As a kid I grew up in a duplex with my cousins in the unit above us. Our humble house bordered on the HJ Heinz estate. We kids would sneak over there to play. The lush ambience was fodder for our young imaginations. I was always the pretend lady of the manor. Sometimes we were chased off by a chauffeur. By the 1960’s the estate was sold and parceled into many lots, that became a housing development. My yarn Dolly’s Diner was inspired by memories of my next door poaching.
By Sorki (a.k.a. Sarah Levine Simon)
Registered WGA East
Back in the late forties when route 22 wound its way through the local streets of Pittsburgh and the parkway was still a gleam in someone’s crooked eye; before Burger King, Big Mac and Arby’s; when very few people owned television sets; a young married couple opened a new diner way up the Northside next to Suggs Used Care—there being a natural draw up in that territory.
They called it JOE AND DOLLY’S and you could see their names in neon from all the hills around and down to the Three Rivers point.
The diner at first consisted of just an old Pullman car, which most folks say was nice in it’s self. Later Dolly got some fancy decorator notions and tacked a more plush, stylish building on to it.
In those early days feeding hungry folk and starting a family kept the young couple pretty well occupied.
Dolly came from a proud German/Irish stock. She often told her customers how her father built the Liberty tube, just as if he had built it himself. Joe’s father came over from Italy to work in the coal mine down near Wheeling, giving Dolly a reason to feel superior which may have led later to Joe’s bouts of gambling and drinking. Dolly herself always stayed sober as a judge.
The diner opened to feed hungry truckers their breakfast at 5 AM sharp seven days a week. Three days a week Joe would take the pick-up down to the Southside market for supplies and groceries. Out in back of the diner they kept some chickens and a little garden so that the diner always had the freshest eggs and vegetables. According to Dolly, the solution to too much zucchini is to own a diner. And Dolly did make wonderful things with that zucchini; pancakes, bread, she fried it, she stuffed it. Dolly havin’ a real talent for what she modestly called “kitchen chemstree,” did the cooking. Joe sat on the register.
They hired two waitresses Melba and Philine. Melba was Dolly’s best girlfriend for as long as she could remember. Philine was another story. Melba and Dolly walked to school together until the eighth grade when they both quit to become waitresses at Sodini’s Bar and Grill. That’s how Dolly learned the restaurant business and how she fell for Joe. Joe had come home on leave from the army to see his Mama and came up from Wheeling with a few of his buddies.
Dolly’s mother made Dolly’s father walk her home from Sodini’s every night so Joe didn’t get too far with his courting until after the war. Dolly was by then sixteen and her father had fallen off the scaffold changing a light bulb in the Liberty Tube smashing up his legs so bad he couldn’t walk Dolly home anymore from Sodini’s. Dolly’s mother had to begin taking in other people’s laundry and so when Joe asked for Dolly’s hand, they didn’t hide their eagerness to have one less mouth to feed.
Right off the diner did well. Even in the days before CB’s, word got passed around pretty fast among the truckers. Even some classier folk came up for Dolly’s pot pies and brownies. The TV men came and asked Dolly if she would do a thing for paper towels but she wouldn’t hear of it. She was then pregnant with the third kid, Joe Jr. The other two, Parfait and Taffy were girls and so Joe got all puffed up about having a son to bear his name.
Having babies came as easy to Dolly as making the greatest apple pie in the world. Funny how sometimes our best attributes can lead to our undoing. It was about at that time that Joe started taking off half days to see his Mama down in Wheeling; or so he told Dolly who was too busy to hear him anyway or notice that the diner bills weren’t getting paid.
That is until a couple of guys came in to do some collecting. By then Dolly was expecting Baby Earl, number four.
A big, long, shiny black Caddy pulls up kinda slow like. Dolly notices it from the kitchen. She also notices Joe quick as a wink jumps up from the register and heads for the outhouse. Melba and Philine are busy with the customers, so Dolly leaves Joe Jr. in his playpen and heads out front.
A driver opens up the back door. Out step two men in dark suits. A big fat one with a red tie and a skinny one in a yellow tie. They straighten up and tug at their ties, then nice and slow they come into the diner, leaving the driver to watch the car. Big one comes up to the register and leaves his elbow on the counter as if he owned the place. Suddenly you can hear a pin drop.
“You’ns want a booth?” asks Dolly.
“Na, we came to see Joe,” says the big guy. The skinny one just stands there looking like evil incarnate.
“Didn’t tell me nothing about it. I think he went upstreet just now” says Dolly, “But You’ns are welcome to wait as long as you’ns want.”
Then from out of the corner of her eye, Dolly sees Joe crawl through the zucchini and try to hop the barbed wire into Suggs Auto. The big one notices him, too and quick as a wink he bolts out of the diner. When the big guy has Joe by the scruff of the neck, the skinny one saunters out slow. “What you’ns have for us?”
“Aw fellas give me another week!” pleads Joe.
The skinny one shoves his fist hard into Joe’s belly. “Like that?”
“No, please just a week’s all. I need—one week.”
Meanwhile Dolly sneaks around back of the outhouse and into the zucchini patch, picks up a zucchini size of a baseball bat and thwonks the big one right over the side of his ugly face. The skinny one comes at her but gets his foot caught in one of the vines giving Joe a chance to run for it. Over the barbed wire he hops and is off running though Suggs Auto.
Dolly keeps those zucchini bats coming. “ You wouldn’t dare touch a pregnant woman. What in the hell do you what with my husband?”
“He owes us and you’ns are going to be sorry you messed up our clothes, lady.” They try to brush zucchini pulp off their suits.
Yinsers better get on outta her before I start on the tomatoes. You’ns going to get what you want but not before next week, Ya hear?”
That night Dolly gave birth again. Joe didn’t come back until after the event, crying like a baby and apologizing over and over. Dolly suggested they move his Mama up from Wheeling. Wheeling’s no place for a little old lady anyway. Besides with all these babies now Dolly could use an extra Mama.
In the morning Dolly went to the bank and borrowed against the diner to pay off Joe’s gambling debts and all the diner bills. Then she made some changes. Every evening she counted the lucre herself and put each share into a different cigar box. One for the bank, one for the purveyors, and one for Melba and Philene, one for their future and an allowance for Joe. They made one last trip to Wheeling to settle Joe’s debt and pick up Mama. The guys in the shiny black Caddy never set foot in the diner again.
Mama Malatesta turned out to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Joe no longer had an excuse to take off for Wheeling; on the other hand she stuffed Baby Earl till he grew as round as a cabbage. And Baby Earl turned out to be cross-eyed to boot. Joe Jr. started to swear like a trooper and take things from the girls and Mama didn’t have the heart to discipline him. Because the family had grown so large, they had to put in a second trailer out back to house everyone. If it weren’t for Joe’s gambling debt, they could have afforded a nice house by now and Dolly didn’t let Joe forget that either.
Mama Malatesta required all kinds of salves and ointments for her liver spots. Being stuck as they were way out on the highway, Dolly had to do all her shopping for her. The second she trusted Joe with too much money, she’d find and extra case of Iron City out behind the outhouse.
Life wasn’t easy. The soot from the mills made it hard to keep tidy. Some mornings it hung so heavy in the air you couldn’t hang the clothes out to dry. Dolly found herself pregnant again and all those who saw her wagered on twins.
“I’m getting me fixed this time. There are getting delivered in a real hospital like that Mrs. Quinceworth who comes over here from Mt. Lebanon to buy my pies.
Dolly delivered her twins, a boy and a girl on the 10th of February, 1952 at Magee Hospital. The only other time she’d seen the inside of a hospital was after her father’ s accident. Seeing as she had no Blue Cross Blue Shield, the hospital made her pay in advance.
Dolly had never laid down to have a baby, nor had she ever laid down afterwards. This time she didn’t get to see the births they came at her so fast with the ether mask. She woke up four hours later in a sterile, white room with two other women groaning and moaning in barred beds on either side of her. “This couldn’t be heaven and it couldn’t be hell. So where the hell am I?”
A mousey little blond woman turned her head towards Dolly. “Is this your first child?”
“Nope, I’m on my sixth and seventh.” Dolly touches her belly and notices it’s no longer swollen. “I musta been dreaming. Maybe I was never pregnant.”
“Have you seen your babies, yet?” asks the blond mouse. “they bring them to you twice a day so you can get some rest. The work really starts when you get home, they say. Of course Arnold got me a nurse for the first month. This was the worst experience I ever had. Why until they knocked me out, I though I was going to die.”
Dolly’s turning redder and redder. “You mean they took my babies while I was sleeping? Let me out of this bed.” She heaves herself out over the side hollering at the top of her lungs. “I want my babies back.”
Two starchy nurses come running down the hall to see what all the commotion is about. Each of them grabs Dolly by an arm. “Calm down! Calm down, Mrs. Malatesta. You’ll bust open your stitiches.”
“Yes,” said the one on the left. When she pursed her lips, she reminded Dolly of a powdered prune. “You’ve had a tubal ligation and an episiotomy.”
“Doctor wants you in bed.” Chorused in the plump nurse on her right.
“But what you’ns done with my babies.”
Dolly’s roommates start to snicker.
“You’ve had a baby boy and a baby girl,” said the prune. “We will be bringing them to you in half an hour; and you will be able to have a visit with the little cherubs then.”
Dolly finally succumbed to hospital ways and let herself be led back into bed. “Strange ways,” she kept muttering to herself. When the nurses finally left the room she forced herself to lift up her night gown and have a look. “My gawd! I’m bald, too.”
“It’s for sanitary reasons.” Grunts the lady in the other bed.
“You’ns mean to tell me that I’m dirtier down there than anybody else?”
“They do it to everyone.” The mouse laughs. “You are making my stitches hurt.”
And so Dolly adjusted skeptically, if not well, to hospital life for the next eight days. Joe came with flowers and the kids got to peek at the two new infants now named Ivy and Squire. Joe liked the sound of Squire. Right away the other kids called him Squirrel.
Dolly returned home with the twins. Life continued its usual course — feedin at 3 AM and flipping flap jacks at 5 cepting Joe seemed to be hitting the beer a little harder tha usual and wasn’t much use.
Well Dolly’d had her eight days and maybe Joe was entitled. At least that’s how she rationalized it until the evening she hears some tittering about in the night. “Must be some rabbits got loose. (They added rabbit pie to the menu.) Next she notices no beer reeking Joe snoring beside her.
Dolly grabs her robe and wraps it tightly around herself. “I’ll jes see fer myself.”
The night is cool outside the trailer and the moon shines full and clear. Again she hears the tittering and tunes her ears. “They ain’t no rabbits in the back of a pickup truck.”
Next he tittering turns to murmuring, then sighs, then panting. Philline’s waitressing dress hangs over the side next to Joe’s trousers. First Dolly grabs the clothes, next she reaches her hand through the fortuitously open cab window muttering under her breath, “So you want to have a ride, you lousy bastard. I’ll give you one.
The truck starts to roll backwards down the dirt driveway. Philline starts screaming, “I think we’re moving.”
“Naw, honey, it’s just the aftershocks.” Says Joe.
Down on the highway breaks start to screech and horns honk. Then there’s one big crash.
Next thing you know, Dolly is on top of the diner taking down Joe’s half of the sign and from that moment on it was Dolly’s Diner.
By five AM Dolly was pouring coffee for the state troupers. “…..and you can tell that lousy SOB that the only thing he’s going to collect around here is snow water.
Mama Malatesta decided to go with Joe and the kids were told their pa done run off with and evil woman. Dolly began ridding the house of everything that was Joe’s. She took a case of his beloved Iron City down to the dump. But then she got a better idea and took the case to the diner to cook her renowned Shrimpers Steamed in Beer.
Like they say, every dog has its day. With the help of her big girls and Melba, the diner thrived. Without Joe around to hinder her efforts, Dolly was able to instill some good values in the children. Even Joe, Jr. began to understand the consequences of lying and stealing without Mama Malatesta around to protect him.
Within a year Dolly had earned enough to pay off the bank and to be able to close the diner from after Sunday dinner till breakfast 5 AM on Mondays.
Once a week Dolly took Earl downtown to the optometrist for eye exercises. The rest of the time Earl wore a patch he kept pulling off. But Dolly persisted and his eye began to straighten out.
Parfait got good grades in school but Taffy started to like the boys. “We can’t all have intellectuality,” Dolly rationalized philosophically. “If you want to marry them, don’t sleep with them.”
“That goes for you, too, Ma.” Snapped Taffy.
About this time a Mr. Ed Derblivick, a grain salesman, started passing though and sometimes staying at the diner till closing time. He always brought a little something for Dolly. One time he brought her a pink plastic flamingo which still stands in the zucchini patch; another time a rhinestone hair clip. But the kids had better ideas for their ma. “You’ns know when we make noodles for the diner back in the trailer and there ain’t no place to sit. I mean isn’t no place to sit. Well courting leads to sittin’ and sittin leads to laying down.”
So when Dolly went to a show with Mr. Ed Derblivick, the kids made oodles of noodles and dried them on sheets on every chair in the house.. There being no place to sit, Dolly couldn’t invite her gentleman in. Mr. Derblivick who only wanted what come easy soon disappeared.
With cars and trucks pulling in and out around the diner all day long, there wasn’t really any place for the kids to play. The kids started pushing the twin’s baby carriage up the road to the the grand entrance of T,G Bean, the ketchup king’s big estate. Sometimes the kids would sneak right into the estate where they’d play and wonder what it would be like to be as rich as the ketchup king. A couple of times they got chased by the chauffeur but they hid under the veranda with their hands cupped over the twins’ mouths. That’s how they heard that the Ketchup King’s wife was about to run off with Leontides Aristides, the Greek ship owner and wealthiest man in the world.
“You know,” said Parfait, “Dolly probably uses more ketchup than anyone around and I bet the king doesn’t even know she exists.”
“He’s going to be a very lonely Ketchup King when he wakes up in the morning.” Piped up Earl.
“You know how they got recipes on the back of every ketchup bottle?,” asked Parfait.
“Yeah and Ma says they stink.” adds Joe Jr.
So off they run home to send the Ketchup king some of Dolly’s recipes. It wasn’t so easy since Dolly had never written anything down. The kids elected Parfait, the most literate among them, to the task of recording Dolly’s recipes.
They all observed Dolly and tried to figure out how much of this and how much of that went into Dolly’s cooking and then they timed everything by the big diner clock , jumping up and down to relay the numbers to Parfait before they forgot them.
Dolly had no idea what was going on, but Melba guessed a good part of it and had to be let in on the secret and as it turned out later on, they needed a grownup’s help.
“What are yinsers so curious about?” asked Dolly.
“Well Ma,” they’d say, “Some day we might have to make the baked beans. Especially if you ever remarry.”
“Fat chance,” snorts Dolly, “With noodles laying around all over the place.” But she was proud that the kids thought about their future.
The recipe for baked beans got sent off with a cover letter supposedly written by Dolly, saying that if the Ketchup King needed more recipes all he had to do was call or write.
The kids couldn’t know that a secretary opened all of the Ketchup King’s mail and directed it to the right department and that most of it he never got to see for himself. That is how the baked bean recipe got into the clutches of the recipe director who was about to loose his job because his recipes were so lousy and were causing TG Bean stock to fall daily.
“My lucky day,” signed the recipe director. He was put on probation.
The next week Dolly’s meatloaf hit the ketchup bottle, the week after that Shrimper’s steamed in beer, replete with a recipe for ketchup and horseradish sauce.
The kids tingled with excitement every week when the new shipment of ketchup arrived. And that weasel-faced recipe director kept writing back with syrupy thank you notes, signed the Ketchup King and encouraging Dolly to send more recipes.
“The time has come,” said Melba, “For the Ketchup King to meet his best customer.” And the kids agreed.
That week the newspapers were running over with the story of Louise Bean running off with the Greek Ship builder and the Ketchup king in despair wearing dark glasses to cover up the puffy circles under his eyes.
A nice piece of Dolly’s apple pie and a good strong cup of her fresh ground coffee would probably cheer him up, think Melba and the kids.
Dear Mr. TG Bean,
So glad you’ns enjoyed my recipes. Sorry about your wife running off and all.
I would like to give you some more recipes. Please come to Dolly’s Diner on Rt. 18 up the Northside next to Suggs Auto for Apple pie, the best in the world and coffee on Tuesday the 4th at three PM sharp.
PS. We’re the biggest user of TG Bean Ketchup in the entire tri-state area.
A personal appearance was one complication the recipe director hadn’t foreseen but he needed those recipes. He would have to pull off an impersonation of the ketchup king or lose his job. He wrote that he would come to the diner at three sharp on Tuesday, the fourth of April.
The kids could hardly suppress their excitement. On Tuesday morning they hid a few pies to be sure Dolly wouldn’t run out of apple pie by 3 PM. At 2:45 they dumped the pot of coffee so here would be coffee “just made” and fragrant sitting in the pot at 3PM. Then Parfait scrubbed the little ones from tip to toe.
“Those kids must be up to something.” Dolly confided to Melba.
At three o’clock sharp the recipe director drove up in a battered green Ford. Mistake number one. The kids knew only too well the sight of the Ketchup King’s shiny limousine. When he emerged from the car the kids knew instantly ever through the dark glasses that this was no king.
“I’m looking for Mrs. Dolly. I’m the Ketchup King and she has some recipes for me.” Says the recipe director.
“Well you sure don’t look like the Ketchup King.” pipes up baby Earl, his eyes focusing into his nose and back onto the Recipe Director.
“Well actually the Ketchup King couldn’t be here himself and asked me to take his place but he’d like very much to have those recipes.”
“I jus bet he would,” says Taffy.
“Got a problem out there? Dolly hollered from the kitchen.
“No, Ma.” Taffy hollers back.
“Is that Dolly?” asks the recipe director.
“No, sir,” says Parfait. “Dolly asked me to apologize to you. She had to run off to the dentist to see about a filling she lost in some Taffy. You you’ns can come back another time. Besides, how are we going to know that you ain’t some spy from another Ketchup company?”
“Well I would have hardly gotten your mail if the Ketchup King hadn’t asked me to write you.”
“You mean he never wrote those letters to our Ma hisself? Screams Parfait.
“You git on out of here before we go on out back and get a never-you-mind.”
The recipe director was too much of a coward to tangle with an never-you-minds in back of a trucker’s diner; and so he took off in a battered Ford wondering how he was going to get to Dolly herself for those stupendous recipes. And try he did but the kids always foiled him – intercepting mail and phone calls.
They had to get to the Ketchup King directly, but how if he didn’t open his own mail or answer his own phone? How would he ever know how good Dolly’s recipes were unless he tasted them. How could Dolly’s kids get the great Ketchup King to dine at a diner when he could dine at the Park Schenley any night he pleased.
The kids couldn’t know that the ketchup King’s origins were as humble as their own and that he preferred plain cooking to all the fancy French food in the world. When Louise Bean ran off, the first thing he ordered his cook to make was the meat loaf on the back of his Ketchup bottle. Louise had forbade the use of Ketchup in the Bean household and the day she left, the king put a bottle on every table in the mansion.
Melba and Dolly’s kids decided that it would have to be something fancy, black tie even. A black tie dinner at Dolly’s diner? No, he’d think he was at the wrong address and drive right off. They’d have to keep him there somehow.
Then again, he probably turned down six black tie dinners a night so they would have to come up with a very special reason to have one. A museum benefit? No, that would take place in a museum. A hospital benefit? None of them knew enough doctors. Then it hit them — The Ketchup Users Society of America. All the proceeds to go to charity and the Ketchup King would be the guest of honor.
Melba headed downtown to the printer to have an invitation made. “But, Madame,” said the printer, “It is quite unusual to have only one invitation printed. We require you to print a least 100.” So Melba sent invitations to everyone she knew.
Melba and the kids told Dolly that a certain Ketchup society would be passing though on August 10 and to be sure an be prepared with enough fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad , meatloaf and shrimpers and apple pie.
“Nice when folks prepare you in advance,” said Dolly. “I hate running out of food on hungry folks.” Dolly never suspected a thing. “Though of course if they don’t show, we’re going to have a lot of specials the next day.”
On the night of August 10, the parking lot was so crowded that the trailer trucks had to park in a line down the highway. Truckers with black ties hanging loosely over their bowling shirts jammed the diner. Tuesday was their regular league night. All but Dolly were in on the secret by now.
Along comes TJ Bean in a Ketchup colored limousine. “Sir,” says his chauffer, “are you sure of the address? 10359 Rte. 18? This appears to be a diner.”
“Yes, Henry, it does say 10359.”
“If you like, sir, I could go in and inquire.”
“Very well, Henry,” sighs the King.
The chauffeur goes into the diner, invitation in hand. “I’m looking for 10359 Rte 18 – The Ketchup Society black tie dinner? But I’m sure there must be some mistake.”
“There sure ain’t no mistake.” says Melba.
“That’s right.” Chorus the truck drivers. “We are the Ketchup Society of America and we wanted to have the king himself join us.”
Meanwhile Joe Jr. and Earl sneak out around the limousine. Hiss! Front right tire goes flat and the limousine leans. Now one spare they probably got, but two? Hiss! Goes the limousine down on its front fender.
The ketchup king gets out himself. Wonderful smells are coming from the diner. …meat loaf, apple pie. He walks on in.
“Sir, you’ll never believe this,” says the chauffeur.
“I think our tires are flat. Says the Ketchup King.
“Couldn’t be. I service the car myself this very afternoon….unless some conniving snake went and let the air out. Did you know that this is the Ketchup Society of America.”
“Well, Sir,” says Parfait, “You’ns might as well eat sumpin. Food’s great.
“I might as well, Henry,” says the King. “You go see about the tires.
Henry goes out to see about the tire and returns quickly. “Sir, I only have one spare and I’m afraid both front tires are flat as pancakes.” I’ll have to call a tow truck. Could I use you phone?” he asks Taffy.
“Gosh!” says Taffy, “ain’t it a coincidence, phone went dead about an hour ago.”
“Maybe you could get some spares form Suggs Auto in the morning. Meantime jes enjoy the Ketchup society of America Black Tie Ball.”
“I been in Ketchup all my life and I never heard of any Ketchup Society of America.” Says the King slipping back into his Pittsburgh accent. “ I git the feeling yinsers formed this society on the spur of the moment jes for me. Do you people know that kidnapping is a crime.?”
“So’s recipe stealing.” The kids tell him.
Dolly finishes frying the chicken and emerges from the kitchen. “Who is talking about kidnapping and recipe stealing out here.?”
“Well Madame,” says the chauffeur, “Mr. Bean seems to have been lured here under false pretences.”
“False pretenses my foot,” says Melba. “We just want credit where credit is due.”
“Just where is that?” asks Dolly and the King together.
“He stole you recipes, Mama,” says baby Earl.
“Preposterous!” says the King.
“And how! Says Dolly. He couldn’t steal my recipes because all my recipes are right here inside my own head.” And she pats her hairdo.
“you don’t understand.” Cry all the children together. “We watched you cook and we wrote them down for you and sent them to the Ketchup King so he’d notice you but he just took them and gave them to someone else. Your recipes are all over his ketchup and you didn’t get any credit at all. That weasel of a recipe director had the nerve to come back for more.”
They place three ketchup bottles on the table in front of Dolly and the King.
“Do you mean to say” asked the King, “That those marvelous recipes came from you?”
“Yessiree!” says Parfait. “The baked beans, the meatloaf, and the shrimpers.”
Dolly adjusts her glasses and holds the ketchup bottle to where she can read the print.
“Now you see,” says Melba. “This here is the meatloaf and this here is the beans. And there are 1001 more where those come from Mister.”
“Well I’m tickled.” Says Dolly but I would like to see my name on there somehow. But first Mr. Bean wouldn’t you like sompin to eat?
And Dolly heap up plates for the Ketchup King and his chauffeur. And after they had had seconds, thirds, forths and fifths the Ketchup King said to Dolly, “If you can get through to a tow truck, I’d like to show you my plant. I think I can use a new recipe director.”
“Aw shucks,” says Joe Jr. “I got a pump. I’ll go and blow ‘em up again.”
That night when Dolly returned home with the Ketchup King there were no noodles laying around all over the place. Not only did Dolly become TG Bean’s new recipe director, she became his wife. And Dolly’s kids played happily ever after on the TG Bean estate.