As a writer and a cook, I rarely need to look very far to find a story. I usually have more ideas than time or attention span and as an editor once told me, I need to “SLOW DOWN.” Sometimes stories are so compelling that you actually don’t know what to do with them or who to tell or how to write it.
When I was at Radford University, a favorite place for us to all go after having a bit too much fun the night before was to Hank’s, as we referred to it amongst ourselves. Set in a sea of fast food restaurants, this beach-like, shack looking place was home to the cook we all knew and loved. We would pile in around a vinyl covered table in his one room restaurant/eating area that could seat around ten or so at max capacity. Everyone else pulled up in their cars, placed their orders and waited, generally eating in the parking lot at a few tables scattered about or on the tailgates of construction trucks as the constant stream of customers at the McDonalds across the street drove away with their mystery meat sandwiches, blissfully unaware of the true treasure trove located about thirty feet in front of their steering wheel as they pulled away with secret sauce dripping down their faces.
Hank would work the line, cash register, take orders, say hello, tell stories about being in WWII, all without missing a beat. That was in 1999, as best I can remember. Burgers were three dollars and he would form the burger by hand while he was talking to you, never once burning, overcooking, lighting himself on fire or the million other things that I’ve done wrong in kitchens.
The place was really on my mind the other day. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, craving a cheeseburger and a sense of my past. I loaded up Laura and my 16-month old son and we went on a day trip in the direction of years gone by.
The place was where and how I remembered. There are more fast food joints than there used to be. Hank now has an assistant and moves a bit slower than I remember. He also had no recollection of a group of climbing junkies who used to pile into his place for a late breakfast of burgers, fries and shakes. Why should he? As I’ve learned, cooks tend to live squarely in the present. To dwell on the past can cause hesitation and self-doubt, both of which have no room in our lives but can take complete control if we let it.
Hank is also now quite deaf and we had to shout a bit to get our order in. He grinned at our little family, mumbled to himself and at the cranky old stove, and cranked out three of the most unapologetically American cheeseburgers I’ve had in my life. Perfectly seasoned, medium done, toasted bun, American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles, tomato. Our crinkle fries were served the way they should be, in a little paper sleeve, just as I remembered. Some days I hope that will be me when I’m 86, doing what I love for people that care.