The Hungover Gourmet

 

Jersey Diner Nights
By William Patrick Tandy

Olga's was a welcome sight in our flight from the hard and dirty streets of Brotherly Love. The red neon light made us look like we'd just gone for a swim in a vat of used Pennzoil.

A landmark on the 70/73 circle in Marlton, Olga's is the only place, at this hour, in which an ensanguined clan of Jersey Shore fugitives might find 20-minute solace in a cup of black coffee before making the long, lightless leap across the South Jersey pines.

The hostess, a plain, middle-aged woman, eyed us warily, doing her best to maintain an air of professional friendliness. But her eyes belied her fear; they said that she was neither accustomed to nor comfortable with a small band of blood-spattered thugs occupying one of her diner's better tables at 1:30 in the morning, driving out the more respectable (or at least more discreet) night owls.

"How many?" she said, as though she were asking her exterminator just how bad the problem was.

"Four."

"Just a moment." She disappeared into the kitchen, returning a minute later with four menus in hand and the determined look of a Woman in Charge. "This way, please."

She led us to a table in the farthest corner of the restaurant, far removed from any of the other paying customers. We sat down and thanked her as she dispensed the menus.

"Your waitress will be right with you," she mumbled before retreating to the well-lit world of the register, like a tourist heading inland at the first mention of a hurricane.

Before long, a young blonde approached our table – a fourth-generation alternachick, her pierced head exuding the jaded confidence of a daytime student who planned to have her nights free one day. She smacked a piece of gum as she broke out her pad and pen.

"So," she said, unfazed by the carnage before her. "GWAR?"

Well, kiss my grits...


Jersey diners are their own special breed; don't let anyone tell you anything different. From the Mom & Pop-run greasy spoon to the bustling franchise, each is its own experience. A few will kiss your ass, but a whole lot more will all but kick it.

Some will throw you out as soon as serve you, while others redefine the boundaries of human tolerance. (I would have thrown myself out, given the opportunity, on more than one occasion.)

But they're often as much about the food as Philadelphia fans are about the sportsmanship; sure, the diner feeds the appetite, but there's more at play when, just like Zevon, you find yourself staring in that empty
coffee cup at three in the morning.

Looking back on where you've been, watching out for where you're going.

Plotting your next move...


Along Route 30, ten minutes outside Atlantic City, stands the Absecon Denny's, for years the subject of a long, litigious battle over alleged discrimination in its hiring practices. Along with the Galloway Diner in neighboring Galloway Township, it was for a long time one of the very few all-night establishments of any kind in that flat, haunted corner of the state. A place to comfortably burn off the ferocity borne of Wild Turkey and a cup of raw sugar by running a few laps in the parking lot at 2:30 a.m., without fear of being misconstrued, and still go home with a new set of flatware.

And also return to a basket of seasoned fries and a cup of coffee or a Coke, brought by a waitress named Alice. She was quiet, our Alice, never speaking more than necessary, and always putting up with our shit. We left her a good tip when we could. And so it was not without a bit of disappointment when we noticed she had gone. Down the rabbit hole, for all we knew. Or maybe even through the looking glass.

We didn't even know her name, really. She wasn't known as Alice amongst our ranks for any nametag or the resemblance that she bore to anyone on the old sitcom. No.

It had more to do with the stringy hair and eyeliner of a rough-looking 40 that smacked painfully of yet another Alice...

Being the nightly haunt for third-shift law enforcement of all levels, on the other hand, the Galloway Diner, to us, was a place generally best avoided. But we were never meant to live on bread alone; that word came down from the Good Lord himself, years ago, on a whistle stop through the dark, scrubby pinelands. No, we needed variety on occasion, and so it was not impossible to find us on some nights, rubbing elbows, booth-to-booth, with some of South Jersey's Finest.

But the one night of which we spent the Ungodly Hours in the Galloway Diner, speaking freely and in not-so-hushed tones of our cupboards stocked with the "good Denny's china," of our flatware and carafes and "wet-floor" signs (menus, even), the Finest were nowhere to be seen. Nemetz was in mid-sentence, however, when he recognized a face at the next table over – a face we all knew from a thousand sleepless nights...

The night manager from Denny's.

"He's gotta go somewhere on his nights off," I said, but Nemetz was unnerved. He immediately changed his tack.

"How ya doin'?" he asked the Night Manager.

"Hey!" the NM replied. "How you guys doin'?" He hadn't heard any of the previous conversation, or, if he had, didn't care.

"Not bad," Nemetz replied. "Just takin' the night off."

"Yeah," said the NM. "Me, too."

"Hey, we were wondering," Nemetz said, further rerouting the conversation, "what ever happened to Alice?"

The NM looked puzzled. "Alice?"

"Yeah, Alice," I replied. "Alice Cooper."

"Ohhhh," he laughed. "Wasn't sure who you were talkin' about there for a minute. She quit a couple of weeks ago, and no one's seen her since."


"Ungenerous! – to seize upon the wreck of an unwary passenger, whom your subjects had beckoned to their coast – by heaven!" – Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy

About 45 minutes north of Absecon, as the limited arterial highway system of the Jersey Shore goes, lays the town of Beach Haven, at the south end of Long Beach Island, where drunken suburbanites from New York, North Jersey and Philadelphia spend every Saturday night from Memorial Day to Labor Day trying to evade the Shore Nazis. Unlike the homicide-detecting, drug-enforcing gangbusters in their home burgs, however, these shore cops live to chase drunks. It's in their blood, as permanent an income-fixture for the local economy as the overwrought, wood-paneled watering holes where the aforementioned prey often kick off their evening by paying ten bucks for all the satisfaction of all-you-can-drink Coors Light and an equally watered-down Dave Matthews cover band.

Until the lights go up, the bars let out, and a queue of marked tires forms at each police checkpoint...

It's for these reasons that the Chicken or the Egg is an integral part of the local food chain. One of the few all-night establishments in the area, the "Chegg" (as it's popularly known) sees its peak time shortly after 2:00 a.m. – just after the area bars have finished fattening the hogs. It's not uncommon to wait 20 or 30 minutes to get a table along with the staggering, jabbering drunks inside, some sobbing hysterically into their buffalo wings. Some hopping mad. Some borderline catatonic. All waiting for a chance to do things best left unimagined by the breakfast crowd of a few hours later inside one of the Chegg's two tiny restrooms.

Part of a strip, the Chegg isn't exactly a diner in the classical sense, though its fare is not far off from that of its glass-and-chrome-plated counterparts. And for that matter, the food's not half-bad, being what you'd expect: burgers, fries, Coke...

The Flask was always partial to the chicken cheese-steak.

It was some time after 2:00 a.m. when Darren got the call. The Flask was desperate.

"There's no way I'm gonna make it back to the mainland," he said. "Not in my condition. Can I crash at your place?"

Darren was back living with his folks for a little while, only a few blocks from the pay phone where a frantic Flask now negotiated his own survival.

"No problem," Darren told him, before heading back to bed.

"Thanks, man," the Flask said. "See you in a few."

But when Darren woke up later that morning, there was no sign of the Flask to be seen.

It was later that afternoon when I finally got the Flask on the phone.

"What the hell happened to you?" I asked, wondering how he could have gotten lost in the span of six blocks. "You told Darren you were coming by his place. Dragged the poor bastard out of bed and everything." I stopped short of saying he was worried sick, never having been one to stretch the truth.

"I know," said the Flask. "I'm not sure what happened, either."

"What do you mean?"

"I left the bar after I hung up the phone with him. I spotted the Chegg on the way, and I got a little hungry. I remember going in to grab some food..."

"And after that?"

"Well, I'm not really sure. The next thing I remember was waking up around 7:30 this morning, behind the wheel of my car. I was covered with chicken cheesesteak. The sun was up. I had to drive around the block two or three times just to figure out I was in the wildlife refuge, down in Holgate."

"And how you got there," I added, wondering what had driven him the extra two or three miles past Darren's place, to the wildlife refuge at the southern tip of the island.

"No idea. I drove home after that."

"So that's four or five hours, completely unaccounted for?"

"Yeah."

"Just like a goddamned X-File," I said. "Better keep quiet on this one."

"I guess so," he snickered weakly – the feeble laughter of the doomed.

"For now, I think I'm going back to bed."

But the Flask never really slept that one off; he couldn't. Not with friends like his – friends like us. It was Turk who broke our grinning silence the next time the Flask ordered his usual.

"So, you want that wrapped, or do you just wanna wear it out?"

We all laughed – even the Flask. Which was good; laughter is a dish best served hot.

A welcome choice at any hour, when the time has come to place your order...

When we've all got to go somewhere.

This article originally appeared in THG #7. Author William Patrick Tandy wrote about shaved ice in THG #6 and reflects upon the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore in THG #8. He is the publisher of the best-selling SMILE HON, YOU'RE IN BALTIMORE series (which occasionally features contributions from The Hungover Gourmet) available from his site at eightstonepress.com.



THG Shirts, Stickers and More

 

"Relax, it's only cooking..."

Home | Food | Drink | Travel | Fun | Recipes | Reviews | Blog | Store | Contact

Contents © THG 1995-2012
PO Box 5531 | Lutherville, MD 21094-5531
E-mail: editor@hungovergourmet.com

Articles are © original authors. Materials used for review purposes are done so in accordance with the Fair Use Doctrine.
All materials are copyrighted by their individual owners.

The Hungover Gourmet | The Journal of Food, Drink, Travel and Fun Check Out Our Blog Like Us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter E-Mail THG Like us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter E-mail THG Check out the blog!