Tuesday, March 20, 2018


     "Where's a good place to eat around here?" I asked Ed, the man at the front desk of La Reserve, a charming 1850s bed and breakfast off Rittenhouse Square. He took a pad of Post-It notes and jotted "Marathon, corner 19th & Spruce St." 
     "Take a left then a right," he said.
     A nice old section of Philadelphia, four-story brick townhouses, one after another, grand pianos spied in warmly-lit living rooms. Spires. Oval windows.
     The restaurant was at the corner, where it was supposed to be. A well-dressed older man came by walking his dog. 
     "Excuse me," I said. "Is that a good restaurant?"
     "Yes," he said. 
    "Thank you," I said, and crossed the street and went in, feeling his eyes on me, as if he were shocked that there wasn't a second part, maybe the scruffy guy in the leather coat and cap hitting him up for money. 
     The dining room was dim, and so I took my seat at the brighter bar, spread the book review on its concrete surface. A hip place. Directly across from me was the name of the bar, "MARATHON" in big white letters.
     "Do you carry non-alcoholic beer?"
     "No, we don't," she said. "How about an Arnold Palmer?"
     "Sure, thanks."
     She fussed behind the bar. I put in a plug for actually stocking non-alcoholic beer: St. Pauli Girl. Beck's. 
    "It's quite good nowadays," I said.
     "We're out of lemonade, which is too bad, because it's good lemonade."
     "Water is fine." 
     I looked at the specials, the menu.
     "Can I have a dinner salad, and the pork chop?"
     "Vinaigrette all right?" 
      "Vinaigrette is fine."
     I gazed at the name of the bar a bit more. She strayed into my zone of the bar.
    "So," I said, "'Marathon. Is that the battle, the plain, the race, the song..." There is a Jacques Brel song called "Marathon"—"...or..." a thought occurring to me as I spoke, "...the gas station?"
     She looked at me.
    "I don't know. I never thought to ask."
    That sincerely surprised me, and I spoke without thinking.
     "How long have you worked here?
    "Six years."
    Had I had insulted her, by pointing out her lack of curiosity? It felt that way. That hadn't been my intention. I was just curious, not as common a sentiment as could be wished. I turned my attention back to my newspaper. How could you work there for six years and not wonder?
     The pork chop was very good—seared on the grill and drenched, I had failed to notice when ordering, in a bourbon reduction sauce, which to be honest was like a phone call from a former friend. Hey, remember me? Yes, great to hear from you, we must have lunch one of these days. Grilled Brussels sprouts, mashed sweet potatoes.  I read my paper, sipped my water with determination, and tipped well, by way of apology.


  1. Just wondering Neil, wouldn't a non-alcoholic beer also be like a call from and old friend?

  2. Nicely done. A Hemmingway pastiche? "A Clean, Well lighted Place."

    "Just the facts, Mam."


  3. Your blog today recalls to my mind a very funny and excruciating dialogue between Groucho Marx and a contestant on his You Bet Your Life program. The woman Groucho was interrogating (this was an example of how mean he could be) worked in a factory. She knew what her job was and how to do it, but she couldn't identify the product she was working on or what it was supposed to do or what her work contributed to the product, all this drawn out by Groucho with an insulting smirk on his face. It was hilarious, like watching Wiley Coyote plunge off a cliff with a 500 lb bomb in his paws. My own experience with lack of curiosity came when I worked for the telephone company for a brief period. One of the reasons I left was that most of my colleagues had nothing better to talk about than their pensions 40 years in the future and the other was that nobody could tell me why the 2 sides of the telephone line were called "ring" and "tip." To be fair, every telephone installer I've talked to in the 50 years since I left the company was well aware that the names came from the plugs first used to connect callers: the tip of the plug was one side of the line, the ring at the bottom of the plug completed the circuit.


  4. "Marathon. Is that the battle, the plain, the race, the song....or...the gas station?"

    She probably looked at you strangely because she probably never heard of the gas stations. Marathon Petroleum is headquartered in Findlay, Ohio, and most of its franchises are in the Midwest. In 2012 they expanded into Pittsburgh, but probably not as far east as Philly. Many of the outlets in Ohio have been closed for more than a decade, including the one that was two blocks from my house.

    Marathon was always my brand of choice, mainly because they sponsored the Cub radio broadcasts for so many seasons. I can still hear Vince and Lou in my head, forty years later, saying "Best in the long run."

  5. Replies
    1. To make it even funnier, American sent me Louisville today.

    2. Going to the Slugger factory and museum?

    3. Been there. Just changing planes.

  6. "I'm even interested in things I'm not interested in."

    Alex Trebek

  7. “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.” (G. K. Chesterton)

  8. "Phone call from a former friend . . ." Thank you for that gem.


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