DEC 2001/JAN 2002

The Spectre of Change

I almost cried when I read in the newspaper that the Bagel Factory on South University in Ann Arbor is becoming another Barry Bagelís. Ridiculous new name aside (what the hell is that apostrophe doing there?), I was surprised by my reaction. I donít eat at the Bagel Factory very often, and Iíve always thought it was kinda grimey and under-managed. But the announcement came at a moment of change overload, when it seemed that everything familiar to me was mutating, like a tidal wave was washing over my life and then receding to reveal all new names and faces.

Have you eaten at a Pizza Hut lately? I hadnít in years, but I was visiting my parents in Florida last month and thatís where they wanted to go. I couldnít believe what has happened to it. Pizza Hut had been important to me as a child growing up in a tiny West Virginia town. It was one of the only places to eat out besides Scottieís Diner (where they made the best biscuits and gravy). Our Pizza Hut wasnít far from the junior high school, and I remember walking there on cold Friday nights after dancing at a chaperoned sock-hop. My giggling girlfriends and I would squeeze extra chairs around a long table to make room for the few boys we could corral, or we moved from table to table while we ate. The air was charged with flirtatious energy in the dimly lit restaurant with its dark red carpet and red vinyl chairs. Waitresses (no doubt cursing their luck to be scheduled on sock-hop night) brought us greasy pan pizzas in deep skillets and endless refills of pop. Iím sure we left her with a mess of dishes and discarded crusts. I hope we left her a decent tip.

There are no waitresses anymore at Pizza Hut. Itís been reinvented as a fast-food restaurant. You order at a counter that looks just like McDonaldís, grab your own paper plates and plastic forks, sit at plastic tables in a bright and uncarpeted eating area, and wait for your number to be called. The salad bar is gone, the pan pizza doesnít come in pans, and you throw everything in the trash can on your way out the door. I canít imagine any young teens hanging out there now.

I guess Iím getting old enough to develop nostalgia for the "good olí days." While I was in Florida, I was teaching workshops to senior citizens about how to write stories from their lives. As these seventy- and eighty-somethings wrote about helping out on the family farm, playing spin-the-bottle, taking their first train ride, and eloping in secret, even the most novice writer could make it seem just like yesterday. The more stories I heard, the more I realized that these memories werenít all that long ago. While it might be hard to imagine the young girl in an old womanís frail, wrinkled body, the time between then and now has passed like a speeding semi blowing by while you stand on the side of the road. Itís all you can do just to keep your hair out of your eyes.

Iím not saying that I long for some past when times were better. My workshop participants also wrote about not having enough to eat during the Depression and seeing their parents get sick in the influenza epidemic. Itís just that their stories continually reinforced the adage that the only constant is change. I loved teaching them, but by the time I came home, I felt weakened by the pace of life and desperate for some stability. Then I read that George Harrison is dying of a brain tumor, and I saw the headline about the Bagel Factory, and I got all choked up.

I still havenít gotten over the loss of Drakeís on East University. I miss the cavernous room with the carved ceiling, hardwood floors, and bad lighting. I miss the hand-squeezed limeades and tuna salad sandwiches on white bread and canned tomato soup. I miss the huge glass jars of old-fashioned candy, and the "Martian Room" upstairs with its 60s space-age tables and chairs. It breaks my heart that no one saved Drakeís from closing.

The first place I ate when I moved to Ann Arbor twelve years ago was Metzgerís. The oldest restaurant in town. A leftover from Ann Arborís heavily German past. I went there with my parents who were dropping me off at graduate school. In the next few years, I ate there occasionally with Jeff as we were courting. We still laugh about the first time I took him there; I ordered traditional German dishes and he ordered a french dip and french fries and a salad with french dressing. Over time, though, he came to like the sauerbraten and spatzen and red cabbage (not to mention the dark beer). Weíd sneak away to Metzgerís for a late lunch on Wednesdays, when he was off from work, and I didnít have class until four, and we had slept late and made love and then walked up town, because neither of us owned a car.

Metzgerís lasted a few more years in the rapidly gentrifying downtown, but even its solid brick walls couldnít keep change from ripping through this Ann Arbor institution. The restaurant closed in 1999, taking its cuckoo clocks and beer steins with it.

In time, however, Metzgerís reinvented itself. Back by popular demand, it reopened in the emerging sprawl of Scio Township, in a brand new shopping center on Zeeb. The menu is full of the same delicious, carb-laden dishesóbreaded wiener schnitzel, onion pie, potato pancakes, apple strudel. The cuc-koo clocks are back on the walls. Even some of the old wait staff have returned. But of course itís not the same. Snatching a favorite memory of the past and recreating it in the present is always unnerving. Like visiting your childhood home after some other family has moved their stuff into your rooms.

Barry Bagelís will probably clean up the old Bagel Factory. Theyíll probably put in new tables and wash the windows and scratch off the "We Bake for Jake" bumper sticker. Theyíll probably make the employees wear matching shirts and take the jewelry out of their faces. Theyíll probably set up a more consistent routine behind the counter to speed up service and reduce errors. Maybe itíll be a better bagel shop. But it will never be the Bagel Factory again. Chalk up another one to memory. Itíll only come alive now in the stories people write about it.

I couldnít have done anything about the changes to Pizza Hut (nor do I really care about the future of this multinational). But I could have visited the Bagel Factory more often, spent more of my discretionary eating-out budget on fragels and bagel sandwiches. If others had done the same, maybe it would still survive with its seedy, unkempt charm.

While change comes barreling through our lives, uninvited and often unwelcome, we do have some ability to control the loss of our favorite small businesses. They have a better chance of sticking around when people spend their money at them. This is an especially tough time for local merchants, whether in restaurants or retail. So even as you may be spending less these days, put the money you do spend in the pockets of business owners who are your fellow residents. Tell them that you appreciate their business. Tell them a story about what they have meant in your life. So maybe when you write your memoirs at seventy-five, you can do it sitting in the same local restaurant where you flirted as a teenager and courted your spouse.

DEC 2001/JAN 2002

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