Monday, November 13, 2006

Having Reservations

This October, I made the 200-mile drive from Chicago to my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. I drove past mile after mile of scrubby fields newly shorn of the summer’s corn crop, dilapidated red barns in need of more than a few licks of paint and dulled-grey metal grain silos. Over the years, I’ve probably driven this route more than 100 times. I know the curves in the road and the special hiding places the state troopers like to frequent, just looking for a city slicker speeder like me. I’ve calculated the distance down to the minutes and the mile. Dixon marks the halfway point, 90 minutes left to go. Turning off the toll-way leaves about 42 miles still to cover.

Now, my hometown may be like many in the Midwest. It has some historical claims to fame; Carl Sandberg was born there, the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place there and it was the home of the man who conceived that fairground favorite, the Ferris Wheel. And in the not so distant history of my childhood, it was a hive of industry. No less than three railroads crisscrossed its streets at one time and ovens, microwaves, refrigerators, lawnmowers and assorted car parts where made there.
On Saturdays, the Main street and later in the early ‘70s the newly-build Sandberg Mall would bustle with activity. It wasn’t unusual to bump into a friend, a neighbor or even your less-than-favorite third-grade teacher while making your weekly shopping rounds.

But today each time I go back, the town seems quieter and more run-down. And the bustle is definitely gone: only ghosts walk the sidewalks of Main Street now.

Much of the industry, except the railroad, has moved production south of the border leaving lots of folks unemployed or underemployed. You can see it in the shuttered businesses and the empty lots that once held homes that were subsequently condemned due to disrepair or abandonment and torn down. Lake Lawn the private tennis and pool club that we could never afford to join when I was young is now owned by the city and its once green and guarded confines can be enjoyed by all.
Even the swanky neighborhoods seem to have far less swank. The houses now go for prices that even I could afford and still have some change left over if I was to sell my less-than-palatial city abode.

The fact of the matter is, Galesburg has become a little grim. Well on its way to becoming a ghost town. It wouldn’t be out of place to see a billboard along Main Street proclaiming “Last one out of Galesburg, please turn off the lights!” But no matter how many trips I make, there’s always one place I have to go in town. One place that’s unchanging and feels like home. The Landmark.

Right smack in the middle of historic Seminary Street, it’s the best place to eat in town. I’ve been a frequent customer since the place first opened back in the '70s. And almost thirty years later, not much has changed (even after a fire in the ‘90s).
The menu is still printed on the same stiff, ecru paper that I remember, the painted tin ceiling still makes it seem twice as populated as it usually is and Phil, the maitre’d, is still the guy who greets you at the door. And best of all, my favorite menu offering is served up every day: Spinach Bisque.

Every time I go through the door, I’ve never had to wait more than 15 minutes for a table and every visit reminds me of all the ones I’ve made before. I only have to look at the table in the corner by the mirrored coat rack to see myself at nineteen seated with my mother. I’m wearing the red Pendleton sweater I got for ten-cents at my college town’s thrift store and my hair is cut short at a rather punkish and jaunty angle. And we’re drinking coffee, waiting for our cups of Bisque and sandwiches to come along and we’re laughing. About what, I don’t remember. . .I just remember that we’re laughing.

Over nearer the large plate glass front window, I see an even younger me—maybe fifteen--sitting with mom again and her best friend Liz and her son Marc. We’re all eating Bisque (after all, what else is there?) and gossiping. And it’s easily apparent that I have a raging crush on Marc, because everything he says is just plain hilarious.

And so after my three-hour drive into town, I was more than happy to find myself joined by my best friend and her three children opening the door to the Landmark to get some much-needed lunch. “Table for five.” I said to Phil, smiling in my “remember me? I used to come here all the time” kind of way.

Phil looked up at me slightly sternly, as if he’d never seen me before, and replied, “And that that would be under?”

“Under?” I thought to myself, my mouth falling open in astonishment. “Uh, do you need a reservation? I didn’t make a reservation,” I mumbled, clearly taken off guard by this apparent change of protocol.

“Today, yes,” Phil replied brusquely. “It’s homecoming weekend.”

How ironic that my own homecoming now necessitated the need for RESERVATIONS! And I had none. “How long is the wait?” I asked still somewhat in disbelief that I was not going to be momentarily ushered to a cozy table for five.

“About an hour,” Phil replied. “Maybe more.”

“Never mind,” I said turning from Phil back to my friend and her three children and motioning them towards the door.
“Let’s go to Steak and Shake,” I said as we made our way back to my Chevy and piled in. But still, I was somewhat shell-shocked. I’ve made so many trips back to Galesburg and never before had I not been able to get a table at The Landmark.
Maybe it’s true that you can’t go home again. So much of the town had begun to feel different to me. So much of it changed. Friendly faces gone. My childhood home now occupied by a new family who keep the shades tightly drawn, never letting in the sun or curious glances from previous residents.

And now I couldn’t even get into The Landmark. Surely, this town no longer had a place for me. But that evening after a rousing wrestling match with my young godchildren, I was still thinking about The Landmark. “Maybe I could call and make a reservation for lunch tomorrow,” I said to my friend Jo, still partially in disbelief that such forethought and planning was even necessary.

“I’ll do it,” Jo replied, reaching up to grab the slim phonebook from the top of her refrigerator.

The following day arrived dreary and overcast. After a morning of pancakes, coffee and the busy chatter of the children, we again piled into the car to go to The Landmark. This time, with trepidation. Would our reservation have been recorded properly? Would there be a problem that would prevent our entry?

Again we came through the front door and Phil sat sentry at his usual spot. But this time, I was ready. “Reservation for Sumner for 12:30,” I said rather formally half expecting Phil’s brow to crease with anxiety.

But instead he stepped from behind his table and ushered us in with a smile saying “Right this way. We have your table all ready for you.”

And I followed him happily thinking this is how it should be. I’d begun to have serious doubts about my place in Galesburg. I lived here for ten years growing up, but with each return visit it seemed to become more and more foreign to me. Not getting that coveted table at The Landmark seemed to be the last straw. But as I sat enjoying my delicious bowl of Spinach Bisque I did feel like I was back home again. My former selves were still seated in memory all around me and all seemed right with the world.

As we rose to leave, I stopped at Phil’s counter to pay the bill. “Was everything ok?” he asked in his usual manner.

“Great,” I replied smiling in his direction, my annoyance of the previous day now dissipated as I signed the credit card slip and handed it back to Phil.

He took it from my hand and as I turned to leave he added, “It’s good seeing you here again.”

With that, any lingering reservations I had about my place at The Landmark also vanished. I exited knowing that no matter how much things changed in my hometown of 34,000, this place would probably always be here. And I’d have a place at the table and a bowl of Bisque just an order away. Just nowadays, I might have to remember to call ahead first.

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