Monday, April 26, 2010

"From the Sandwich Board"

A painting that hung on the wall at the original Austin's.

Restaurant menus have long been a surefire place to find some good puffery and hyperbole. Different restaurant styles call for different methods of food embellishment. The high end bistros simply put the whole number with no dollar sign to play up the "it must be good because look at that price" factor, and boggle your culinary vocabulary with words like "reduction" and confit. Mid-priced chain restaurants rely on food photographers and their abilities to photograph things that were never food, but happen to look very foodlike. My personal favorite menus, however, are those of the local diner. They can't afford pictures. They can't afford laminators. Their prices are unintimidating. But their owners often have quite the knack for painting verbal pictures of mile high hamburgers and dripping sandwiches that shine through the stains on the paper and the smears on the plastic menu sheets.

I served at a diner while I was in art school. This place was itself hyperbole. Open since 1959 in a historic "strip mall" (in the 1950s that meant three stores in one building with a shared parking lot) near downtown Tucson, Austin's Ice Cream was a hit with young and old, rich and poor. Twenty-six ancient laminated tables, labeled with the letters of the alphabet, plus a fifteen seat counter stained with prehistoric splotches that I could not get out, no matter how many times the old people at the counter (where they thought the tip should be lower) told me to put more elbow grease into it. No more than four servers worked the floor at any given time, so serving ten or eleven tables was common. (For comparison, chain restaurants do now allow you more than three or four tables. This place had sixteen-year-olds hopping from fountain to floor like it was still 1959.)

Most guests expected the hectic scene at lunchtime, and very few were disappointed by the wait, or by the food that failed to live up to the owner's fantastic, neurotic, menu descriptions (you can find negative reviews of the food online, but the place wasn't exactly for foodies). Patrons sipped on malted milkshakes and chocolate RCs while they waited, and watched the kids run around behind the fountain counter, using our 50 year old soda jerk set-up that had been shipped from an ancient soda shop in New Jersey when Mr. Austin moved west to sell his creamy wares. Austin's was an experience.

I hardly remember some of the sandwich names, as I wrote them all in waitress shorthand. I do remember that the hamburger and cheeseburger had some ridiculous name that people would order it by (the supreme something-or-other). I always wondered why they didn't just say "cheeseburger." The old people, who left me tips of equal amounts pocket change and pocket lint, ordered off the tops of their grey heads. But the tourists and kids would always read the menu, and order exactly what it said there, no matter how silly it sounded.

The food titles were a little funny, but the descriptions were always the best. Everything at Austin's was succulent, juicy, fragrant, dripping, etc. To save money, the owners (no longer Austins since the '80s) made LTO (lettuce tomato onion) and C (cheese) optional on everything. Even burgers. So if you didn't ask for any toppings, you got a dry burnt burger on a bun. Under the menu headings for burgers and sandwiches, it said in small print "Lettuce, Tomato, Onion available, if desired." Passive voice on menus is also funny. The only person making the decision is the guest, but we can't address them. They're trying to read the menu!

My favorite part of Austin's menu was the title for the sandwich section: "From the Sandwich Board." That romanticized sandwiches for me (something I've curiously always romanticized), and I imagined them coming off a wooden chopping block in the front of a country deli with a daily chalk menu in northern Wisconsin or some crap, not from a stainless steel counter in the back of a hot galley kitchen with rubber mats underneath, sweltering in the desert heat that Austin's ancient windows (decorated with a schoolteacher's quaint seasonal renditions of painted, living hot dogs with red lipstick) couldn't keep out.

I really miss Austin's. There are no good sandwiches around here. A few years ago, Austin's closed its lifelong location near semi-bustling (at least interesting) downtown Tucson. It moved far east into the ugly sprawl to take advantage of lower rent. Unfortunately, that put it in a real, post-1980s strip mall, surrounded by chain restaurant competition and terrible traffic, and nowhere near the interstate, the downtown area, or the university. It lost the mystique, it lost the location, it lost its older guests who couldn't find it or access it in shopping mall land, and it lost the mid-town tourist crowd and all the U of A students seeking cheap sandwiches by bike or bus. Austin's closed this past December. They couldn't pay the rent.

Despite the exciting menu writing, the owners did not have the business sense to keep Austin's open through the recession. Though I loved their style. They refused to carry Pepsi or Coke products because RC is classic. They never remodeled to update their look, only to replace broken seats or equipment. They played classic rock all day, even when the 10:30am old lady crowd had to stuff their ears with carrot sticks to be able to eat their early bird lunches. They supported local artists with their whimsically painted windows. They gave jobs and supervisory positions to kids, not to keep turning them over like a fast food restaurant, but to give them a chance at some hardcore table waiting skills, and decent money for young folk. They used only vintage equipment for the ice cream making and storage, unless health regulations made it impossible or unsafe to do so. They made all their own ice cream, and tried some strange flavors like ginger and jalapeno, but kept all the old fogey favorites in those aged freezers. And most endearing to me, they did a bang up job on the silly, unillustrated menu writing. But they were also kind of strange, unfriendly, and obviously didn't completely know what they were doing.

I wrote a short story about a girl who worked there (based on my experiences, but not me). Here's the part at the diner, "Keller's". Now I wonder if Austin's comes off better in narrative or in description. I write a little different from this now, so it's weird to see the story again. Although, it's in the first person, and I guess the voice is Nicole's and not really mine. She's 21-ish, a U of A student, more of a boy than I am, and covered in ice cream.


They were playing the “lite rock” station that day, and I pained under the soft tunes as I mixed three chocolate shakes. The Kellers usually let us play classic rock in the restaurant, but one too many cranky old women had complained. Van Halen did sound kind of loud at ten in the morning, but that’s what they get for eating lunch at goddamn ten in the morning. It was after two now and we were waiting for the rush to ease off. But December was the height of Snowbird season, so no end was in sight.

I stabbed away at my three silver shake tins, pushing the stray chunks of ice cream down to get pulverized, ignoring the sawing sound and horrible vibration that ran though my hand and up to my shoulder every time the spoon hit the spindle. It was one of those work routines that had become comfortably monotonous. I purposely commandeered the six spindle machine, while the younger servers fought over the three open spots. I was a pro at milkshakes. Customers still complained sometimes, especially when it was a hundred and twenty outside and their milkshakes were not as thick as usual. It never got to me though. I was damn fast at sundaes too. One time a housewife who couldn’t tell that I was waiting on nine other tables walked out while I was making a banana split for her, three different goddamn ice creams with three different toppings. At least she left a tip.

At four o’clock, eight of my ten tables were full, and I was a little worried. At five we would start breaks, and I would be on third and counter – all my tables plus a possible fifteen seats at the counter, filled with spinning, dribbling children who order lots of shakes and don’t leave tips. Food was easier than shakes because I didn’t have to make it. Things were going well though, I had sixty in my pocket already, and most of the tables were finishing up. The awkward exchanges of my “How is everything?” answered with a food-muffled “Good” were through, and I retreated to the safety of the counter area to do the desserts. The desserts sold themselves, no suggestion needed. I had three ice cream orders in my head, and my hand was dipping quickly in and out of freezers, gloves be damned, gingerly placing perfectly formed scoops into the antique glass cups. I listened to the music of the freezer doors slamming and the glass dishes clinking to drown out Little Richard. My knuckles and arm hairs were sticky and colorful by then, even though I sometimes stopped to wipe off with a bleachy towel. It was amazing there were still hairs there at all. The muscle I had developed on my right forearm was amazing as well. I hoped I was the only one who noticed it. Left handed scooping was out of the question at these break-wrist paces.

A couple hours of spotty rushes went by, as well as a few games of Clyde and me stepping on each other’s feet. Clyde was the only other server there who was as old as I was. Both going into our mid-twenties and inexplicably stuck working at the ice cream shop. Fortunately for our dignity we both looked about fifteen. Though I don’t know if that helped or hurt our tips. We always daydreamed about working together somewhere that served alcohol, so we could “make bank” on the drink-inflated bills. It never happened though. Neither of us liked things to be expected of us, and at a fancy restaurant, people would expect things. And I wouldn’t want to dress nice around Clyde anyway. He already bothered me enough with the way he’d examine me in my ice-cream stained pink polo shirts and sticky ponytail.

I bent down behind the counter to squeeze the grimy chocolate juice out of the tattered brown hems of my jeans, careful to avoid pointing my butt in the boy's direction. When I popped back up to re-bleach my hands, there were Mike and Donna right in front of me at the counter.

“Weeelll, fancy meeting you here.” I gave my typical cheesy greeting. I liked it because I knew my friends would get it. Sometimes I thought we’d all been born in the wrong decade.

“Yes, Cheerio. We thought we’d pop in for a bit and have a taste of your wares.” Mike’s British was not that good.

Donna elbowed him in the gut.

“Jeez Donna!” His voice got high like it always did when she pissed him off.

“So are you guys eating?” I was hopeful.

“Yup,” answered Donna. “I’ll have the usual.”

“And I as well, love.” Donna threw another elbow, but he blocked it this time.

I was overly smiley and refreshed to see my friends, as if somehow their presence at the counter protected me from the self-worth crushing stares of the customers and the ever-escalating Clyde-tension. I had asked Mike and Donna to stop by when I was called in to work, but I figured they wouldn’t come – Keller’s didn’t serve alcohol.

I got them their usuals – Donna’s was invariably the double cheeseburger (PLU 187) and Mike’s the Santa Fe (PLU 118). I delivered their orders to the cook in Spanish (“doble hamberguesa con chips y una Santa Fe con muchas cebollas y mucho queso!”), which always gave the kitchen staff a hoot, and strutted back to the fountain. I made myself a chocolate RC and illegally hopped over the counter to settle in next to Donna and take my “break.” Since I was on counter I still had to get up if a take-out order came in or if someone needed help with their ice cream. Some break.

“So what are your plans for tonight?” I didn’t really want to drink again, but we probably would. I savored the syrupy chocolate mixture. We still made sodas old-fashioned style at Keller’s, with real syrup pumps and fizzy water.

“Fourth Ave,” Mike said, without an accent. “We’re going to park and walk around. Probably end up at Che’s.” Che’s was a socialist bar with lots of angry artwork on the wall, tritely lit in red from below. I wasn’t sure if the place was ridiculously serious or ridiculously tongue-in-cheek. The drinks were expensive and you had to order the nice ones or risk a faux pas. But the conversation was usually better than at the Bay Horse. My interest was piqued. Maybe we would get some dinner too, that didn’t include popcorn or the Bay Horse’s signature frozen Tombstone pizzas.

"Neee-coooaaal!" came the kitchen cry. My food was up.


I quit Austin's when I was 23, when I found out I was pregnant (what!?). No pregnant girl could work those tables, or even fit behind the counter. Of course I had to work somewhere though, and Providence (or Buddha or somebody) came through with a cushy, friendly job at school within two months of my quitting. I will never work at a restaurant again. But I wouldn't trade those long hours of diner din, awkwardness, sweet sweat, bleachy stickiness, and numbing hunger for anything.

1 comment:

  1. I miss Austins, and its dancing hotdogs with lipstick. Your story reminds me of the fun times we had before we all had to grow up.


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