Saturday, May 30, 2015

Private Art

It was still an hour's driving time to Cleveland when I decided to stop and get gas and something to eat.  I was less than 40 miles away, but as the day got closer to noon, the traffic on the two lane state highway got steadily worse, so I decided to stop and eat while I could.  Besides, I was hungry and would rather eat lunch in a small town restaurant than in one of the endless number of franchise restaurants that Cleveland would offer.

Years ago, I had met a retired couple who were crisscrossing the country in a motorhome.   We were on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, and they wanted directions to a McDonalds for lunch.  They said they ate lunch at the hamburger chain every day, no matter where they happened to be.  "That way," the man said, "we always know what we are going to get."

While I really couldn't argue with his logic, it did seem to kind of negate the need for travel.  Why not just park that bus in the parking lot of their hometown hamburger stand and save the gas money?  I suppose this was their way of seeing America, and could easily picture them at every national park telling each other, "It's so real, it looks just like TV."

I stopped for gas, and the attendant there suggested that I eat at a small diner just a few miles farther down the road towards Cleveland, in the village of Chagrin Falls. 

"It's called the Fresh Start Diner, right in the center of town.  You can't miss it; it borders the town plaza and is just across the street from the gazebo.  Great food, the best service you've ever had, but don't eat the chili."

"What's wrong with the chili?" I asked.  "And how do you know the service is the best I've ever had?"

"With your Texas accent, I'll bet you're not gonna like cinnamon in your chili.  As for the service, well, a few years ago, some local guy who ate there every day left one of the waitresses a half-million dollars in his will."

With such a ringing endorsement, I had to try the place, and as it turned out, it really was easy to find.  There was ample parking along the edges of the tree-lined plaza, and it wasn't hard to find the stained glass windows of the diner that was adjacent to the pharmacy.  Stepping inside, I found a cheerful little diner with maple furniture, Norman Rockwell prints on the wall, and the aroma of freshly ground coffee.

I took a table near one of the windows and looked over a menu.  Sure enough, there was something called "Cincy-Style Chili."  I ordered the Portobello sandwich on homemade bread and settled back to enjoy the coffee.  My plan was to eat healthy for lunch, so tonight, once I had reached Cleveland, I could pig out at the Great Lakes Brewery.  I wasn't going to count the calories, but I was sure a little self-control now would cancel out the beers I planned on consuming at the microbrewery. 

Most of the diners' patrons appeared to be locals: there were a lot of people in jeans and work shirts, some of whom had name tags that showed they worked at the nearby hardware store or the bank.  Evidently, I was eating where the locals did—always a good sign. 

After a while, I couldn't help noticing the man sitting next to me.  He was about my age, tall, thin, and with a salt and pepper mustache.  Eating alone, he was just finishing off what looked like a Reuben sandwich, and like me, he was finishing off what had turned out to be an excellent cup of coffee.

The man picked up his coffee cup, drained it, and then looked at the inky black coffee that was left in the bottom of his saucer.  Carefully placing his cup down next to his plate, he dipped an index finger into the cold coffee of the saucer, and began to slowly sketch a design on the maple table top. 

On the wall next to my table was a framed newspaper clipping about the waitress inheriting a half million dollars from a customer who was impressed by her pleasant nature and excellent service.  It turned out the story was true, but it was a little over twenty years old, and when it had happened, the restaurant had been named Dinks.  This had to be one of the largest tips in restaurant history.

Just as I was finishing the article, the waitress—who was pleasant, but not quite worth a tip larger than a few thousand dollars—brought my food.  I asked for Tabasco sauce for the fries, and got that look you always get when you ask for hot sauce anywhere north or east of Louisiana.  A few months earlier, when my job had taken me to Maine, I had discovered people who put vinegar on their fries, and once in New York, I had stopped in a town where they served fries with Thousand Island Dressing, and though I had never seen it myself, a friend of mine swore that in France he had been served Freedom Fries with mayonnaise.  By comparison, in my opinion, a little Cajun catsup is as normal as church on Sunday.

The next time I looked up from my food, the guy sitting next to me was fairly well along with his doodling.  He seemed lost in concentration as he repeatedly dipped his finger into the saucer, then traced and retraced his drawing.  The waitress came by to refill my coffee, and I expected her to say something to the man, but she just smiled at him, silently refilled his cup and walked off.

It was kind of a delicate problem, I wanted to see what the man was drawing, but at the same time, it would certainly be rude to stand up and stare over his shoulder.  So, I pretended to be drinking my coffee while I used my peripheral vision to watch the artwork.  I was straining my eyes so hard, they hurt, but I still couldn't quite make out what he was drawing.  I could tell there might be the outlines of two men, but I couldn't tell what they were doing. 

Suddenly, the man finished his drawing, sat back in his chair and smiled at his work.  Fishing into his pocket, he pulled out his wallet, tucked a few bills under the rim of his plate, then got up and left the diner.  As soon as he had left, I stood up and moved over to the table and looked down at what he had been drawing.

I was shocked!  I knew exactly what the drawing was—everyone knew what this drawing was, even though no one had seen a new cartoon by this man in over twenty years.  What I had thought were two men, turned out to be a small boy and his best friend, a striped tiger, dancing together.   Their simple message of joy was clear and needed no words.

I think I looked at the drawing for about a minute before I realized what this drawing was worth—big money.  I couldn't preserve it, as it was evaporating even while s I was looking at it—but, I could take a picture of it!  My cell phone was in my hand and...

I knew who that man was, and I knew that people said it was easier to see Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster than to actually meet him.  And I knew that he had never merchandized his work, not authorizing a single product based on his creations—even though this had meant he had turned his back on a fortune.  The profit on licensing just a stuffed tiger would have been worth millions—maybe tens of millions of dollars—but the artist had always refused, saying that he wanted to totally control his own work. 

I put the camera back in my pocket, without having taken a single picture.  As I stood looking at the cartoon, trying to memorize it and fix it into my mind, the waitress came and quietly stood beside me.   For what felt like a long time, but in reality was probably only a minute or so, we enjoyed our own private art show, what was for just a little while, a masterpiece owned by just the two of us.

"That was..." I started to say, but the waitress interrupted me.

"I didn't see him," she said.  "No one in this town ever sees him.  This is his home town, you know."  Then she turned back to the table, picked up the bills tucked under the plate, and began to wipe down the table with a napkin.

As I went back to my table, it dawned on me that the service in this diner really was exceptional.  After all, this was the second time that someone had left a half million dollar tip.

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