Timothy Chardfeld was in a bustling diner just west of La Brea, on the Sunset Strip. It was in the questionable seedy area, where one could get a late night burger, but might also end up with an 8-ball of meth, or a solicitation for unprotected sex. The amber sodium vapor lights of the Ralph’s were just enough to keep him from potentially getting mugged, but it was the shadowy strips of darkness, in between, that he would worry about later, when walking home, alone, on a full stomach.
But for now, even at quarter ’til midnight, the diner was abuzz with activity. Everything from a punk rock band who had just finished their last set, before heading to an after party, to well-dressed, non-binary hipster couples wearing flannel and man buns, on their last stop before night of “Netflix and chill”. The average crowd, though, was middle aged, bordering geriatric, Hollywood. Disgraced actors, former studio execs now pedaling how-to books, or screenwriters that never truly had made it, but whose scripts had been optioned enough times to just keep them afloat. That is the exact category Tim fell in. In this town, appearance was everything. That meant leasing a car you could never afford to own, staying in a shitbox in the valley, so you could afford said car, and eating out at chic diners every night, in the hopes you would run into some industry insider and strike up a conversation. Although this rarely happened, it was the hope of every single person in town; rarer still was the elusive 3-picture deal. To get that you had better look like Scarlett Johansson, and expect to give something in return away in the parking lot fin exchange or your chance at a pitch meeting. It was depressing, and it was that wave of depression that now hung over Tim’s shoulder like a wrecking ball over a glass baby carriage.
Tim had noticed some stuff on the menu, he had never even seen in his over twenty years in Los Angeles, nor anywhere on the West coast for that matter. He had ordered up double helpings of Potatoe pancakes, cottage cheese and cabbage pierogis, a side of kielbasa, and birch beer in a bottle. These were tastes of Polish Pennsylvania Dutch country he had experienced over various summers living with his grandparents just outside of Wilkes-Barre.
As he slathered the pancake with a dollop of heavy sour cream, his teeth made an audible crunching noise as they bit into the golden brown edges. The first trickle of grease sent his tastebuds into an explosive culinary orgasm and his mind immediately began to be flooded with nostalgic images of a life he had not known for over thirty-five years. Suddenly the obnoxious laughter of the restaurant goers, the clinking of plates and glasses, and even the stale cigarette smoke wafting in from the adjacent bar, simply dissipated into thin air.
Timothy once again found himself seated at the tiny round card table that served as the place of so many memories , in the tiny kitchen of his grandparent’s home at 60 Chestnut Street in East Plymouth. The triple story duplex had been large and magical for a 6 year old, and it had emblazoned memories so deep, that Timmy still dreamt about them for years to come. It was deeply ingrained in this psyche. He remembered every stick of furniture… every painting… and details down to the wallpaper and paint schemes. It was truly magical. The small sized and half-hidden door behind the refrigerator led to a rickety old stairwell that connected one side of the basement to the basement of the other side, where his Grandmother’s brother had lived. It was like something right out of a Hardy Boy or Nancy Drew mystery, and no doubt led to Timmy’s love of the dark and the opening of more than one competition-grade horror script.
The irony was that to by today’s standards, especially the lactose and gluten free, vegan-obsessed LA, his grandparent’s diets were anything but, yet they both lived well into their nineties. It was these things which he remembered the most… Fresh milk and cottage cheese, delivered in bottles every morning, greasy fried chicken, pigs in the blanket, and a diet high in fat and fried foods. Sicilian squared pizza, at least twice a week, polish sausage with buckets of butter and fired onions… And OMG, the sweets! Birch beer, Sarsaparilla and the Nectar of the Gods: Cream Soda… picked up in tall glass litter bottles in wooden crates, once every week. Coconut rolls, licorice sticks, Tastykakes, pies and even poppyseed rolls. Although California had joined the Weed-420 craze of recent years, there was a time when even if he had found it, he would have had to decline, for fear of a mandatory random drug test. Not as a kid though. It seemed back then everything was allowed… He never counted calories or thought about blood pressure and heart disease. And no one batted an eye when he drank his first MGD at a party when he was just twelve. After all, he was surrounded by his parents and aunts and uncles… Certain things were acceptable and unspoken, your first beer among family, was one of them. Smoking, not that he had ever desired to, could come later. In these parts coal miners had grown up smoking when they were elementary school-aged and never stopped, yet relatively few of them seemed to die of lung cancer. It was all mind boggling now as an adult. His own Pop Pop, had smoked a pipe full of either Sir Walter Raleigh (in a can), or his all-time favorite, cherry tobacco, his entire life. Everything in the home, the cellar and the old Plymouth Dart smelled like it, and it was lovely.
And oh, the coal banks! They loomed like a multitude of mini-Mount Everest, towering over the back yards of the white-panel sided homes that dotted the valley and riverside. In the winter, when it snowed, they would create beautiful checker board patterns on their peaks, where the snow had dusted the top layers of rock, like a fine powdered sugar. Tim remembered, too, the many times he and his friends would climb up them to get a better view of the Susquehanna, but would get beaten to within an inch of their lives when they got home. Parents and Grandparents, like his, weren’t as concerned about the fine layer of soot that would cover their Sunday’s best, as much as they were about their kids getting trapped into the air pockets that coal banks often formed. This often led to quicksand like situations, where one errant step and a child could be buried in a literal mountain of coal. If a kid went missing in these parts, it was presumed he or she was victim of such a misstep. Those were much more common in the community than the pedophiles or serial killers we seemed to fear today.
Speaking of community, the place was literally modeled after old school “old-country” Slavic villages of Europe. Every person knew every kid and every family’s last name was well known amongst everyone else. They knew your routines, your background, whenever there was a birth of a new baby on the family tree, what church (and mandatory church bazaar) you went to, where you played pinnacle tournaments, which beer garden the one bad-seed uncle frequented on drinking binges at, and whose families had priests, cops or mob members. It was old school like that, and even as just as a child Timmy had missed it.
As Timothy took a note of a cabbage pierogi, the “Maya” of his present surroundings again melted away like the sour cream on his tongue… Once again he found himself at the large and mysterious house back on Chestnut. He remembered the countless fishing trips with his grandfather. Finding fatty nightcrawlers the day before, and getting up at 4AM for the long and creepy journey in the fog to Moon Lake. He remembered the compost heap his grandfather had in his garden where any leftovers went (not that there were many) to help feed his prize winning tomato plants. Rabbits and the rare albino skunk sitings were always a treat. He remembered trips on ramshackle amusement rides and the pontoon boats of Harvey’s Lake, without having to sign any waivers. Timothy just couldn’t stop thinking about how different things were now. He thought about how they would burn the trash once a week, in the shale of the creek bed just across from the house. Everyone did it. There was no concerns of environmental impact of even fire breaking out; It was just how things were done, and although in hindsight probably not the best idea, it certainly seemed like simpler times.
Kids used to be able to go out on their own, and be adventurous. God knows that certainly electronic devices, and not even video games, were around back then. Tim remembered being alone in the woods about half a mile from his grandparents’ house. He had stumbled upon several tall, weathered and black-mold-covered tombstones out in the woods. Most inscriptions were illegible, but dated back between 100-200 years. They had been overgrown with weeds and trees, even when Timothy was a child, so they were probably completely abandoned nowadays. But no one ever spoke of it, it was one of the endearing mysterious of childhood, back in the day. He was allowed to ride his bike in the street, crest it down steep hills and even wreck it on occasion. Back then, it seemed, life lessons were learned on your own terms and no one was going to mollycoddle you or give you a debriefing. It simply was known that when cars came you got off onto the grass, or if you were playing streetball, there was always lookouts on both sides ready to scream ‘CAR!” to the group. The occasional skateboard or bike-induced sprained arm, back eye, or leg break was an earned badge of honor, not a stigma of incompetent parenting.
Neighbors seemed to know each other, everywhere. Even though there was the occasional quiet vet suffering from PTSD — something no one even knew about back then —, who stayed to himself or didn’t talk much, it was still fine to mingle in the community. If someone invited kids in for lemonade or the grandma down the street offered freshly baked mulberry pie to some kids, in exchange for washing her windows, no eyebrows were raised. Kids didn’t worry about things like razor blades in Halloween candy or weirdos in “rape vans”; It simply wasn’t that kind of community.
Even though Tim abhorred the precepts of the Catholic Church in his adulthood, especially with the child molestation charges, he didn’t back then. Everyone seemed to be religious, and said their prayers at night to protect their family. Hymnals were sung with conviction, every meal was prefaced by a blessing, and Church was more about community, rather than Fear of God or retribution. He missed those times, even if it was a blind faith, and honestly wished he could escape the bitter embattled aggressiveness of social media, and opposing political parties, that was so rampant today.
Even news seemed different. Dan Rather clearly identified the global bad guys. Tragedy was exactly that, and their seemed to be no hidden agendas or conspiracy theories. You either meant to do harm or good, at least in Timmy’s naive young eyes. Entertainment was Lawrence Welk and Walt Disney, and as much as adult Timmy loved to see Cardi B’s kidneys, and was all for female empowerment, there was no question as to what was directly meant for childhood consumption back then. Everything now seemed so convoluted and multifaceted now. The simple days of seeing things through a child’s eyes were over.
The thought of having children now, brought Timmy back to adult Timothy. He once again was quagmired in the raucous cacophony of the diner’s midnight patrons. Suddenly his grandfather’s cherry tobacco that had filled his senses during his reminiscent daydream, was met with the harsh realty of over-salted foods and the body odor of late night club goers. Timothy was just at that age where he probably was too old to have children, but had always truly wanted some. His life choices had dictated otherwise. In a world where Kardashian-proportioned Instagram models chose sugar daddies, based on their stock portfolio, he as a struggling writer could never find a wife here in LA. And God forbid having children. The Earth was going to shit, political rivals were on the verge of uprisings and civil wars, and humanity seemed at an all time low. If mass murders, race wars, pandemics and alien invasions didn’t kill them, they would manage to kill each other first. He had chosen his career above all else, and now had to deal with the repercussions of his self-centeredness, for better of for worse.
Timothy took one last bite of the still-warm potatoe pancake left on his plate. For a millisecond, wisps of cherry tobacco and fried chicken swirled around his head. He washed it back with the last swig of birch beer. Mutual of Omaha was introducing a TV program in the living room, the adults were setting up a round of gin rummy, and all was right with the world.
Then like a hard slap to the face, a barley 25 year old waitress, who already had botox injections and butt implants, approached Timothy’s table. “Can I get you anything else Mr. Chardfeld”, she asked. She returned the check with red-inked bubble shaped hearts as her colored contact lenses became as wide as saucers. “Maybe interest you in our taste of home, apple pie?” The, once gain, cynical adult Timothy conjectured she probably had a least one script or headshot she wanted to lay on him.
Timothy’s head drooped a little as the words escaped her well sculpted, and enzyme-injected, lips. He simply shook his head in a polite “no”. That ship had already sailed; He thought internally.
Maybe someday in the future he would get back to his Mom Mom and Pop Pop’s old magical house, but he knew in his heart-of-hearts that that was probably a bad idea, which would only ruin the experience forever.
Some things were just better left as memories. Besides, he had to do a script pass on some of the Studio’s notes. If he was lucky, it might get optioned, and he could come back and visit those potato pancakes and that cherry tobacco once again, sometime soon.