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"Maeshe's Cafe Menu"

Library of America is publishing a new anthology, Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns, which has me intrigued. Though I admire LoA's mission, I'm not enough of a completist to want to own or read the entire works of a single author - I haven't even read everything Nelson Algren ever wrote, and the only LoA title I have is James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, which I've owned for years but have still read only the first book. But this new anthology is promising in that it seems to collect so many priceless pieces that would be difficult or even impossible to find elsewhere, which might be just enough for me to pick it up.

Thinking of newspaper columnists inevitably brings me back to Mike Royko, one of my biggest writer heroes. Here's a passage from "Maeshe's Cafe Menu", his 1977 tribute to a recently deceased Chicago restaurateur:

Maeshe, who passed on last week in the trunk of his car, used to run a restaurant called the H&H, on LaSalle Street, a couple of blocks north of City Hall.

Maeshe didn't go in for fancy decorations. His tables were in understated Formica. The only colors in the place were the varicose veins on the legs of his harried waitresses.

The cuisine was acceptable, if you fancy corned beef on rye, pickles, a bowl of borscht, and potato pancakes.

What made it popular was the atmosphere and the magnetic personality of Maeshe.

The distinctive atmosphere was provided by the lunchtime clientle, which included lawyers, judges, traffic court fixers, bondsmen, bailiffs, bagmen, aldermen and other Loop wildlife. Nobody ever talked above a whisper, for fear of being overheard and indicted. Many of the customers seemed to communicate solely by winking, nodding, and passing unmarked envelopes.

One day a waitress reached to pick up what she thought was a remarkably large tip. A judge gave her a karate chop on the wrist.

That wry phrase "...who passed on last week in the trunk of his car..." just kills me every time I remember it. "Maeshe's Cafe Menu" was included in Royko's long out-of-print Sez Who? Sez Me, but sadly not in either of his more recent University of Chicago Press anthologies.

October 30, 2011 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink