If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
When I came to Worcester it was clear and cold and fugly. I picked up a guy hitch-hiking on the MassPike from South Boston and he told me a story. He ended by saying “I hod to loff.” It took me two years to figure out that he said he had to laugh. I had to laugh at that.
I did not notice at first that there were seven hills in Worcester just as there are in Rome. The bus station was called The Seven Hills Bus Terminal and it was fine. If you were not going to Boston but you had a package that was going to Boston you could put it on the bus there and it would get to Boston. They had vending machines if you were hungry after dropping off your package with the cheese and peanut butter crackers that are favored by the peasants. They were fine.
Worcester is the Industrial Abrasives Capital of the World, and a bit of this roughness rubs off on its inhabitants. “Karen,” I heard the old woman yell at her daughter off the porch of the apartment beneath ours, “take that pigeon out of your mouth you don’t know where it’s been.” The pigeons of Worcester have a quiet dignity and their feathers are unruffled. They prefer to walk instead of fly. They know which side of their cheese cracker is peanut buttered.
My friend Jim had a dog named Zeke and he introduced me to the bars of Worcester how to drink in the bars in Worcester–Jim, not Zeke. “First thing that you do is order a quahog,” which is a tough clam, as tough as the toughs who lived in Main South where I lived, he said to me. My brother-in-law is also named Zeke but that is a story for another time.
“When you have ordered the quahog the bartender puts it in the toaster oven to heat up,” Jim said. “Then you order a ginger brandy and a Narragansett beer.” We ordered ginger brandies and Narragansetts and the bartender put them down in front of us while we waited for our quahogs to heat up. “You down the ginger brandy in one gulp,” he said so I did. It warmed my tongue and my mouth and my soft palate and my gullet and my medulla oblangata and tears came to my eyes. My father was a doctor and he would allow me to perform brain surgery on my sister Marcelline as long as I washed his instruments afterwards.
“Are you all right?” Jim asked and I said “Yes do you have any furniture you want stripped as long as we are drinking ginger brandy it could take the paint off a picnic table.”
Jim laughed at that and said “Wash it down with your ‘Gansett. Gotta getta ‘Gansett!’” he said and it seemed like he meant it he was sincere and I was not in fact I was full of shit but Jim did not know that yet. I was trying to do away with description and write one simple declarative sentence that was true and not false and that did not have so many conjunctions in it that it would make you gulp for air from reading it.
By then our quahogs were done and we ate them and they were fine and the bartender said “I know this is not a clean, well-lighted place but what the hell are you actually going to have dinner here?”
“No,” Jim said, “I must take my friend to the Miss Worcester Diner under the railroad bridge where the pigeons sit and shit upon those who pass underneath.”
“That will be good for him to see,” the bartender said. “He cannot know Worcester until he has seen the Miss Worcester Diner.”
“There is another thing a small thing,” Jim said.
“What is that?” the bartender said in that flat lustreless tone that one heard coming from the mouths of all of the Worcesteroids.
“He should have a pickled egg from the jar on the bar,” Jim said. “He should have a pickled egg to go with his quahog and his ginger brandy and his ‘Gansett.”
“Yes,” the bartender said. “He should have one.”
“Are they pigeon eggs?” I asked. I was not sure I wanted to have a pigeon’s egg.
“That is an old wive’s tale just as Scott Fitzgerald told Hemingway that lemonade and whiskey as a cure for a cold was on old wives’ tale,” the bartender told us. “They come from chickens which are not pigeons although neither pigeons nor chickens seem to want to fly much.”
“Yes,” Jim said. “They are like penguins–flightless birds.”
“Have you ever heard ‘Do the Funky Penguin, Parts I and II?” I asked the two of them slipping into Roman numerals as I remembered my high school Latin. “It is fine.”
“No I have not,” Jim said. “You must play it for me some time but now it is time to go.”
Jim and I paid and Jim left a little something extra on the bar. “This is for the cat,” he said, “the cat who catches the rats. Get him a little catnip so he can have mad dreams like Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”
“I will do that for the cat who catches the rats,” the bartender said. “I have not read Coleridge, but I have read Turgenev, and Chekhov, and Drabowsky.”
“I do not think Moe Drawbowsky is a Russian writer,” Jim said. “I think he is a Jewish Polish-American relief pitcher who was known for his practical jokes.”
“Also for being one of only four players who played for both the Kansas City Athletics and the Kansas City Royals,” I said. “Hemingway wrote for the Kansas City Star did you know that?” I asked.
“No but he should be glad he left Kansas City before the Athletics moved there from Philadelphia because that team sucked,” the bartender said. “Then they became good when they moved to Oakland where as Gertrude Stein said there is no there there.”
“This is true,” I said. “Well, Jim–are you going to show me the Miss Worcester Diner or not?”
We left then and we headed down towards Holy Cross. The Miss Worcester Diner came into view and it was a railroad car turned into a restaurant.
“Do we have to run to catch it?” I asked Jim.
“No,” Jim said. “Worcester is known for restaurants called diners that are made out of railroad cars.”
It seemed fine, and we went in and had home fries Worcester-style, potatoes cut into cubes and boiled and then buttered and fried with paprika sprinkled over them. “These are fine,” I said to Jim.
“We must do something to improve our vocabulary,” Jim said. “We seem to be saying ‘fine’ a lot.”
“Yes,” I said. “A vocabulary would be fine. Also we do not use contractions other people use contractions but we do not.”
“Nor commas,” he said in that slightly formal tone that we adopted to make our youths the spring of our lives seem wonderful and magical even though we lived in Worcester, Mass.
“We are too poor to afford commas,” I said. “I am glad we ate here, Jim. This is a railroad car but it is not moving and we are eating.”
“It is not moving,” he said, “but it could move if the owner wanted it to. Wherever we go for the rest of our lives this meal will stay with us because we ate it in a moveable restaurant.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”