Brian Burrows was a shrimp.
I mean, we were ten, eleven, twelve years old
In 1965 but even on a team of guys
Not yet ready for puberty, he was small,
Tiny as a mascot or an honorary batboy.
We had to sell Critchley’s Candies for the Little League,
Good stuff, sheets of green-colored mint
Surrounded by thin skins of chocolate, but no one
Was buying, even though we were canvassing
House-to-house in our Flash Cleaners uniforms,
Which you could get washed for a discount at Flash Cleaners.
When we met back at the corner, no one had made a sale.
“They’re all cheapies,” Brian declared.
So, my father drove us across the river
To Rutt’s Hut, where we waylaid the Saturday workers
Coming out after a couple of dogs and a beer.
The parking lot at Rutt’s was huge,
A wraparound on three sides built
On an abutment over Route 21,
A kind of luxurious balcony over the Passaic River.
I guess real estate was cheaper in 1928
When Rutt’s opened, allowing a parking lot
As generous in scale as the ones at Sea World or Disneyland.
It hasn’t changed any, either. Neither
Has the roadhouse, a ram shack
With no windows, odd for a restaurant,
Unless it had originally been a whorehouse
Or a speakeasy, which it could have been in those Prohibition days.
Inside, Rutt’s sprawls through several environments.
There’s a bar with a bunch of tables, in case you need to be close to the booze.
Then a dining room behind a porous wall and, separately,
A to-go operation where they shout back your order
In some strange jack-tommy argot and there are more tables,
Tables to stand at this time. Linoleum floors
And fakewood walls complete the décor. It’s cash only.
There’s a logic to Rutt’s that predates credit cards and 911.
A sign by a bell says if bell sounds, call the fire department.
Since there are no windows, it still smells like 1965,
A static waft made up of old farts
And the fumes from ancient shots and beers.
Rutt’s lives on for its fried hot dogs,
Called rippers because they rip in the hot grease.
If you want to go long you can ask for wellers,
Which are even better acquainted with the grease.
Milk for the coffee comes in an oversized shotglass
And is rarely filled more than halfway, waste not.
The place won best hot dog in America three years running.
I had a blind date at Rutt’s once. This was back
When you had to answer personals by mail.
I’m a writer; I did pretty well at this.
When I called, the woman she said she was from Clifton.
The only place I know in Clifton is Rutt’s, I said.
I love that place, she said. Let’s meet there.
And we did. And though I didn’t make the sale,
She told me she had gotten two hundred letters,
So I guess getting to meet her was like
Being nominated for an Oscar, an honor
Even if you don’t win.
Rutt’s is the kind of place where people always tell the truth.
The glimpse of the river from the parking lot balcony,
The sweetness of the mint, is why I keep coming back.
If you don’t get the rippers or the wellers,
You can get one of Rutt’s Blue Plates.
Corned beef and cabbage, boiled potato.
Brisket and red cabbage, potato pancake.
Soul food from 1965, a blue-plate year
When no one had yet conceived of
Tiny portions of food designed into geometric shapes.
My Mom, God bless her, taught me not to play with my food.
Flash Cleaners sucked the three years Brian and I played,
But the hard Passaic winds that buffeted the field got us ready to be men.
Critchley’s Candies is still in existence. Started in 1957, it is located at 812 Kinderkamack Road, River Edge, NJ. A box of chocolate mints is $12.98. Flash Cleaners is still at 43 Meadow Road, Rutherford, NJ. Jack Tommy: short order argot for grilled cheese and tomato. Jim DeLillo sent me some Critchley’s Mints after we had lunch at Rutt’s; this poem is dedicated to him.
Blog – http://redwheelbarrowpoets.org
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/RWBPoets
Twitter – https://twitter.com/RWBPoets