Dukes Drive-In on Harlem, A Mid-Winter's Night Cruise
By Wm. L. Maranda
Every now and then the humans are blessed with a heavenly feather, better weather, a change of climate that is unexpected for the time of year. It could be a placidly cool evening relieving a sultry August heat wave, a light drizzle from a quickly passing sun-shower to cool you off during a lengthy bike ride, or a night like last night; cloudless, 58 degrees with a full moon lighting up the sky just as we're in the mitts of a dreary winter.
When I first bought the convertible I immediately set up an old couch seat on the passenger side to accommodate my new best buddy, a Chihuahua pup named Liberty Valance. We usually rode in the truck and he was good with that. Fidgety at first, but easily learned to settle down in his seat once he realized that drive-through windows at the bank, drug store and restaurant accommodate children and pets with treats of candy and doggie biscuits.
In the convertible though he was a bit anxious, the wind barreling overhead, the openness of it all. But after a few spins around the neighborhood he seemed to settle down once again. While cruising through the Palos forest that thumbnail of a nose on his tiny little head would perk up at the scent of dear, raccoons and other wildlife. Dogs will get that look, the look of the wild once the aroma of nature brings them back to their ancestral roots.
But this was the first time I took Liberty on a lengthy ride, a full cruise, complemented with a trip to a classic drive-in for dinner. I knew just the place; too, where sandwiches are huge and the shakes are made with real ice cream, Duke's on Harlem Avenue. When I was a kid growing up on the southwest side of Chicago Duke's was famous for its' Italian beef sandwiches, made with stale French bread. After they pilled on a half-pound of beef they'd grab it length-wise with tongs and dunk the whole thing in a bucket of au juice. The staleness of the bread allowed the sandwich to absorb the juice better, but you'd still slobber all over yourself. With a kid your T-shirt became a makeshift bib.
Duke's is a throw back to the 1950's. It's a tiny shack centered within an oversized parking lot. The large 'V' shaped awnings spread out on each side of the kitchen section of the building make it look like the wings of a 747 strapped onto a piper cub standing on an airstrip.
Back in the old days there were still farms out here, as this was the far, far edge of the city. There were a few subdivisions; a drive-in movie, a bowling alley and the now film famous Fleetwood Roller Rink (Roller Bounce) all nearby. My personal favorite was the drag racing activity on Harlem Ave, performed by us goofy kids with motorcycles, muscle cars and hotrods.
That was over thirty years ago. Now it's the City.
The placed was packed tonight. Everything from bicycles to motorcycles, hot rods to limos, skateboarders, too. I had to squeak in between two vintage muscle cars, feeling a bit embarrassed. This because in my youth I drove a '69 Z-28 Chevy Camaro. And now Uncle Buck is sitting here in this little girlie colored new-age Ford Mustang. As people would pass by they would "ooh" and "awe" at the really nice cars then snicker, chuckling at mine.
It was the dog that saved me.
Everybody liked the dog, with him sitting up so proudly in his custom made seat. With those big bulging Chihuahua goo-goo eyes and a tail that wouldn't stop wagging, he would flirt like a Frenchman with each passer-by. While ordering my dinner little Liberty crawled up out of 'his' seat and cautiously walked around on the convertible tonneau boot cover, then began to slip and slide on the well polished and waxed custom trunk lid.
It was just a mumble at first, but then I began hearing all these odd comments. Very Odd. I must of heard half a dozen comments to the tune of "We should have brought Roxie", or "Toto", or "Taffy", or "Biscuits", "Max" or "Skipper".
A few cars down some kids in the back seat saw me breaking off bits of beef and feeding the little guy. I could see them poking, pestering their mother.
"Would it be OK if my kids feed him, too." She yelled over. No problem.
The boys ran over, one with some hamburger, the other had a few French fries. Liberty inhaled the meat, but merely licked the salt off the fries.
"See, he likes me better!" said the one with the hamburger.
His bothers' smile turned upside down into a frown. Then Liberty quickly snatched a French fry away from him wanting him to play, as if daring him to take it back. Both faces were all smiles once again.
Everybody loves the dog. I wish I could make friends that easy.
These retro places, from movie theaters to motels to diners, seem to have had a rebirth, or perhaps better to say the humans are now awakened to the serenity of this architectural style. The product - the food, film or mattress -seems to take second place to the atmosphere; a feel-good-friendly type of place, where happiness abounds and relaxation seems inherently normal.
After our delicious meal I let the little guy out of the car to relieve himself. I was in my usual daze of casual happiness, enjoying this pleasant after dinner walk, admiring all the really nice cars and motorcycles. As we weaved through the parking lot under the stars little Liberty puttered and sniffed, occasionally peeing on a discarded carry out bag, a curb or a trashcan.
Unfortunately, he hit a car tire, on the wrong car, and all hell broke lose.
There were five smallish cars parked together. It looked like a bunch of older kids just out for some late-night fun. The one Liberty hit was filled with rowdy boys. It was a detailed, pinstriped Asian import, the kind that comes with a noisy four cylinder and extra loud speakers. All the vehicles in this grouping were really just two-bit rides, but this one had a fancy custom paint job and a million dollar stereo. I guess if you're not going to put your hard earned money into a good car you can prep-up just about any old piece of junk with a wavy paint job and an expensive stereo.
The driver, and owner I presume, jumped out of the car screaming at me. I apologized for the dog's misbehavior, pointing out that the little fellow only hit the tire not the paint. But politeness just seem to get the kid worked up even more. It seems the tires and rims, he called them 'dubs' or something, even they had cost him a lot of money, too. Then it got much worse. His buddies started to egg him on, pushing him to
"Do something, don't take that!" as he was a full head taller than I.
Although very tall with large ballplayer hands, he was willowy, svelte with a concave chest. A figuratively, genuine 'Slats' type of guy in stature. He didn't appear threatening in the least. Outside of the odd misfortune of these unpredictable circumstances he was probably a really nice guy, too. But these friends of his, these "buddies" of his, they, they wanted some action. They wanted something to brag about at work the next day.
The chunky one riding shotgun, the guy with all the tattooed muscles seemed to be a 'leader' of sorts. He yelled at Slats to kick the dog, mumbling under his breath to the drones in the backseat that I was just an 'old man' and that he hated those little 'RAT dogs'. He couldn't stand them.
"KICK IT! Stomp on that little shit!" he screamed.
Well, needless to say, I wasn't about to let that happen. But there we were, a middle-age man wheezing with asthma and a shrimp of a dog. Had I been twenty years younger with my old dog, a gigantic Shepard named MOOSE, would these kids behave in this manner? I wonder.
As little Liberty tugged on the leash playfully jumping around, wagging his tail oblivious to our predicament, the driver nervously went to my side and leaned over in a precocious manner. I could easily tell that Slats was now very apprehensive about the whole situation that he really didn't want to push this any further. This thing was getting totally out of control, and perhaps Slats felt that he had overstepped his physical abilities, as it was openly obvious his mental abilities had become frayed.
As I tabulated the body language of the players I noticed something. His car had a suburban village sticker, that all of his friends' cars had village stickers from the more affluent suburbs as well. Then a thought hit me. My God, these aren't city kids. They're a bunch of cosmopolitans!
This string bean probably hasn't ever been in a real fistfight in his whole life. I may very well be past my prime, but growing up in the city I had been in a fair number of scraps with my two older brothers, friends and such. Now it's time to play a good-old-fashioned game of "Chicken". So I did what 'grownups' are supposed to do, I helped the kid out. I gently put my hand on his shoulder;
"Hold off Slats" I said.
Leaning into the vehicle I slowly glanced over the inhabitants, then paused. I rotated may head towards the chunky kid with the mouth and said;
"Why don't YOU pick on someone your own WEIGHT, Tubby?"
That did it. That's when all the kids in all the cars started laughing hysterically at him and wouldn't let up, kicking the seats and banging on the doors. They turned off the loud music and started to revel in chant;
"Yea, TubbEE, pick on someone your own WEIGHT, TubbEE?"
"Yea, TubbEEE, Stomp that little shit, TubbEEE!"
"TubbEEE, yea, from now on your name is tubbEEE,.. tubbEEE"
Chunky was dumbfounded. Here a middle age man was picking a fight with a healthy kid half his age, although a tad overweight. It surely took him by surprise. As his friends laughed and cajoled it was their precisely accented phonic annunciation of the second syllable, the "E", that literally forced him to act on his own words of aggression. I guess that's what friends are for, to try to get the other guy in trouble.
After all the cajoling "Tubby" swung the door open and slowly twisted his bulky frame, ducking his head to maneuver out of the tiny auto. Without a second thought I handed the leash to Slats. With arms straight down I bent my shoulders backward to let my jacket slide off. After it hit the ground I kicked it to the side. The shirtsleeves began to roll up slowly, seemingly on their own as I was in an extreme state of hyperventilation.
Sensing that this could get real ugly real fast Slats lead tiny little Liberty off to the side, moving the dog, as well as himself, safely away from the action. Doing what puppies are famous for Liberty Valance instantly tried to make friends with Slats. With tail wagging, Liberty's paws cantered from side to side over one foot, then the other, as if HE wanted to fight. He nibbled on his baggy pant leg and within seconds had managed to untie both of the shoestrings.
Liberty just wouldn't let the guy alone.
"No, no, no, you little bugger, you stop that," he said, lifting him up.
As Slats held a full five and a half pounds of peewee puppy in that gigantic hand his head titled down, sideways away from the group. I glimpsed a thin, slant glimmering smile, something that his friends really didn't need to see. That right hand of his was so massive that he was able hold the little guy outright, in his palm, petting little Liberty's neck using only his thumb. Apparently this not-so-tough-guy just couldn't seem to hide the true inner dog-lover clustered deep, deep, deep inside his tender soul.
Chunky stood up, chugged his beer, crumpled the can and with a nervous twitch tossed and missed a garbage can only a few yards away. As he turned to face me off out of the corner of his eye he witnessed the new commotion being caused by the dog. He took one look at Slats, threw up his arms and started yelling at him.
"WHAT THE HELL!" "You like the little shit?"
" You like that little shit RAT DOG, don't you?"
" Well then FIGHT YOUR OWN BATTLE"
"I'm out of here"
Slats liked the dog.
Everybody loves the dog.
I wish I could make friends that easy.
Ahh, yes, ..... It was the dog that saved me.