Memory Lane

We were up in Akron today for a funeral service for an old and dear family friend.  It gave Kish, Cath and me a chance to visit the Webner clan lived in before we moved to Columbus, see some fondly remembered acquaintances again, and visit Portage Country Club, the Tudor-style building where we had countless family gatherings — including weddings, showers, and birthday celebrations — over the years.

I had to take a look at the “Board Room,” pictured above, where Grandpa Neal hosted annual luncheons that featured lots of revelry, Baked Alaska for dessert, and Grandpa’s remarks in which he gave a recap of the year and, speaking totally from memory, recounted the highlights for everyone in attendance.  I looked at the table and thought that, if we were to try to convene that gathering now, many of the chairs would be empty and those of us still around would look a lot grayer and more bowed than we once did.  As we left Portage Country Club, I wondered if this was the last time I would pass through its big wooden doors.

They say that funerals are a time for remembering, and our visit to Akron today certainly set me to thinking back to old times.  It was a wistful experience, but I enjoyed taking a little trip down memory lane.

Good Capitals, Bad Capitals

An apartment search service called “Rent Hop” has declared Chicago the “Rat Capital” of the United States.  Rent Hop did a study of rat complaints and concluded that Chicago received far more rat complaints than other American cities — 50,963 in 2017 alone.  That’s a 55 percent increase since 2014, and factors out to 1,876 complaints per 100,000 people.  Even worse, the neighborhoods with the most rat complaints also tend to be the neighborhoods with the most uncollected dog droppings.

6432106That’s really a lot of rat complaints, when you think about it.  If you’re a renter in Chicago — particularly in some neighborhoods — you’re pretty likely to have a rat encounter.

The Windy City blew New York City out of the water in the Rat Capital race; the Big Apple logged only 19,152 rat complaints last year, which put it well down on the list on a per capita basis.  Second place on the per capita list went to Washington, D.C.  That should come as no surprise, although it’s not clear whether the D.C. count was limited to only four-legged rats, or also included the two-legged variety.

Fortunately, Columbus didn’t make the Rat Capital list.

Cities used to declare themselves “capitals” as a mark of civic pride.  When I was a kid, Uhrichsville, Ohio — where the Webner part of the family hails from — had a sign boasting that it was the “Clay Capital” of the United States.  (I’m not sure any other municipalities were vying for that distinction.)  Akron was the Rubber Capital in those days, and even now on the highways you’ll see corny signs saying that one town or another is the Friendly Folks Capital or the Smile Capital or the Lobster Capital.

I doubt that Chicago is going to put up a sign about the Rat Capital designation.

That Good Samaritan Feeling

It snowed quite a bit Monday, going well into the night.  Tuesday morning I got up and instead of taking my early morning walk, I went out to shovel my front steps and sidewalk.

I was out shoveling at about 6 a.m., in the quiet darkness, when a young woman approached.  It probably took some nerve on her part to approach a total stranger on a dark, bitterly cold morning, but she obviously was desperate.  “Excuse me, sir!” she said.  “My car is stuck.  Would you mind coming down and shoveling me out?”

good-samaritanI looked down the street and saw that her car, which was one of those ultra-light compact cars that are about the worst snow vehicles in the world, was turned sideways and was well and truly stuck in the snow piles.  “No problem,” I said.  “When the weather is like this, we’ve all got to stick together.”  So I went down with my shovel, let loose my inner Dad, put her behind the wheel, and shoveled and pushed and rocked the car back and forth and instructed her on cutting the wheels this way and that — not too sharp! — until we finally got her too-light car out of the snow banks and onto the ruts of the street so she could head on her way.

“Thank you soooo much!” she said several times before she puttered away in her little car, and I think she really meant it.  I then went back to my shoveling.

Growing up in Akron, Ohio, I learned that you help people out when they get stuck in the snow.  One time when UJ and I were little kids we went to an Akron Zips basketball game with Grandma and Grandpa Neal, a blizzard hit during the game, and we came out to an Oldsmobile that was covered in snow and buried in a drift.  A bunch of men who also had come to the game came over to help us, and eventually they pushed and pulled and rocked us out to the point where we could get to the street.  Their selfless act of kindness and decency made a big impression on a little kid.

Ever since that happened, I’ll gladly lend a hand to help anybody trapped by the snow.  I know that the Good Samaritan acted for wholly altruistic reasons, and when it comes to the winter weather I do too — but I always like the “Good Samaritan” feeling I get when I do it, too.  That young woman’s heartfelt thanks made my Tuesday a little bit better.

A Taste Of Old Akron

The Webner family social media wires were burning up yesterday with the news that Swensons, an Akron-area tradition, may be planning on opening up a new hamburger joint in the Columbus area.  According to the article, Swensons has begun franchising and has indicated an interest in the Columbus market — they’re just looking for the right place.

e2fb43610d0ce3cec3e0f3ac6dabdfd1-akron-hit-theThis potential development burst like a bomb among the members of the Webner clan, because Swensons’ hamburgers were one of the foods we associate with our days growing up as kids in Akron.  Some days, we would buy sacks of burgers and milkshakes at Swensons, where to my recollection the meat had a very distinctive, somewhat sweet taste, and then go to the nearby McDonalds to get french fries because Grandpa Neal insisted that McDonalds’ thinner-cut fries were preferable to the Swensons’ variety.  Other times, we would go to Sky-Way, just a few miles down Market Street, which also was an old-line burger place.  At Sky-Way, you would drive up and park and then get served by kids who would skate up to the window of the car, attached a tray to the drivers’ side door, and bring your order directly to you without falling down.  The Sky-Way burgers were good, too, but it was the delivery method that really made an impression.

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Swensons, or Sky-Way?  In Akron, it was the eternal question and the basis for endless debate.  The Webners were enumenical on the issue — we happily consumed both.

I haven’t had a Swensons burger in years, but it and Sky-Way are enshrined in my fast food memory banks, right up there with the cheeseburgers UJ and Grandma and Grandpa Neal and I got at Riviera Lanes and broasted chicken and the old-fashioned pizza Mom got from a place with an Italian name that I don’t remember.

And when I hear that a Swensons might be opening up, I think two things.  First, if I go there, will the burgers taste like what I dimly recall and live up to my expectations?  And second, if Swensons is coming, can Sky-Way be far behind?

End Of An Era

After more than 75 years, the Diamond Grille in Akron is changing hands.  Since 1941, the restaurant with the great name and the classic, cool neon sign has been owned by the Thomas family and has held down the same spot at 77 West Market Street.

12024588-largeThis week the Thomas family announced that it has sold the restaurant to a long-time waitress who promises to keep things pretty much the same they always have been — with the exception of renovating the bathrooms and adding some fresh vegetables to the menu.  I guess that long-time fans of the restaurant, and I am one of many, will be willing to accept those slight modifications so long as you can still go to the Diamond to get the same great steaks and seafood, drink the same great drinks, and enjoy an atmosphere that makes you feel like it’s 1958 and Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. might just be found in the booth next to yours.  It’s one of those joints that is unforgettable and timeless.

The Diamond Grille has been an important part of Webner family lore and was a place that my mother and father used to socialize with their friends.  Uncle Mack worked there when he was a callow youth, and Kish and I had had a memorable dinner there with Mom, Aunt Bebe, and Uncle Mack and Aunt Corinne a few years ago.  The last time I chowed down at the Diamond I took a colleague there for lunch.  She’d never been there before, and as we were eating she looking around with a sense of wonder and said:  “This place is great!”

Of course, she was right.  The Webner family wishes the Thomas family the very best as they move on to other things, and wants to thank them for a lifetime of wonderful memories.  If you’re interested, you can read about some of our experiences at the Diamond here, here, here, and here.

My First Phone Number

The other day the Jersey Girl and I were discussing the wonderful movie Lion, and specifically the part where a five-year-old boy, suddenly finding himself in a strange city a thousand miles from home, was unable to communicate his home town or his mother’s name — but nevertheless could fend for himself and survive for months.

Could we have done the same?  As five-year-olds, would we also have been unable to communicate to the authorities about how get us home?

rotaryphone-jpeg-size-custom-crop-755x650I’m quite sure that, at the age of five, I didn’t possess the kind of hardiness, stoicism, and long-term survival skills “Saroo” showed in Lion.  (After all, he and his brother were out stealing coal from trains and using other techniques to try to help feed their family, and I was just growing up in a small but tidy house in Akron, Ohio.)  But, I did have one thing that Saroo apparently lacked — my mother drilled all of the little Webners relentlessly, so we would memorize our names and our phone number.  Even as a small boy, I knew my name, my street, my city, and that seven-digit number that someone could call to let my parents know where I was.  And, in fact, when I went wandering around the block on one occasion, I told the nice people who found me my phone number, and they called and Mom came and got me.

Even now, 55 years later, that same phone number comes immediately to mind.  I can’t remember the phone numbers I had in my college apartments, or when Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C., or in our first homes after moving back to the Columbus area, but I remember that first phone number with ease.  It’s as if the drilling with Mom at the kitchen table as I ate another bowl of oatmeal on a cold winter morning engraved that phone number into the deepest synapses of my brain, where it can never be erased.

Of course, it’s totally useless information now — but still, it’s kind of comforting to know that I still remember something from so long ago.  Mom did a pretty good job.

Asphalt Fumes

Today, as I walked to and from work, I smelled the scent of summer.  That’s because Third Street has just been repaved, and I was taking in the black, tarry aroma of asphalt.

IMG_1113I reflexively associate asphalt with summer because we lived on an asphalt street when I was a kid.  After a rugged Akron winter, come spring the cracks and holes in the street would be patched with more asphalt and a layer of tar.  When the hot summer months arrived, the asphalt would reach scorching temperatures and sprout tar bubbles, and the smell was as rich and heady as the sulphur fumes belched out by the rubber factories downtown.  You got tar on your sneakers, tar on your bare feet, and tar on your bicycle tires.

Ever since, the dark smell of tar says summer to me, just as much as the eye-watering odor of chlorine in the local pool or the mouth-watering bouquet of burgers sizzling on the grill when the Velveeta cheese is just starting to melt and drip onto the hot charcoal.  It’s as integral to the summer experience as the tinny sound of Turkey in the Straw played on the cheap loudspeaker on the roof of the ice cream truck or the smack of a fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt.

I took a deep whiff of that instantly familiar smell and barely succeeded in resisting the temptation to take off my shoes and stroll the asphalt in my bare feet, as in days gone by.  By the time I got home, I put on my shorts and sunglasses and let summer know that I was glad it was here, and ready for it, too.