starts dancing with one of her friends. 

     Someone else puts a nickel in to play “Blueberry Hill” and then Sophie pulls me off the stool and gets me dancing too. Then we hear “Roll Over Beethoven” and we’re all hopping around. If I closed my eyes and listened, I’d have no clue I was out in the middle of nowhere.
     At this point the door opens, the bell tinkles, and four guys with school jackets come in. The jackets say “Dwight School for Boys” and some have letters on the sleeves. The boys look like they’re in senior high but they’re taller and bigger than any other guys I’ve seen. 

     I sit down at the counter and pick up my burger, Sophie stops dancing, and everything goes back to normal. The girl behind the counter gives the boys menus and one of them says “Thanks, Gwen.” So now we know her name.

     The boys are eyeballing all of us, especially the bobby soxer girls. One boy walks over to the juke-box and plays “Great Balls of Fire” but this time nobody dances to it. The woman helping Gwen takes out her order pad and says, “What’ll it be?” The boys give her a bunch of orders but instead of writing them down she walks back to the counter and starts barking them out to the cook in back.

     At first I have no clue what she’s saying but I can tell it’s a kind of diner-language. Instead of chocolate malt she says “black cow.” Cooking a burger is “burning one” and a hot dog is a “bow-wow.”  Apple pie is “Eve with a lid.” I want to take out my notebook and write it down but I don’t want anyone looking at me more than they are already. So I just listen, trying to remember. 

     I finish my cheeseburger and have a few more fries but I’m getting pretty full. Gwen asks if I want some ice cream and gives me the menu again. Now the juke box is playing “Wake Up Little Susie” and one of the boys asks a bobby-soxer to dance. She whispers something to him and instead of dancing with her, he walks over to me. And that's when the trouble starts.