Plato’s Place, home of the best Coney dogs, best chili, and best fries I’ve ever had. Of course, I could be looking back through the mists of time with rose-colored glasses to a time when, after rehearsals for one of a variety of community theatre productions in which I participated as an actor, cast and crew retired to Plato’s for a late evening bite and brew. For some reason we always pronounced it with a short “a” sound: “Plah-tos.”
I recall the first time I took a friend and his girlfriend to Plato’s: we came in through the back entrance and, as we passed the kitchen, we saw a young kid peeling potatoes that were destined to become French fries. I told my friend the kid was a member of the Potato Peelers Union. If his girl hadn’t laughed, I think he might’ve believed me. I was then twenty-one or twenty-two, which left him eighteen or nineteen. I thought I was so experienced then, and wise. But I would always be three years older and wiser than my friend. As for his girl, she was two years my junior, and it was many years too late before we learned the truth: that we each thought the other out of our league. By then I was sure I could never live up to her expectations of what she’d had twenty years to build up in her mind. That was ten years ago and even now I’m not sure it was wisdom that led me to that conclusion, or cowardice. But it matters little now, except to the writer in me who seeks closure, a tying up of loose ends, because I met my pearl a little more than two years ago.
A few minutes later our bowls of chili were set before us. I stirred into mine a quarter tablespoon of red chili pepper. Not to be outdone, my friend spooned in two heaping tablespoons. I shared a knowing glance with his girl, which my friend didn’t miss. “What?” he said. “Go easy on that stuff,” I said. He waved me aside, the kind of guy who jumps from an airplane at ten thousand feet and, when his chute fails to deploy, lands on the ground in a cloud of dust and hops up to proclaim, “I’m okay.” Like Wile E. Coyote, he’d simply walk off the accordion effects of that sudden stop.
We watched, his girl and I did, as the first spoonful of chili went in. From the look on his face we could tell he knew he was in trouble; but he wasn’t about to let us know. A second spoonful, and the fireworks hit: first the tears, then the emptying of his water glass, then his girl’s. Grinning from ear to ear, I held onto my glass. By now sweat had broken out on his face as he wiped at the tears and waved at the waitress for more water. It was a moment I delighted in reminding him about over the years, until the friendship came to its unceremonious ending a little more than a decade ago.
After I married, I left Garden City and hadn’t been back to Plato’s Place since. It was nothing personal against the owners — a young Greek and his nephew — I just never seemed to get to that neck of the woods, especially after my parents passed away.
My first marriage failed, followed by another relocation, again to a locale that wasn’t convenient to Plato’s. But I’m getting married at the end of this month, for the second time but to a different woman (thankfully), and in commuting from my place to hers I pass Plato’s, now moved to a new location down the street from the old location and a few miles from what will be our home. I was determined, after a nearly twenty-year hiatus, to check-out the new locale, to see if Andy the Greek and his nephew still ran the place, and whether the food was just as good as I recalled.
I walked in and saw Andy behind the till taking money from one of his patrons. He looked shorter than I recalled, but that was likely the result of that little extra weight we all seem to put on after a certain age. The tightly curled black hair of his youth — wild and unkempt, it resembled what was once known as an Afro — was still black and curly, but now it was close cropped, probably in deference to that horseshoe thing he had going. The tight Mike Stivic jeans of his youth were much looser and sat a little lower on his hips; but the face was the same: a little older, a little rounder. Still, it seemed the face of a life well-lived. I smiled to myself and asked a passing waitress if I could sit where I chose. She smiled at me and nodded.
I sat down in a booth in front of the cash register and to its right, hoping to make eye contact with Andy and wondering if he might remember me, my face if not my name. My forehead back then was less spacious, and my hair much darker. That glimmer of youth in my eye that spoke of a certainty that I was destined not to get out of this life unnoticed had long since been replaced by something else, by what I’m not sure. Like most of us, I think I’ve aged rather well. But then, the mirror that reflects our image daily often lies simply because the changes we see appear gradually. I share the same birth date with Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame, and she likely would look at me and tell herself she’s aged much better than I have, even if she can no longer fit into that Return of the Jedi bikini.
After giving the woman her change, Andy closed the register and, as she walked away, looked over to me. There was no double-take on his part, as there often is between two people who’ve not seen each other for decades, no questioning look of “Don’t I know you?” A smile came to his mouth, he stepped out from behind the register and walked over to my table. I rose to offer my hand, which he took, and I told him my name, at which he nodded. Whether the nod was one of affirmation or something else, I couldn’t tell. He then joined me at my table for a few minutes where we each brought the other up to date in our lives. Yes, they still peeled their potatoes in the back room prior to slicing them for the deep fryer. I told him that I’ve had several novels published and he promised to check them out on Amazon.
Eventually my chili, Coney and fries were brought, and I was pleased to find they all tasted as good as I recalled, maybe better, and I’m resolved to bring my fiancée back, or maybe my wife.
So maybe you can’t go home — I’ve driven past the house in which I grew up several times since my dad passed away sixteen years ago to find the neighborhood smaller, the curtains on “our” house replaced by vertical blinds, the living room wallpaper torn down for paint, and the landscaping vastly different — but my Plato’s homecoming was close.
J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To Go, A Retrospect In Death, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Paradigm, January’s Thaw, One Hot January, and A World Without Music (forthcoming)