Marty’s Steak House was the only genuinely good place to eat out in Kankakee, Illinois in the Mid-Fifties. It was on the north side of town, on Hi-way 54, “Dixie Hi-way” and a main route to the south passing through Kankakee all the way to Mexico. It was a four-lane slab gridded by ribbons of tar, a thumping monotony to the tires. Marty’s was the first bright spot you saw a couple of hours down from Chicago. It was painted barn red, an ample family style spot, where you were known as you walked through the door, where you were greeted by Marty, a large, pasty–white East European war refugee. Marty’s voice had a high pitch like TV’s Lawrence Welk, a voice full of accent and warmth and sad caring for the world. He liked children.
The place smelled of cocktails and steak sauce, grilled meat and tobacco smoke. It was simple and the fanciest place in town, with food that could be counted on. It was a family place at night and a place for real estate deals, loans and new ventures at lunchtime. Marty’s was for doctors, petty politicians and moneymen and a good half way stop on the way to the University of Illinois in Champaign. The Jaycee’s and the Rotary met there. The Mayor, Ed Madison, ate there with his daughter Joyce. Just the two and always a little sad. The Mrs. Mayor, usually indisposed with some nervous disorder, probably alcohol. Joyce was pretty and shy, skinny and always done up with southern-belle tubes of hair hanging down antebellum style. She carried her status quietly, too young to be so regal. Her health was delicate and she had a special glass of buttermilk for her school cafeteria lunch. The empty glass on her tray, emblem of her status showing its perfect stripes of white in the empty glasss. Teasing her about it, one bumped into a wall of dignity and fell flat. Ed and Joyce were regulars at Marty’s.
Two future governors of the state ate there, Sam Shapiro from the Sixties and George Ryan from the new millennium, both later gaining national notoriety for Kankakee, indicted for the usual petty chicanery. Casey Stengel played on Kankakee’s minor league team and in 1959 the Kankakee little league team won the national championship. The Dairy Queen chain was started in Kankakee. In the Fifties, it was a real boomtown soaring with wartime factories that had been converted to making stoves, water heaters, steel, and tile. Armour Pharmaceuticals the largest supplier of insulin and other animal derived medicines built its plant there in 1946. Its towering beige brick smokestack, visible for miles across the table flat prairie, was a landmark for farmers plowing the rich black corn and soybean farmland. It was a solid union town, but, by the Eighties, Kankakee County, became both a rust-belt and failed-family-farm poster child, and by the year 2000 was voted the worst county to live in the US out of 400 counties
In the Fifties, Marty’s had great steaks and chops and ice cream with chocolate sauce and dyed-red cherry pie. Perch and Whitefish from Lake Michigan, fast disappearing, were still on the menu and all-you-could-eat on a Friday night. The place was jammed, those Fridays; Kankakee’s population was 60% Catholic. There was a bar, with animated signs for beer, waterfalls mesmerizing, hypnotic, drilling the Hamm’s beer tag line, “from the land of sky blue waters,” into the mind, glued in forever. There was a slot machine in the bar, something that could delight with mere illicit presence; as it hummed with petty venality, a holdover from mob days. Kankakee was well known in the crookedness of prohibition as a safe haven two counties away from the authority and corruption of Chicago’s Cook County. Al Capone had a brewery in town. The brewery was brought in with an alliance from Kankakee’s first of three Governors, Lenn Small. By the Fifties the town was run by Ed McBroom, a Cadillac dealer who’d be glad to sell you a car if you were looking to climb aboard his gravy-train with a cushy county job. These deals were made at Marty’s.
Sometimes when the food was taking a while, the hungry kids getting antsy, we’d be given nickels to throw away into the slot machine and watch it spin tantalizingly past any lined up cherries. It disappeared and a jukebox came in, fifty’s rocket-age rococo with Blue Suede Shoes. Begging a dime from one of the adults I would play Oh My Pa Pa, a sappy thing that could get my brother all choked up. I tortured him with it whenever I could. I saw my first color TV show there on the bar’s set. Ed Sullivan. I never imagined his stage curtain was green.
Our family showed up on Sundays. My brother and I with our folks often gathered with some portion of fourteen cousins, five aunts, uncles and the patriarch grandfather. We’d make big parties. We kids had the run of the place, our “regulars” status bestowing a kind of freedom, added to by the regular business meetings my father and uncles had there. We’d run around in our pack with a little decorum because we thought Marty was, in a small way, family. He’d come over and spoon the soup cool for the kids and was always genuine in his happiness to put a hand on a shoulder, “is everything OK?” Moreover, he had a son born with cerebral palsy. This fact kept us in line, feeling grateful and superstitious of our own good fortune. Marty’s son was the busboy, who was quite able above the waist but his legs were twisted, and he moved with a studied plod through the restaurant. With his hair falling into his eyes and a stained white apron, he was an icon of pathos.
Marty’s blooms into my mind recalling a particular evening when I was ten. It’s the summer of 1957. This particular evening lobster tails from South Africa are on special. I’ll have them this night, so meaty-sweet and buttery carrying the clear evidence of its life as an animal. The tail of a crustacean. Seeing that it was a part of an animal, fed my curious mind, fascinated by the wonder of life forms. I was a great gatherer of snakes and many legged things. The lobster was not a pre-portioned slab of something; it was an exotic animal and it arrived with special tools. My favorite. It always took a little longer to cook, so I roamed the restaurant long past hungry. The White Sox were playing on the bar TV. It was either the Sox, the Cubs, boxing, or Ed. I liked the Cubs. I loved taking peeks at the terrifying blind lawyer eating his habitual dinner at the bar. My mother said to leave him alone…you bet, with his waving around wasted eyes and his German Shepherd guide dog in a handle harness tucked under the bar, he was given a wide berth. Like every small boy with an imagination, a place like Marty’s could seem exotic, the lawyer a fairy-tale character from a distant dark land.
“Soup’s on,” called the others back to the table. My lobster won’t be ready for a while so I’m leaning into the cashier’s glass case filled with White Owls and Beemen’s Pepsin and Juicy Fruit gum. The spinning rack of novelty jokes in plastic bags; was a recent addition. It evoked a boy’s rapture with pictures of how delighted you’d be and how mortified the victim’d be, if only that thin crack of permission could be found and worked open. Lost in a delirium of snapping gum packs and flies in ice cubes and whoopee cushions, I am called to my meal.
At the table, ravenous, the adults had well begun. My father who never had beer in the house always had one at Marty’s, never finishing; the last half glass always remained to grow flat, with just a rim of white foam circling the amber Schlitz. The beer was a half-glass down when I returned. Marty came over and flourished the meat out of the shell, which I liked to keep on the plate, with its overlapping joints and tiger stripes, red-orange from the broiling. The white meat, a pillowy arch, upholstery looking, is dipped in butter, with the little fork, some chunks tasting lemony. I ate quickly to catch the others before desert was ordered. No clean plate, no dessert. Done. Just in time. Plates taken away by Marty’s son. I’ll have the sundae with the hardening chocolate.
I’d never had the cold sweats before, not with the swell and fall of nausea. I got up from the spotted aftermath of the table and went outside—maybe the smell of food was creating the havoc and call to action in my innards. More likely, though, that slight lemony tingly taste in some bites was a signal that the thawed lobsters were going off. “On Special” to keep the expensive item remaining profitable. In my wolfing to keep pace with the other kids, who would gloat over their desserts, I ignored the taste, a little too rich.
I stepped out of the refrigerated air and into an August Midwest evening. The air itself closed around, adding to my urgency. So humidly close, nauseating with a flat gray sky, summer sheet lightening and the wave of a new school year about to come ashore. The big finny cars, mostly late model, crunched around on the gray gravel. The gravel is dusted with its own rubbed powder. I’m looking very closely, concentrating, bent at the waist. Someone’d think I was looking for lost things. Little scraped scars white on the gray rough stones. Loose and packed in at the same time. So many little gray rocks. So many rocks. My head is swimming.
It starts slowly, a ball rolling off the edge of a table to drop in free fall. The surge is fast and with a couple of watery chunky heaves, throat sore from the acid, I’m empty. The lobster dinner reformed to a carnival raft on a bumpy gray sea. It happened so fast that I could feel the tube of me; my inner works my plumbing, the working of the bag of stomach and loops and swags of intestines, mouth and teeth, tongue—my guts. I could feel my own guts. Pictures of the human abdomen from the encyclopedia showing shiny pink coils and purple liver and green gall bladder all came alive for me. I wondered, where’s the me, in all this stuff. In a brain? A big jelly blob thing in my head all dense with itself? Where’s me?
All that ten-year-old summer I had been obsessed with questions like these. A beloved aunt had died, the one who nicknamed me “Buttons.” At her funeral my grandfather had pulled me close in a shuddering weeping embrace. He was seated in the front row and the whole room could see the two of us, as he wept hot and moist on my shoulder. My mind squirmed away but I was on display so I remained up front sneaking a peek over his shoulder at Aunt Libby lying dead in her coffin, waxy and inert. She was not sleeping. My pet parakeet, Budgie, had dropped dead in an instant when cornered by my brother’s beagle, Scrappy. Where does this all go after dying? What does that transition feel like? State of mind changes fascinated me-how could one go from life to death, from one way of being to another? And inside all of that complex of meat, where was the me? Every night, that summer I lay in bed, obsessed and tried to remember the moment when I fell asleep, waking in disappointment not to have felt the change. I was convinced there was a clue to what was me in this enigmatic passage. Now, in this parking lot I felt it. The changes one felt were here in life inside all this collection of organs and meat. And, in the spoiled meat that brought me to this swift uplift, this exaltation, this lightening passage from ill to feeling great in a wink. This movement was electric in its speed. It had to be a big piece of the change puzzle. The brief internal view woke me to the existential question. The question formed so clearly, it didn’t matter that I had no answer, I thrilled at the secret revelation of simply realizing, that there were some very big mysteries.
Instantly relieved, the cold sweats dried up. The me wasn’t in any of this stuff, of that much I was sure. I scraped the confetti pile into the gravel like a cat, and I went back into Marty’s not wanting to tell of being sick or that I had just been let in on some marvel and mystery. Empty stomach, my tongue and taste working the pleasure of the crusty chocolate and cold sweet cream.
Sixty years later, I feel happy that the revelation I received at Marty’s that evening has maintained it’s status as a Pole-star. Energy flow through living systems continues to fascinate. We are but waves of light constrained by walls of circumstance—thanks due to Michael McClure and/or Sterling Bunnell for that line. Energy Flow in Biology by Harold Morovitz became a primer to understanding this idea in active living systems. That evening, I was fresh from summer camp in Wisconsin’s North Woods, a summer spent collecting frogs for dissection under the direction of a couple of earnest pre-med students working their summer gig. I was a Nature Study groupie. What kid doesn’t thrill to tossing a frog into a tank with a big garter snake nabbed with his own hand, watching the snake unhinge its jaws. Witnessing the hapless hopper become a lump in the ribbon of a creature.