Tuesday morning, I’m on no sleep, somewhere in Minnesota, being led by an affable procurement person through casino-resort sized corridors of a corporate HQ of a healthcare company employing 300,000 people globally, running foggy content through my groggy head for the 90 minutes we have to convince a longshot audience we’re worthy of their business.
When my phone dings an incoming text.
This close to Showtime, my cardinal rule is to never check texts or email for fear of distraction, but I see it’s from … our college freshman.
“I’m on deck for presentation 2 this week.” (fingers crossed emoji)
The fog clears. A smile breaks, right before I break my cardinal rule and text back.
Me: “So I’m walking into a presentation, too. Testing the new suit. Do your best. Be yourself. Kick ass.”
He: “Ha. I’ve got my shirt and tie on.”
In the dying light of his last high school summer, we made a pilgrimage to pick him out a new suit for college. In a weak moment, I ended up getting one for myself. Actually, I bought the same exact suit (my wife was not with us, at the risk of stating the obvious). Figured it’ll make for an epic boys pic down the road.
On the morning we break out a few of the pieces for the first time, we’re texting each other encouragement.
I float a life preserver out ahead of us.
Me: “Maybe a Shorty’s run for lunch on Saturday?”
He: “I’ll count on it.”
Separated by 884.1 miles on a cold and gray November morning, father and son turn off their phones, say their customary prayers, don their game faces, and walk into their respective arenas, focused on the task at hand …
… and totally looking forward to Two with Everything.
Saturday morning, I’m running errands and get a text shortly after 11. “What U up to?”
I do a double-take.
The last time I remember my son being up this early on a Saturday morning he had a full diaper.
I tell him I’ll be home by noon to help Mom with the groceries and then we can go.
West Chestnut is one of the few car-lined streets in downtown Washington on a Saturday morning. We find a parking spot past the shop and walk back down the hill. The Guy In The Window is there, tending a couple dozen dogs on the grill.
Full disclosure: I’d pay a fee to live stream The Guy In The Window — mesmerizingly speed-forking dogs from the grill into buns lining the length of his forearm, followed by one-fluid-motion fulfillment of the yelled-by-the-waitress commands of customers’ Go-Tos, executed in Jedi-like-spoon-snatching and dolloping combos of finely diced onions, slathered ketchup, mustard, chili, and relish in perfect measure and placement on top of Shorty’s-specially-commissioned-secret-recipe-Albert’s dogs and placement one-two-three-at-a-time on the diner’s signature small plates.
We reverently pause at the window before crossing the threshold to behold a scene unchanged and perfected by time. The old wooden booths that ring the wall to the left and north were full. Fine by us.
We grab a couple stools at the far end, leaving one open to my left.
The waitress, descendant of the original owner, welcomes us, grabs our drink order. The menu behind the counter at Shorty’s is as essential as the watch pocket in Levi’s jeans – pure decoration. The only change in decades was when they switched from Coke to Pepsi a few years back – a decision for which my wife has never forgiven them.
Speaking of decisions, my son and I are faced with the biggest one we’ll make this Saturday: whether to split a Large Fry with Gravy or get our own smalls. We agree to share, and shake on ordering a second plate if one of us commands more than his fair share. The rest is a foregone conclusion: Two with Everything for me. For him: One with Everything, and one just ketchup and onions.
Without making the covenant aloud, we’d been holding conversation all morning until our orders were placed.
We catch up on our presentations from earlier in the week (arse was kicked), Kentucky basketball (his lower case ‘r’ religion these days), NBA (LeBron’s Lakers are rollin’), and just stuff.
As we’re waiting for our order, a guy grabs the open stool to my left. A little rumpled. Gray scraggly beard. I pick up a beer scent. Not fresh, maybe night before. Initiates a familiar patter with the waitress, and the behind-the-scenes fry guy in the back. The reciprocal requisite chop-busting of a Regular. Asks about the Wash High score … they were down 14 at the half. I mention they’ve been slow-starting all season, and before I know it, the guy’s joining our lunch conversation, much to my delight, and my son’s chagrin.
Waitress sets down a hot roast beef in front of our neighbor. I tell him he’s the first person I’ve ever sat next to who’s ordered anything other than a hot dog. Unbeknownst to me, I invite a long soliloquy on the subject.
It’s fantastic, he says. The waitress passing by who’s not in the conversation but is unofficially in EVERY conversation, joins the conversation. “It’s really good. You should try it.”
“But,” the guy tells me, waiting for the waitress to pass before executing a perfect Lean In.
Full Disclosure: I’m an unapologetic sucker for a well-executed Lean In – when, in order to signal the presumptive sharing of a Key to the Universe – one checks one’s surroundings, leans one’s head towards one’s subject, and lowers one’s voice to beg his subject’s full attention before confiding. When one is sitting next to The Leaner at a lunch counter, it somehow carries exponentially more gravitas.
“… you gotta get it when it’s fresh.”
In the movie version of this scene, The Guy would grab my arm for emphasis and hold my gaze for a couple extra beats, before eating the rest of his meal in total silence. The IRL version goes on about 45 seconds too long.
See, the guy tells me, if it’s a slow week, and it sits for few days, the, um, ‘quality,’ suffers (in so many words). His cousin works in The Back (the behind-the-scenes Fry Guy), and lets him know when it’s fresh. “I text him before I come in – hot dog or beef? If he tells me ‘hot dog,’ I know the beef’s been in circulation for a few days.”
Me: So the day rotates is what you’re saying.
He: Exactly. You never know.
This is at once essential and completely useless information.
And why this One will never deviate from Two with Everything.
We return to our comestibles.
When our Large Fry with Gravy comes, Peter squirts a little ketchup on the rim. This is an affront to the guy to our left.
Guy: You can’t mix gravy with ketchup.
Me: I know. Separation of Church and State.
Guy: You know where that comes from?
I’m thinking we’re still talking about gravy and ketchup.
Me: I have no idea (since neither Karry nor I ketchup our gravy).
Guy goes on to elucidate, in meticulous Wikipedia-grade detail, Thomas Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter to the Danbury Baptist Church from 1802, in between bites of his (very fresh) roast beef sandwich.
I find this delicious.
This is why you sit at The Counter.
We polish off our LFWG, and I coax Peter into another round.
And this one comes out PERFECT … the fries a crisp golden brown. For the record, they are always good (the gravy forgives all sins), but sometimes during a lunch rush the Fry Guy plucks them from the fryer a little too soon to get them on the plate, which was the case with our first batch. But this time … we just stare at the plate for a hot minute.
The waitress in every conversation breaks our moment of silence.
“You ever try ‘em with Red Hot?”
I’m rendered speechless by the suggestion, though my face involuntarily reacts as if she’s just proposed a mustache for the Mona Lisa.
“I know, right?” she says in response to my recoil. “That’s what I thought. But it’s really, really good.”
The second waitress Amens her colleague. “Do you like Red Hot? You should try it.”
Yes is the answer, but that’s not the point. Just like I love Sinatra and Tom Petty, I have no desire to experience them together.
Before I can raise shields, the first waitress gives me a tiny plate so I can separate church from state.
I oblige. They wait, expectant, for me to sample and affirm.
It’s fine. I try not to disappoint them, but a perfect plate of fries with gravy needs nothing but the blessing of some pepper.
We nonetheless clean the plate, using the final few fries as gravy Zambonis. He drains his Orange Crush down to a dry slurp.
We drop our offering at the register, the tip back at the counter. He and I exchange a silent fist bump.
In this cold, gray, Saturday-morning-November moment, 884.1 miles in the making, summoned to the heart of a down downtown to sit as, and with, Regulars atop old stools to talk basketball and stuff over perfect plates of our Usuals, it’s hard not to count ourselves … Two with Everything.