Meet us at Cristo's

Image by Ande_Hazel from Pixabay

“Meet us at Cristo’s!” How many times did I say that or hear it from one of my friends when we were teenagers?  It’s long gone now, but the greasy spoon was a place where we shared dreams and made memories.

It was casual, clean and cozy, with cartoon decals of steaming hot dogs and hamburgers on the plate-glass windows. There was no flashy, neon sign; just the restaurant name in yellow lettering on the front door.  Inside, white, paper tablecloths covered small, square wooden tables scattered around the room. Four wooden chairs that squawked against the floor when we slid them out were placed at each table.

As teenagers, we ran as a pack so the first thing we did when we got to Cristo’s was to push a few tables together and crowd around them. There we could stay for hours, talking about everything and nothing as only young people can. Whether after school or a last stop after a night out, Cristo’s was where we could be found.

Spiros and Jimmy were the two young Greek men who owned and ran the place, neither of whom spoke much English. Spiros waited tables. He was slim and lithe, with dark eyes, and a lock of straight, black hair that flopped onto his forehead. He always wore a white apron tied at the waist over dark trousers, a white shirt and a scowl. The scowl gave him gave him a certain appeal, a hint of rebellion bubbling close to the surface, and he was just handsome enough to get away with it. Sometimes my friend, Benny, would get it into his head to make Spiros smile. I don’t know how he did it, but he often succeeded.

Jimmy, the other owner, couldn’t have been more different. Round and smiling, with black hair that waved away from his face, he was a Greek version of the Pillsbury Dough Boy (minus the pastry chef hat). He was always behind the counter, either at the grill or the cash.  He knew we would stay for hours and never spend a lot of money but he always greeted us with a warm smile.  And he made the best fries.

They were freshly-made, not those sickly-looking, frozen, matchstick fries that try to pass for the real thing. Jimmy’s were a perfect, crispy golden-brown on the outside with pale, piping-hot, white flesh on the inside.  We would watch him lift the fry basket out of the hot oil, then pile the fries into white porcelain bowls.  Spiros would swoop by the counter, pick up the bowls and drop them unceremoniously in front of us.  

Some of my friends sprinkled fine grains of white salt on them. Others reached for the old-fashioned, glass vinegar bottle and generously squirted some on their fries. Not me. It was the plastic ketchup packets that I reached for.  After making a diagonal cut in the corner of a small packet, I squeezed it gently from the bottom, carefully and methodically placing a tiny pearl of bright red ketchup on each and every fry. When I was done, it was a work of art. 

Sometimes after eating we’d order coffee. To be honest, it wasn’t very good, but it gave us a reason to linger a little longer. Then, reluctantly, we’d head for our respective homes, having had our daily fill of good friends, good fries and mediocre coffee, until we met up again the next day.

Trick or Treat Recollections

Trying to stay patient weeks before

While shopping with the kids for costumes

Only to get home and my daughter wails,

“But I wanted to be a pirate!”

“You’re a girl,” answers my son,

Dressed in his pirate costume.

“ You can’t be a pirate.”

“She can be a pirate,” I reply.

“But this year she chose to be a skeleton.”

Buying enough candy for the neighbourhood kids.

Turning a pumpkin into a jack-o’-lantern

With a candle in its gutted centre

Lighting up its grin.

Rushing home after work for a quick dinner.

Arguments about warm clothes under costumes.

Walking through the darkened streets

Filled with witches, goblins and monsters.

Coming home with kids on a sugar high

Sorting candy, then getting them off to bed

Before crashing on the couch to watch TV

With one mini candy bar from each child.

Gawd, I miss it!

Phantom Memory

Last weekend our living room window was open and sweet sounds of summer floated into the house: kids laughing as they rode their bikes down the street, the distant hum of a lawnmower and music from a neighbour’s backyard party.

Then I heard the rhythmic sound of a ball hitting asphalt:  Thump, thump, pause. Thump, thump, pause. A new family just moved in next door and a portable basketball net had appeared at the end of their driveway. I couldn’t see him from my living room, but I knew the young boy was playing .  Again and again, I heard thump, thump, pause. I imagined him dribbling, closing in on the net for a lay-up shot. During the pause, I pictured his feet leaving the ground as he jumped and deftly dunked the ball into the basket. I could see his satisfied smile as he heard the whisper of the ball slipping through the net and into his waiting hands. And those few seconds of sound and images prompted a phantom memory.

In that memory, my kids and I are playing basketball on a warm summer evening. Portable nets had just hit the market when they were young and a brand new one sits close to the street in our driveway. We are having a contest to see who can sink the most baskets. Then we play – we face off against each other, dribble the ball and shoot for the net. But it’s the sounds I remember most. The laughter and the shouting of directions like “Block him!”  The cheering when the ball went through the net.  And, of course, the sound of the leather ball hitting the asphalt:  thump, thump, pause. We played until the sun became a flaming ball sinking into the western sky, turning daylight to dusk.

It’s a phantom memory because it never happened. The real memory is of a little voice inside me urging me to buy a basketball net. It was met with the voice of reason that came up with endless arguments not to buy it: The cost, for one, when there were already clothes to buy for growing kids, braces for their teeth, school supplies plus registration and equipment for the sports they were already enrolled in. How often would we really play considering those other team sports they were involved in?  And on, and on it went. Reason won out and I never bought the net.

I have beautiful, real memories of birthdays, crisp fall afternoons watching my son play football, hot summer evenings on the sidelines of my daughter’s soccer game, graduations and more. The phantom memory might be more of a wish for one more precious moment in time captured and preserved. I’ll never know but if I had to do it all again, I’d listen to that little voice.