Friday, August 10, 2007

Sunrise at Arkies

I dropped my wife and daughter off at the airport at 6:00 a.m. this morning. Once I was back on the road, my mind turned to breakfast.I knew that there would be very few choices at this time. My preferred spot, Juan in a Million, home of the Don Juan breakfast taco, would not open for an hour. I turned down Cesar Chavez Blvd and headed toward Arkies.

Arkies is one of the last of its breed.It is what, in a gentler time, used to be called a cafe. It is a little bit above a diner and a little bit below a restaraunt.It is a niche in the food service business that no longer exists and the last few of the dying race struggle on ,competing against fast food places and casual dining establishments that had not even been dreamed of in the cafe's hey day.

Arkies went up in 1948, and like a lot of baby boomers is about to hit 60. When it was built, it was in the middle of nowhere on what was then First Street. History has changed the name of the street to Cesar Chavez, and the growth of Austin has taken Arkies out of the middle of nowhere and placed it on what is now the fringes of nowhere. Were Arkies to survive into the next decade, which it won't, we would find it on the edge of "somewhere". But with somewhere coming, real estate prices and city taxes will render Arkies untenable as an economic unit and it will be replaced by a warehouse storage comples or a Wendys.

To say that this is too bad for the character of the City is, of course, an understatement. But I can't whine about the good old days all of my life. Wait a minute, that's exactly what I do in this blog. So I guess I can whine for Arkies. And I will

Before I entered Arkies I could have told you exactly what the place would look like and what the clientle would be like. And I would have been correct.Inside arkies is a long bar with about eight red stools. Behind the bar was one of the four or five classic Texas cafe waitresses. This particular type was the tall blonde, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail,The kind that looks 25 at 100 yards and 45 as you close within 10 years. There were about five small booths against the wall, the seats of upholstered red faux leather with big buttons, and slits opening up in the cushions with a little foam sticking out of each one.There were two tables for four which, in a pinch could be shoved together into a table for eight.

At the bar were three men of advanced middle age. One had jeans and a baseball cap on and held a dark liquid in his hand which I at first mistook for coffee, until he spit in it a couple of times. Next to him was a fellow with a short sleeve white dress shirt on, indicating that his employ straddled the line between white and blue collar. I would have guessed that he was the supervisor of the service department at an auto dealership. Finally there was a fellow with the last fully polyester suit in this country. I would have bet my bottom dollar that he sold large appliances at no-chain appliance store. While I was there, a woman who looked like an LVN on the way to work stopped in for some take out.

The car dealershop service guy was served a big platter of eggs, over easy. He was an egg cutter. Some folks get a plate of non-scrambled eggs and spend the next two minutes cutting the eggs into little bits so that each bit of white gets some yoke on it. He was practiced at the art and never looked at the eggs or stopped talking about some problem with "liability"through the whole process. All this time the fellow in the cap nodded and spit.

The waitress knew everyone's name.She was a pro. Very efficent. Not your old time Texas waitress model that calls everyone "sugar" or "darlin". She was everyone's friend but more a peer than a dining room mother.My water glass never got more than half empty.

The wall at Arkies is my favorite part of the place. On it is a red Arkansa Razorback clock that looks like it went up in about the mid 60s.It has been there for God knows how many years, eternally stuck at 3:25. whether a.m. or p.m. is lost in the mists of grease that permeate the air and settle heavily on the sheet rock walls, framing a dozen laminated wood awards from the Shrine Circus and Little Leagues, each one proclaiming Arkies a good corporate citizen, and friend of the local community.

I had the "scamble". That's three eggs with the meat of your choice (sausage) scrambled right in. As long as I was filling up with cholesterol, I ordered the big glass of cold whole milk. The hard stuff. No sissy skim at Arkies. As I enjoyed my meal (the biscuit was delicious with unlimited butter, when did butter become a commodity that needs to be so carefully rationed by eateries ?) and thought back to the local cafe of my youth.

That would be Johnny's.A great esatblishment two doors down from the 7/11 on Richmond Rd. in Houston. From 1955 until sometime in the mid 70s, Johnny served up breakfast, lunch and dinner at his little cafe. Because my family usually only went there at dinner, we thought of the place as a Hamburger joint. But it was more than that. Johnny opened at 6:00 to make the chili and the stew for the day and to serve breakfast to the truck drivers, plumbers and roofers who were building the homes of southwest Houston. Lunch drew a more eclectic crowd of businessmen, house wives and, mostly, passer bys. Dinner was a family affair. I can see Johnny now, in the same clothes he wore evreytime I every saw him A white t-shirt, pants and a paper burger flipper hat.There ,beside him was his wife, she worked with a white apron ensemble.I was always proud when Johnny would holler "hello W.Porter"when my dad lead us in.It was nice to feel wanted.I enjoyed watching his sons grow, and wrongly assumed that alll of this would some day be theirs. I like checking out because Johhny knew exaclty how to make change. Then he'd take however many pennies the new sales tax called for and shout "and two cents for the Governor" and throw the coins into a wooden lock box next to the register.

Johnnys is gone, and Arkies will be too. As I said earlier, their niche has passed on, not because of anything that they did wrong, but because the guy with a 1,000 burger places can advertize a lot more than the guy with just one. No matter how bad the big guys burgers tastes, he wins every round. .Think about that the next time you take the family into Burger King and wait for the guys behind the counter to shout out your name and welcome you back.

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