The first time I ever stepped up into Jack's Hot Dogs in North Adams, Massachusetts was fifty year ago this year. Can you believe your eyes and ears that the establishment is still in business? Yes it is.
In fact it may be one of the longest and enduring establishments in that dying slowly but surely Berkshire town, hard to admit for me as a native and as I recently roamed the streets with my true love. All my old haunts, except Jack's, are long gone. The shoe store, the clothing store, my mother's shoe store, my mother's clothing store, both movie theaters, the hardware store, my uncle Frank's lumberyard, where my father cut his own commercials at the local radio station for his lumberyard (Herb Alpert was the preferred music used as his theme), my dentist Doctor Greene, Lily's Music Shop where I bought my Dylan and Hendrix and Traffic and Led Zeppelin and Miles and where I looked a long time at Linda Ronstadt on an album cover sitting very pretty in a sty of pigs.
As we haunted up and down and sideways on the sidewalk these places and store fronts were vacant, boarded up, echoes. A few of the side alleys were still there like mountain passes and how I loved them as a kid and how I still love them as an old timer, taking my sweetheart by the hand and down an alley way we'd go, flushing out into a parking lot and the back door to a vintage Italian restaurant opens and an old woman sticks her head out having eye contact with us at the same time we land in the lot looking wildly about and she waves us over that it's okay to come into her establishment that way, through the kitchen back door, around the pots and pans, the hot grilles and spitting grease and the young workers surprised we're suddenly there and quickly moving out to the front where there is no one at all but a sunny picture window and old tables with a fake flower vase at the center. How not to sit down? We sit. Order two pizza slices. The woman who invited us in serves us like it's a full course meal, she knows best, she's old town, disciplined, worked all her life, reminds me of my Irish aunts once down the road in Adams, except she is fully Italian. All gone. I'm in that moment.
There was a fish market on a side street up a hill in North Adams where my mother and I would stop on the incline and my mother would jerk up the emergency brake and leave me with the words she'd be back in a minute, and she almost was, with a roll of fish n' chips sopped in good grease of the newspaper, and we'd eat it all right there in the car where we sat. The town spread out before us through the windshield.
All gone but Jack's. The smallest restaurant I believe Sweetheart has ever been in and she loves it. Loves me. There's a short counter and maybe ten stools, it's all too small to count. Why bother? You're in a heavenly nest of short order cooks behind the counter grabbing orders as soon as you arrive, plunk down, and before you know it at 3 in the afternoon all the stools are taken. The guy next to me orders four hotdogs, two hamburgers, and a plate of french fries topped with a plate of onion rings. He's scrawny and thin. Eats this pile like he's lucky. No doubt a regular. Once you find and try Jack's you become a regular. The prices will set you back on your heels — a hot dog for $1.20. Hamburger the same. The fries are ridiculously nasty, ridiculously tasty and ridiculously cheap. A glass of Coke is 75 cents and the glass, I swear, is the same size glass used in my junior high school cafeteria just down the road from here. Except that school is also gone, as is my elementary school across the narrow street. Pulverized. Disappeared. The great oak floors that snapped and buckled and gleamed.
Sit on the stool and watch the world of Jack's work. Two guys man the grille and the orders and a third guy is thumbing through receipts. His 'desk' is the narrow counter you're chowing down on. He's a foot from me, leaning over making meticulous on the orders and today's earnings. I stood up a moment curious as ever because I see a door in the back corner to somewhere and stick my head into another closet size space dark with an ATM machine and maybe two pinball or game machines. It looks ancient. Spooky. Sweetheart guards my stool with her hand or else it will be swiped by the next hunger artist.
There's a window that looks out where the cook does his magic but it's worthless with steam, grime and smeared sunshine. We're on the greatest side street in North Adams once known for bakeries and side dives and antique stores and other restaurants. You can walk up the street, jump across and hurdle the intersection of traffic coming out of Vermont and more Massachusetts, sidewind around a parking lot of a grocer's and come to Mass MOCA, the intellectual of the town. If the powers that be there haven't yet drawn together the vintage artwork and flavor of Jack's Hot Dogs and put it up on display in their museum as a supreme example of local-yokel, some one is missing their beat. Where Mass MOCA is was exactly where Sprague Electric was when I was a kid. You can walk through the museum and forget the artwork for the first visit and just admire and be overwhelmed by the original architecture of the former factory's massive wooden beams. I used to deliver sheetrock into this building with my cousin Alan. Two flights up. Heavy work.
I came for my first hot dog in 1965 off a lumber truck delivery with my co-worker Big John, a Polish monster lumberjack I drove hundreds of deliveries with between 1962-1969. I was the kid in the passenger seat, conservationist, know-it-all, and helping hand. John liked to eat. Eat big. He could just fit through the only door to the place, and in the summer it was a screen door.