I have decided to share some of the emails that I send to my sons, since the matters that I address in them are the same ones that preoccupy most human beings.
When I was a lad growing up in New Jersey, my Uncle Bob would occasionally announce “my treat,” and then take everyone in our family to Clixies, a small restaurant in Hawthorne popular for its locally famous deep-fried hot dogs topped with chili and known as “Texas weiners.” Adventurous gourmets who wanted shredded cheese and chopped onion placed atop the chili would say, “I’ll have one all the way.” It was also common to complement the weiner with an order of “wet fries” – French fries covered in gravy. I loved visiting this eatery, but I just learned that it closed many years ago, forever gone into the shadowy corridors of memory, along with so many other venues of gastronomic delight that I frequented as a boy, including and especially the small food stands in glorious Palisades Park (French fries with salt and vinegar, I mourn you; lemonade unexcelled by any other in history, I pine for you).
Another long-gone, weiner-renowned restaurant was Toby’s; however, I rarely went there to eat, though I did go to the place frequently in order to watch my friends vomit. I know how disgusting that sounds, but this diner had a clever marketing ploy that every young man who loved a challenge was unable to resist. It served a thirty-two ounce, incredibly thick milkshake called, in most cases appropriately, the “Awful Awful,” and if any customer proved capable of consuming three of these monstrous beverages, he received a fourth one free – with a catch. If he could not finish the fourth within thirty minutes, he had to pay for the first three. I watched many libation warriors do battle with the Awful Awful, but I witnessed only one emerge victorious from the lactose-laden fray. He was, unsurprisingly, a distinctly husky individual, and while his triumph was cheered by everyone in the restaurant, his championship laurels wilted almost immediately, since as soon as he left Toby’s, he threw up everything in the parking lot.
There was one other eatery where splendid deep-fried weiners were available, even if they were not quite the equal of the ones at Clixies: Johnny & Hanges. This restaurant is still open, though it looks a bit spiffier now than it does in the attached photograph, but you are looking at the place as it appeared to your father fifty years ago. You might wonder why I so deeply treasure these recollections of restaurants past, but as all human beings eventually learn in their passage through this world, every loss diminishes us, and the sharing of memories that are personally meaningful is sometimes our only compensation for the passing of the things we love.
I would have been twelve years old when I first sampled the fare at Clixies, and having just moved to Hawthorne, I had begun attending seventh grade at Washington Elementary School, a small photograph of which I have attached to this letter. On the first day of class, I found myself under the kind but rigorous tutelage of Miss Vandenbree. A stout, gray-haired, self-described old maid, she was the first person to tell me that I wrote well, and she encouraged me to read widely in order to improve both my writing and my thinking. She also gave me an appreciation for good teaching; Miss Vandenbree was, in fact, the first of several great teachers to whom I owe so much.
I only wish that Miss Vandenbree were here now, and that we lived in a different sort of world in which time could sometimes be held at bay and where good people and good restaurants abided without end. It would then be possible for me to take her, along with my uncle Bob and my three dear sons to Clixies, so that each of us could “have one all the way.” My treat, of course.