Four friends and I left the Salsedo Press party at 4 AM and squeezed into the gray Toyota I was driving that night. Ann, Ingrid, David, and I know each other from Ann Arbor; Mattias is from Sweden and is in the U.S. working on his dissertation on the sociology of religion, specifically Louis Farrakhan. As we headed north, a consensus emerged that in order to fulfill our proper role as cultural ambassadors, we should show Mattias something uniquely American. We decided to go to the “Be a Millionaire” diner on Irving Park just west of Ashland.
I don’t know what the Be a Millionaire is really called. I call it that because it has two big white signs that read “Play Lotto Here–Be a Millionaire.” One of them covers a sign that used to say “Hamburgers–Milk Shakes.”
The Be a Millionaire was the only thing lighted up on its side of the street, and although it is a weather-beaten sort of place, it looked gleaming white when the five of us walked in there at 4:30 or so. There was a small white counter, maybe a dozen seats with round spinning stools, white linoleum, and a Seeburg 100
Wall-o-Matic jukebox every two seats–the kind with the songs written on cards that you twirl back and forth with your fingers. The cash register was a mechanical model. The only concession in the whole place to the modern electronic era was a computerized Lotto machine, which took up a huge space on one corner of the counter.
In short, the Be a Millionaire is the kind of place that Ed Debevic’s has so successfully imitated. The food is probably better at Ed’s, but the Be a Millionaire has authentic short-order cooks. The staff at Ed’s is made up of college kids wearing goofy buttons who have been told that it is cute to act obnoxious. The night we walked into the Be a Millionaire, there were two gruff but friendly guys working there, who looked as if they belonged nowhere else in the world but behind a counter at 4:30 AM cooking food for strangers.
The guy doing the cooking was a large man, probably in his 50s. He had a big tattoo on one arm and didn’t say much. His coworker, who was younger, did most of the talking.
“What’ll you have?” the younger man asked after we had spent a few minutes looking at the menu: “Beefburger. Cheeseburger. Red Hot. Pork Chop. Liver and onions.”
“French toast,” I said.
“French toast,” he said in a loud voice to the cook, who was standing two feet behind him. And so it went down the line–the order man repeating everything we said, even though the cook could plainly hear us himself.
The guy taking the orders asked Mattias, who has a very noticeable accent, where he was from and where he was planning to go. The order man then told us that he was from North Carolina, but that he had been all around the world, to all the port cities. Eventually it occurred to me that the cook and the order man must have been in the military, the Navy, most likely.
They both looked as if life had not been too kind to them. I sketched the rest of their lives in my head. These guys fit perfectly here, I thought. After years in the military, I imagined, they probably found the regular world rather strange. An all-night job in an offbeat diner was just the thing. They were both loners, I was certain, living in barren one-room flats in some deserted section of the city.
We ate, staying long enough to hear “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly on the Wall-o-Matic. It wouldn’t play the second song we punched up, even though it promised two songs for a quarter. A few more people came into the diner. I was getting tired and wanted to leave. The order man didn’t give us our checks, so we decided for ourselves what we owed and piled it on the table.
“Those guys belong in a John Sayles movie,” I said to my friends when we walked outside. “They are perfectly realized characters. They are–you know, exactly who they are.”
I ran into Ann and David a week later at a friend’s house, and Ann asked me whether I had heard about the guy in the diner.
“I can’t stand hearing about this,” David said, and left the room.
The guy at the diner had been murdered, Ann told me. Stabbed to death during a robbery. There was no one else there when it happened. She said she saw it on TV, and that it was in the Tribune. She was sure it was the order man, not the cook, because the newspaper said he was in his 30s and from North Carolina.
I went to the library to look up the Tribune story. “Cook slain in all-night restaurant” read the headline. The victim, the story said, was named Donald Oaks and lived in the 3700 block of Bosworth, a pleasant residential street not far from the diner. His body was discovered “slumped on the floor in the rear of the diner” by customers who came in at 2:30 AM. Four hundred dollars was missing.
A few days later, I went to the Be a Millionaire for breakfast. There was a sign on the cash register that I hadn’t seen the last time I was there. “Two keys required to open safe,” it said. “Only one key on premises.”
There was a Styrofoam cup on top of the Coke machine behind the counter that said “For Don’s Family” on it. When I paid my bill, I asked the new order man to put my change in the cup.
“Did that guy–you know–did he have kids or anything?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said the order man. “I think he had a daughter.”
Outside, I noticed a new sign in the window. “Wanted,” it said. “Experienced grill man.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.