It wasn’t a Rogers Park dive bar, just a dive. A counter with four bar stools. Five tiny tables lined up against the sidewall. A sizzling griddle for the burgers, a deep, oil-filled, bubbling, fry vat, and hot water to boil the hot dogs. A soda fountain and not much else.
Behind it all was Hilda, a woman of indeterminate age to my 11-year-old self. Her hair in a bun under a net, a white apron around her middle, and a gray cloth covering her laryngotomy site, Hilda ruled the tiny lunch place–a small hiccup on Morse Avenue between a laundromat and a barbershop.
We were a loyal bunch, the construction workers and the small gaggle of school kids living at the far end of the school district who had lunch each day at noon during the school year in the late 1960s. Forty-two cents bought a hot dog, french fries, and a small Coke. Most days I dug into my lunch money for an extra nickel, trading the wiener for a single patty hamburger. A piece of cheese was more than I could afford.
There were ritzier places down the block, places like Ashkenaz and Froikins. But you needed more than half a buck to eat at those places, and I carefully guarded the lunch cash stash my mother gave me so that I would have enough pennies to buy chocolate cupcakes at Davidson’s Bakery on Mondays and Thursdays. Or I would use that loose change for an extra-large Coke with my burger on a hot day in June.
In the 2020s it would be considered child abuse to allow a 10 or 11-year-old kid to eat alone or with classmates at such a place. But having lunch at school was not an option, and walking the mile-and-a-half home (a 3rd-floor walk-up apartment) and back during the lunch hour would have left no time to actually eat. Besides, my mother was a working woman, not a stay-at-home mom, so I would have hurriedly gulped a cold sandwich. Hilda’s was the better option, and in truth, I loved it.
I never learned why Hilda had a laryngotomy, though most of us assumed it was due to a history of smoking. And I never learned how the city inspectors allowed the less than sparkling joint to stay in business. I never realized just how filthy the place was until a teacher asked me to take a new student with me to lunch. He was a southern import, and I remember two things about that day. First, he asked to use “the lav,” and second, he never came back.
I may have had better hamburgers since those days, I may have had tastier fries, but I can tell you I have never had a happier 47 cent feast.
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