by Jevon Allen
“Order anything you want on the menu…..” I knew how the rest of this sentence was conditioned but it was still fun to look at everything on the menu before I ordered the Hogan Burger. I knew that I was just going to tell the waitress, who very well could have been my mother if it wasn’t for her Master in Fine Arts, the same order that I have only ever ordered here. We didn’t go out much, if ever. If we did, it was never a chain restaurant. We went to the tiny Hogan’s Hideaway tucked back behind the local grocery. It all depended on how much money was left over in the “Extra” envelope once the bills were paid and at the end of that month.
My mother who was then known as “Sugar” was recently divorced, recently a new house owner, recently a working single mother and recently in over her head in general. This was not how she planned her life to be. She was dubbed Sugar as a child because she, the last of five kids was brought up in rich family in Westchester, outside of New York City. She was given her mother’s name Janice but her black nanny called her Brown Sugar because she tanned up in summer unlike her other siblings of that Irish/German family, and she was as sweet as sugar. After getting her first full time job since her divorce, she now went by her confirmation name of Maura. At her first interview, a grown man ask if he should call her Sugar, “Maura. You can call me Maura.” She decided then and there. Her once useless middle name was called into service.
Maura was able to find a good teaching gig at a private school which was wonderful in many ways except for the pay which was about half of public school teacher’s. She landed the job because she had an MFA from Florence, Italy. It was her father’s dying wish that she fulfilled her dream to do so. He died in her arms at the age of 19 not with those words in his mouth, but sick from recovering from a hangover. It was her job to nurse him back to health from such events since they were buddies and the others were jealous of how close they were. She performed mouth to mouth on him unsuccessfully and lost him, lost everything. Known still at that time as Sugar, she still went to Italy in a state of shock and buried herself in her artwork. Her world was destroyed, so she painted. Sugar didn’t go out. She didn’t make friends. She painted. She painted the world that she wanted to live in.
She was fortunate enough to meet a man at the bank who believed in her and gave her a house load and wasn’t going to let him down. Maura came up with a system to manage her funds and pay her mortgage which she was so proud of being able to get and scared of losing that she paid that first. As soon as her paycheck came, she cashed it. Her bank account was teetering on the edge of collapse for years.
She divided the money up into envelopes with the different utilities and purposes on them in pen and in pencil the total that they came to the previous month. She opted to have her taxes taken out first so she would be surprised by them come April. She was the kind of person who used to do all of her school assignments the day they were assigned and hand them in the next day. This proactiveness paid off and shown now.
Well, she had to this if she was going to raise three kids on less than $900 a month back in 1982. She needed a system and it worked. Once the mortgage was paid, there wasn’t but a couple hundred left over. That money went into the envelopes. They were ordered by priority. This being Upstate New York, RG&E was the first. Yes, we were lucky enough to buy the house from someone that put in one of the only wood burning stoves into a house in downtown. It was a gigantic monster of a wood burning stove, bigger than I have ever to see and equal. It had huge pipes wrapped around it that acted simultaneously as supports and heat tubes making it look like a V10 airplane engine in the corner of the dining room. The previous owner had luckily left a supply of old wood. I was put in charge of stacking the wood, stoking the fires and shoveling out the wood ash. I learned to scavenge other wood I found thrown out in the neighborhood. This supplemented heating the house because it was so old and drafty.
In fact, it was the oldest house in the neighborhood. It was tiny but it used to be a farmhouse back when there was nothing else in the downtown Rochester area. The house was built in 1842, the floors creaked, the ceiling once fell down two feet away from me once, scaring me to all tarnation but, it was ours. So, gas and electricity were first, otherwise we’d have to replace the frozen water pipes and we needed power. And yes, then came Water, then the Car and Gas.
It was a modest but reliable 1981 Silver Honda Civic. It was basic in every sense of the word but we liked it because we had chosen it. My mother went with my two sisters and I in tow, to pick it out. Since she had no one else to ask for advice anymore, she used us. We strolled into the showroom like mother duck and her ducklings. As she approached a prospective vehicles, we took it as the okay to open, close, latch, unlatch and toggle every switch, knob and handle on the poor showroom cars.
My mother had the wonderful ability as an artist to paint the reality that she wanted to live in. When some one walked away from her in a huff, she would smile, bow at them and say, “I accept your apology.” This was not just a survival mechanism, it was her bliss mechanism. She knew very well that even the most basic model was almost within her budget and even at then we weren’t going to be able to leave the dealership without her crying, us being used sympathy props and a hefty lowering of the sticker price by the manager just so he get us out of there so that they could concentrate on the other customers who could be upsold on options.
But that wasn’t going to spoil her experience of going car shopping. As my mother always said, “Even if you can’t go to the party, it’s always nice to be asked.” So away we went, checking out all the cars, popping trunks, asking about the turbo option even though there wasn’t the remotest possibility of driving off with such a vehicle. My mother didn’t ask about the different available radios or A/C options herself. She deeply enjoyed watching her children have that experience and she sat back and relished as her offspring spread their wings and grew. Who was she to say to them not to ask a question because she didn’t have the appropriate funds? She was an educator through and through and this was a valuable experience. When salesman was talking about engine size, she asked the nine year old me over to make sure that I knew that difference between a four cylinder and six cylinder engine. She watched me listen to his explanation and it didn’t matter to her if she knew the difference herself or not, she wanted me to know. This was all part of the experience. She couldn’t give much but she could give that, so of course she carried the illusion that anything was possible.
The next envelope Groceries. My mother was into healthy food so she could stretch her money by buying raw ingredients. This sucked as a hungry child looking for a snack in the cupboard and there was to nibble on was celery, potatoes, oats and flour. I had never felt so deceived in my life as when I found and tasted the Baker’s Chocolate. How could the thing that I had loved so much betray me and taste so bitter. I didn’t want to live in such a cruel world. When my mom asked me about the teeth marks in it, I admitted it openly. For one, I was never going to do it again and two, life couldn’t get worse than being let down my chocolate. We ate a lot of Chicken Cacciatore with the bones in it but it was healthy and we ate.
The next envelope were Clothing which was a flat $20 that accumulated and my mother used it sparingly. My father didn’t always pay child support on time but he did give us children each $200 a year for everything from shoes to underpants and winter clothes. Anything that we didn’t get, our parent’s had us ask our relatives ourselves for.
The last envelope was marked Extra. This was the slush fund that whatever money was not used for any of the utilities, would flow over into this. This was the money that we used to see a classic movie at the George Eastman house on the big screen for $2.50, buy ice cream at Gelato’s on Park Avenue, buy a rainbow unicorn sticker Parkleigh Pharmacy or anything else frivolous.
Of course we also did odd jobs around the neighborhood or deliver papers to get spending money. There was usually a lawn to mow or a yard to clean up. I made money where I could and even figured out that if I cut my own hair, I could keep the money for myself.
I was usually on my own. I was the annoying little brother that no one wanted to play with. My two older sisters all of the age of twelve and fourteen would “time” me to see how fast it would take me to run around the block to buy them a chocolate toffee bar and back. They would lie out on towels in the back yard in summer and sunbath in baby oil soaking up those North Atlantic rays. Standing in line at the grocer that took up the front of the building with Hogan’s Hideaway tucked around back, I’d be all upset if the lady in front of me was taking too long at the register. It was a beautiful old building with a hammered tin ceiling. I liked racing for their candy because it was a challenge and it was the closest they came to playing with me. “Two minutes and forty six seconds.” They would say arbitrarily.
“That was your best time ever.” I handed over the candy bars and they’d both giggle. They liked this because they felt like they had a slave. I didn’t mind it because there was a challenge and I felt included. I still had to give them their change back before telling me that I was “bothering them”.
Well, one December night I walked down stairs to see what was cooking for dinner. The kitchen was cold and quiet. Two nights before, Maura had the brilliant idea to just cook five boxes of macaroni and cheese at once with the instructions of how to add a little milk and stir until warm so us kids could eat dinner on our own by ourselves. She was too sad and depressed to come downstairs. Things were overwhelming. She wasn’t the one that wanted a divorce although she needed to do it. That was three years ago. It’s been three days for the Mac and Cheese.
It now sat out on the kitchen table which used to be the parents octagonal gaming table that they had dreamed of using on the patio of their once big house. It never got used for such festive parties. It was now strictly functional. The party was over and the pot of left over Kraft Dinner or generic brand there of sat out on the table in a giant soup pot too big to fit in the refrigerator and it being winter, the kitchen was basically the same temperature anyways.
“Look.” My middle sister Kirsten was the second one down the stairs and turned on the light. “It’s still there isn’t it?”
“Where’s mom?” I asked taking off the lid to the big stew pot looking down at the bright orange mush at the bottom. This being the third night of same leftovers, not many of the noodles retained their original shape. It resembled more of a prop for Nickelodeon’s You Can’t Do That On Television.
“She’s still in bed. I could hear her crying when I walked past her room.” Her eyes rolled and she was clearly over it.
Kirsten decided to get back on target. “Look,…”, She started again as Giana came into the cold dark kitchen. We turned as the floorboards creaked where she walked.
I went to get the milk from the fridge. Kirsten started again, “Look guys. We can do this.”
There was a lot left and I saw where she was heading. I wasn’t so optimistic about the task she was going to propose. I tried to give it a stir but it was fully congealed.
She continued. “Let’s just get this over with.”
My grandfather’s house had a rule that if you couldn’t finish your food for one meal, you had to for the next. It flowed over to the next like a silly rule from war rationing times. We were used to this type of thinking and it wasn’t our first time having to suck it up, pinch our noses and swallow our lot. We each grabbed a wooden spoon and started paddling at the florescent, cold, cheese powder starch sludge. The three of us stood around the pot, now slid over the edge of the table trying to put an end to this madness as if this was going to solve our problems. No one talked. After two mouths full, I didn’t want anymore but kept going. I had already gotten sick of it the day before. The hardwood floor boards creaked and we all turned around with blank faces, wooden spoons in our hands and orange coloring #37 on our lips and hands.
Maura started crying. “I’m sorry. This isn’t how I wanted it. This isn’t how I thought it was going to be.”
She hugged us and cried. We stood there not knowing how to react. She had caught us halfway through a job that we weren’t sure we had to complete or not. “Let’s go to Hogan’s.” She said, wiping her tears on her bathrobe.
Maura emptied the contents of the Extra envelope into her wallet and went upstairs to change. You didn’t have to ask us twice. All three of us already had our hats and jackets on and were at the front door putting on our boots. I slid on my bread bags on my feet which worked as boot liners for my far from waterproof Moon Boots for the trek around the block to our favorite hole in the wall. In minutes, we were out in the cold laughing and in good spirits. The steam from our breath rose as we started to sing. My mom started first with her anthem that kept us together.
“Oh! We ain’t got a barrel of money,
Maybe we’re ragged and funny,
But we’ll travel along,
Singing this song,
Side by side.”
“Through all kinds of weather…” Maura continued as we reached the back door that was the main entrance to Hogan’s Hideaway. The stained glass shimmered warm light out into the crystalline air. It had the sense of the living room of a ski lodge. Most people didn’t notice us as we walked into the bar area for they were deep in love or weaving a tale approaching the punch. The wood burning stove was crackling, jazz was softly playing in the background and waitress greeted us at the hostess stand. The atmosphere was so rich that if you couldn’t fall in love with another, you had to fall in love with something, either a song, or a drink or even yourself if you were lucky. There were only five tables in the joint and we were happy to be able to get the one booth. We all packed in and the waitress handed us menus and to my mother, the Wine menu which she handed it to me.
I said, “Just four waters.”
She smiled understandingly knowing full well that she was only going to get a three dollar tip at the most on her biggest table of the evening and leaned over to me. “Well, we happen to have that on tap tonight.” And she strolled away taking the wine list with her.
We all opened our menus and and the kind waitress came back with our waters and told us the specials and we all listened attentively and we asked the names of the things that we didn’t understand. It was all part of the experience.
When she walked away, my mother leaned in and we all followed suit. “Now children. You can order anything that you want on the menu that is $3.75 or less.”
Although we knew the menu by heart by now, we still perused it with leisure. By the $3.75 or less stipulation, that limited us to The Hogan Burger or anything on the side menu. Once, my sister Giana was brave enough to order a side as her entree and she went home quite peckish.
The waitress came back and we all had the dignity of ordering individually. “I’ll have the Hogan Burger.” We all said in rotation as she went around the table. The waitress nodded understandingly and smiled. She took the menus and headed back into the kitchen just next to the kitchen to relay or order.
We all looked forward to our meals. We sat back and listened to the jazz, the din of couples flirting and laughing over cocktails by the fire. We could smell the fat of the burgers hit the grill and waft through the tiny restaurant. These are the colors that paint an experience. We didn’t have much but, Maura knew how to live and wanted us to experience that.