I’m thinking Arby’s

Sometimes restaurants close with much fanfare, generating nostalgically fuelled newspaper retrospectives and meaningful “last visits”. Other times, restaurants close without a word of warning.

The second way happened to me a couple of weekends ago. I had my “every-two-years-whether-I-need-it-or-not” eye exam out in the old neighbourhood on a Saturday afternoon. I thought I’d head out there and then have a little quiet afternoon by myself before heading home for supper.

Well, as it turned out, our daughter caught wind of the fact that “Daddy was getting new glasses” and she couldn’t WAIT to come and help me pick out my new pair. This didn’t really bug me (it bugged me a little bit, to be honest), but actually it meant that I could get my eye exam AND new glasses picked out in the same afternoon, even if it meant I was sacrificing a little “me” time in the process.

As we got close to the eye doctor, I saw a sight that LITERALLY forced me to the side of the road.

It was this:

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Closed. I had to pull over to investigate. Closed, as in “closed for renovations, see you in 6 weeks!”? or closed as in “It’s all over, mate. You shouldn’t be eating this rubbish anyway”. Sadly, it was the second kind of “closed”. A typed-up sign on the front door elaborated a wee bit. It said something to the effect of “we thank our loyal customers for many years of business. Your smiling faces were a joy to us every day.” I’m paraphrasing, I couldn’t get a good photo of the sign as the tape on one corner gave way and the sign dangled away from the door, but it definitely used the term “smiling faces”, I can tell you that.

Well, this was a blow. Arby’s has been a special place in my life for almost as long as I can remember.

When I was a kid, my family, the four of us, would have season’s tickets to what was then called “Actor’s Showcase”. I think they call it “The Theatre for Young People” now or something. They even have their own theatre downtown, but back then we saw plays in a converted gas station in a part of town called “Osb0rne Village”. The plays were always on a Saturday afternoon, and I always looked forward to our play day. They happened about ever six weeks throughout the winter. We’d get down there a little bit early and poke through a couple of bookstores before making our way to the theatre. Afterwards, we always went out for supper as a family. We went to a variety of places: one favourite was this place called “Country Kitchen” on main street. The food was okay, but the REAL attraction was getting a seat near the window so we could watch the trains go by. In fact, alert readers of this blog will recall a story about my Mom vs. a particularly douchy Jaguar driver. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this incident took place after a supper of trainspotting at the Country Kitchen. My Dad liked trains as much as the rest of us, but whenever he got his pick, he would choose Arby’s.

Back in those days, there was only one Arby’s in town. My Mom was a saint, really, looking back on it. She didn’t really care for Arby’s at all, and the drive to the restaurant was a good half hour from the downtown, and yet  more often than not we ended up at Arby’s. After supper, I remember that warm, comforting feeling of being filled with Beef ‘n Cheddars and climbing into the back seat of our warm car and getting all cozy and falling asleep as the sun set and as we drove home.

I would always get a Beef ‘n Cheddar, my Dad would get a “Giant”, which was just a regular roast beef sandwich, but with twice the meat. I can’t honestly remember what my brother and my Mom had, they probably changed their order up from visit to visit, but it was always a Beef ‘n Cheddar for me and a Giant for my Dad. Curly fries for everyone. That goes without saying. They even had these deluxe baked potatoes that came with all kinds of crazy toppings and they came in these little domes that would steam up from the time you took your tray from the counter to your seat. I would quite often get a baked potato instead of curly fries. My favourite was the mushroom and swiss cheese option. In addition to the mushrooms and swiss cheese, the potato would be doused in butter and I would eat the whole damn thing, skin and all.

I can’t tell you exactly what it is about a Beef ‘n Cheddar that is so good, but I’ll try. It’s the softness of the onion bun, the gooey goodness of the cheese sauce, the tenderness of the slow roasted beef, and the sweet tang of the BBQ or “Arby’s” sauce. That’s it. Sounds simple, but try one and see if you don’t agree. Sometimes, I get a craving so strong, it’s ridiculous.

Although Arby’s in general holds a special place in my heart, this location in my old neighbourhood, this “closed without fanfare” location holds a particular special spot in my personal mythology. I still remember the day that the Arby’s opened in our neighbourhood. My Dad came home from work, all smiles. “Guess what’s going up in front of the hospital? GUESS! We don’t have to go to Transcona anymore! It’s an Arby’s!” It was the outline of the ten gallon hat that gave it away. We went on opening day, much to my Mom’s chagrin. We went there after church. We went there WAY more than we probably should.

My friend Ed worked in a comic book shop across the street from the Arby’s for many years, and on Sundays he was the only staff person in the building. It virtually became an unofficial “hang out” spot for me and my friends. We joked and we called it “The Eddie Show” because was like a late night talk show host, sitting behind his desk at the front of the store, and each of his friends would make their way over throughout the afternoon. “Who will be the first guest on the Eddie Show today?” was a common question. Whenever I made a guest appearance on “The Eddie Show”, you just KNOW I came with a greasy bag of curly fries and Beef  ‘n Cheddars for my best bud. They sometimes would have these crazy deals like “5 Beef ‘n Cheddars for $5”. I mean, Jesus, who is buying 5 Beef ‘n Cheddars at one time? That’s right: this guy. I remember showing up at “The Eddie Show” with the 5 in the bag and Ed saying, “You’re not planning on eating ALL of those here, are you?” Actually, I was, but I felt a bit guilty, so I gave Ed one.

As fate would have it, when I was hospitalized in my late teens for Depression, I was on the psych-ward in my neighbourhood hospital, a short walk from Arby’s. I didn’t take me long to figure out the morning routine. The breakfast carts would be wheeled onto the ward. We would eat and then we would line up for our morning meds. I learned to befriend the kitchen staff that would bring our breakfasts. I would ask them if they knew what was on the menu for lunch, and if it was something terrible, I would spend my morning trying to arrange a day pass so I could go out “for a walk” around 11:30 am and come back around 1:30 or 2. Reader, I’m not ashamed to say that this “walk” was a ruse and it would always lead me to the Arby’s.

Years later, I remember this one time when I was having a bad reaction to a new medication. Cold sweats, shakes, diarrhea, bad thoughts, you name it. I was anxiously pacing in the waiting room to see my psychiatrist when my then girlfriend (now my wife) showed up unexpectedly with a bag of (you guessed it!) Beef ‘n Cheddars. I know without a doubt in my mind that there is a time and a place for lithium, zoloft, paxil, and prozac. I also know that at that moment I don’t think I could have been any happier to see that familiar ten gallon hat logo on the side of that greasy brown bag. Oh, and my girlfriend too.

I remember a time about fifteen years ago when I received one of the worst phone calls you could probably ever imagine. It was my aunt, telling me that my beloved cousin, my favourite cousin, Cal, was driving home from up north with his wife and his two kids and some how he had driven off the road and flipped the car and was killed instantly. His wife sustained a broken leg and a dislocated shoulder, his 2-year-old son had a concussion and by the grace of God his eight month old son was not harmed at all……car seats.

We all gathered at my aunt and uncle’s house, stunned, as families do in moments of unspeakable tragedy. We were hoping the reports were wrong somehow, but they weren’t. I know that sometimes when you’re in shock and you are grieving you don’t feel much like eating. Not my family. My uncle Doug turned to me, and asked if I was getting hungry. I said I guess so, and he pulled some money out of his wallet and said, “Why do you go out and get some food for everyone?” So I did. It felt weird to be elevated to the status of “the guy who went and did things for my uncle”, because that was my cousin Cal’s job.

But I did it anyway, and without even thinking about it, I went to Arby’s.

I didn’t even take orders. I just got a bunch of Beef ‘n Cheddars, Philly Beef and Swisses, a few regulars, a “Giant” for my uncle (just like his brother), and a whole whack of curly fries. When I got back to the house, my awesome family sat down together and ate Arby’s in one of the darkest chapters of our collective family’s life. We figured out who was going to go up to Thompson to help with my cousin’s wife and kids, we started the impossible talk of planning a funeral for someone in his late 30’s, and even then, in our grief, we told stories. Our favourite stories of Cal. How Cal introduced me to the band U2 and gave me his cassette copy of “The Joshua Tree”, how Cal always made time to talk to you, was interested in what you were all about, was always wanting to talk about books, movies, tv shows. This sounds corny, I know, but somehow through sharing these stories over this impromptu family reunion Arby’s meal, I knew everything was going to be okay.

So yeah.

Arby’s has a weirdly special place in my heart, in my family’s personal mythology. I could go on. I could tell the story about how my wife and I visited an Arby’s in Marshall, Michigan and how they had fresh homemade iced tea in a ceramic cistern that you poured yourself. I could tell you about the time my Uncle Jack and Aunt Doris were driving back from Arizona and my Uncle Jack was wearing a ball cap in the Arby’s and my aunt (who can have a loud, commanding voice) shouted, “Jack, take that damn hat OFF!” and my uncle looked around the restaurant and saw four other guys take their hats off too. I could tell these stories, but I won’t. Otherwise we’ll be here all day. When I eat at an Arby’s, I think of my Dad, my cousin, my uncle, all lost to me now.

Sure, there’s still the one on the other end of town, and sure, there’s still one in the mall, but to see the neighbourhood location close, the one with so much history, without so much as a “last supper” opportunity is hard to take. As it turns out, my “last supper” at that location happened to be on Good Friday last year, before a viewing of Zoolander. The Beef ‘n Cheddars delivered, but sorry, fanbase, still not a Ben Stiller fan!

I got back in the car and drove on to the eye doctor’s appointment. As it turned out, my eyes passed “with flying colours” and I didn’t need new glasses anyway. When we broke this news to our daughter, she starting bawling right there in the show room. I almost said, “Come on. Cheer up. Let’s go get some Beef ‘n Cheddars,” but I caught myself. In a minute, I felt like bawling too.

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