Seriously, is there anything more American than the cheeseburger? Sure, we have hot dogs, baseball, and apple pie … but we live on cheeseburgers.
Our family lived in Ferguson Missouri for thirty something years. Yes, that Ferguson. No, not the Ferguson you have read about in the media, which is a conversation for another day, because today we are talking cheeseburgers, dive bars, and the characters that form the personality of those bars.
The Golden Greek’s was a bar and grill on the corner of S. Florissant Road and Paul Avenue, housed in a turn of the century brick building. The front door was set back from that intersection at a 45-degree angle to those streets. I don’t recall anyone ever entering through that front door unless they were returning from a smoke break. I parked and went in through the side entrance, like everyone else.
Nobody would accuse Golden Greeks of being a “Fern Bar.” It maintained a degree of cleanliness just above a level to avoid any serious letters from the health department. The wall behind the bar contained a potpourri of inspirational quotes like; “In God we trust, all others pay cash,” and “Life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.”
If you wanted a glass of wine, you were in the wrong bar. They kept a small stock of Sutter mini bottles for those few customers silly enough to order wine at the Greek’s.
As you sat at the bar the large walk-in fridge with its antique brass hardware was on the right. The kitchen was on the far left of the building. Efficiency experts were not a thing at the turn of the century. The layout did, however, provide the patrons at the bar with a sneak preview of the goods being delivered to the kitchen. Periodically someone from the kitchen would walk behind the bar, into the fridge, and emerge with a platter containing a heaping mound of ground chuck. This was not a collection of perfectly formed beef circles of an identical thickness, unloaded from the back of a Sysco truck. That mound of raw meat was the foundation for some of the best burgers in the region, soon to be formed by human hands before being tossed onto the ancient griddle. The patties were often misshapen, of inconsistent weight, but consistently tasty.
Any good dive bar should also provide a group of entertaining regulars, and the Greek’s was no exception. It didn’t matter which night I was on hand for take-out, the cast of characters remained constant. Two or three off duty postal workers, still in uniform. A couple of mature ladies, who in my imagination were retired roller derby players, broad of shoulder, muscular, and always attired in jeans and flannel no matter the season, and several construction workers wearing the makeup of drywall dust. The most interesting though were the two who blurred the lines between employees and customers, Carol, and Chico.
I was never sure of Chico’s specific job duties at the Greek’s, he worked some in the kitchen, did various odd jobs and his bartending was limited to twisting the tops off beer bottles. Chico was Hispanic, Mexican to be precise. I know this because I overhear Chico telling another patron as he laughed, “All those people who say Mexican’s are hardworking, well they never met me.” From Chico’s stories he was on a first name basis with every police office in Ferguson. He walked a fine line between being a productive citizen and incarceration, but his laugh was infectious.
Carol worked days and moved back and forth from the kitchen to behind the bar as needed. Her shift ended at 5:30 and that’s when she moved from one side of the bar to the other, switching roles and becoming a customer rather than a bartender. Carol was of medium everything; height, weight, build, hair, and face. She could have disappeared into any crowd, anywhere and not be noticed. The only thing not medium about Carol was the ease of her life.
Dropping in 3 or 4 times a month for take-out did not qualify me to be a regular. I rarely joined in any conversations, I was content to be a listener and observer to this wonderful kaleidoscope of humanity swirling around me.
One Friday night I took a seat two stools removed from Carol. She was deep into customer mode at that point. She was engaged in conversation with Billy, one of the regular construction workers. Carol was relating stories of the cruelties inflicted on her by her ex-husband. She described how he would push her up against a wall and hold an unloaded pistol to her head while he pulled the trigger. Billy nodded sympathetically while Carol paused, taking a sip of her beer, before continuing. “You know the funny thing is,” she said calmly and matter-of-factly, “That was the same gun I shot him with.”
The Golden Greek’s has been closed for years now and we have moved to another county. Over the years I’ve learned to make a decent burger at home. My secret is using a super-hot cast iron skillet to quickly sear the burgers. They aren’t bad, but I still miss the cheeseburgers from the Greek’s … but not as much as I miss the stories and the characters.