Welcome to Life in Chains, where writers share the essential roles played in their lives by chain restaurants—great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, Keith Pandolfi on family, honesty, and dinners with his father at Friendly's.
was once in love with a Friendly's waitress named Tina. She had dark skin and big teeth, a teenage version of Barbara Hershey circa Hannah and Her Sisters. She was a year behind me in high school. When we were at school, I didn't think of her as a Friendly's waitress at all; she was just a crush, a girl I'd ask to dances only for her to tell me she already had a date, a girl I once drove home from a party to a subdivision I'd never heard of before, and tried to kiss outside her ranch house. I moved in, she pulled away, pecked me on the cheek, and ran inside. We were just friends, she'd say.
I was fine being just friends with Tina. I was in love with her in a special way that didn't require her to love me back. Five years earlier, my nuclear family had exploded like an atom bomb, and Friendly's was where my father and I would sit together on weeknights reviewing what had gone wrong, and working through what he could do to fix it.
"She's a cute gal," Dad would say after Tina had delivered our Big Beef burgers or refilled our Cokes or emptied his ashtray. "I know," I'd say. His approval made me love her even more. Maybe it's what made me love her in the first place.
Over time, we whittle down our memories of people to moments, a handful of images and gestures that we can call on when we need them. Though sometimes, they arrive without warning — they come on strong, invading our thoughts as we drive down empty highways, or as we watch the coffee fall into its pot each morning, drop by drop. It's been nearly thirty years since my father and I sat across each other in that Friendly's booth. Three years ago, as I was reciting my wedding vows, an image sprang into my head of my father bursting into my childhood bedroom, a fedora tilted on his head and a suit jacket slung over his shoulder. He'd been summoned by the needle dropping onto a Frank Sinatra album, and he danced around my room, lip synching to the end as I sat on a twin bed, laughing until I was almost crying.
When I let myself look at these memories, they stick with me, clouding the edges of my vision like a bad hangover
There is a place deep down inside me where I keep the memories of the years when my father's drinking was at its worst. The wounding insults, the vengeful fistfights, the flagrant infidelities. When I let myself look at these memories, they stick with me, clouding the edges of my vision like a bad hangover. My father was kind and loving. The man he was when he was drinking wasn't — he was a stock character, a caricature of addiction and despair. My father was a good man until he turned into a very bad one, and then eventually he ended up good again.
It started with a heart attack, one that knocked him to the ground as he stood with some clients in an elevator in downtown Detroit. He was airlifted home to Cincinnati to heal up a little before the quadruple bypass it turned out he needed. Three weeks later, the morning of the surgery, he sat in our living room in his pink recliner holding his head in his hands, saying "I don't want to die," over and over. He was crying. I'd never seen him cry before.
He didn't die — at least, not then. Dad had always been a drinker, and whether it was his brush with mortality, or some darkness that had been lurking inside of him all along, waiting to come out, after the surgery, it got worse. Drinking drove him toward sins and indiscretions that eventually led to him losing his job and ultimately, losing my mother. After a series of fights that may as well have been scripted by Edward Albee, she moved out and divorced him.
When she left, I had to decide what I wanted to do, and I chose to live with my father in his post-marital purgatory. With Mom went half the furniture, a cantankerous poodle named Cabot, and the rules and chores that had previously constrained me. The pink lounge chair remained. So did the sofa, a maroon corduroy sleeper my parents had bought together long before we moved to Cincinnati; back when we were proud New Englanders, living in a white clapboard Cape Cod in one of those perfect little Massachusetts towns with a gazebo in the square, and an old churchyard cemetery where children would tape white paper onto the gravestones, rubbing them with black chalk to create reliefs of the dead.
With Mom gone, my father fell into dangerous territory. Instead of adhering to the Mediterranean diet his doctor prescribed, he turned to a suicidal regimen of greasy cheeseburgers, Merit cigarettes, and Chivas Regal, a meal he tucked into nightly at the pub down the street from our house. I was fifteen years old, and when I would come home from school in the late afternoon, I would find him passed out on that maroon sofa from our old life, an empty bottle of Chivas beside him, watched over by news anchors talking at him from the Zenith. I would wake him up to make sure he was alive, stare at him for a moment, and then head to my room, where I'd stay until I heard the front door slam shut, indicating he was headed back to the pub. I'd eventually emerge and fix myself some frozen Weaver chicken or a Healthy Choice dinner in the microwave.
After a year of this routine, my father woke up one morning, downed a half-bottle of Scotch, and called up my mother to say he'd had enough
After a year of this routine, my father woke up one morning, downed a half-bottle of Scotch, and called up my mother to say he'd had enough. She came to our house, loaded him into her car, and drove him to an in-patient detox program at Bethesda Hospital. He never drank again.
My father left rehab twenty-five days later, and our Friendly's dinners started about six months after that. We could have spent our time together at any restaurant, really, but my parents had both grown up in Springfield, Massachusetts, the town where the first Friendly's opened in 1935; it had been our family's go-to restaurant ever since I was a child. When my parents left New England for Ohio, one of the first things they did was drive up and down Beechmont Avenue, a thoroughfare of strip malls and auto dealerships, looking for that white cupola and familiar Friendly's script.
Beechmont was also the street that ran from my high school to the two-bedroom apartment my father and I had relocated to after our big, empty house (and the mortgage that came with it) became too much for him to bear. Sometimes our dinners together were scheduled, sometimes they happened spontaneously. On my way home from track practice I would see Dad's two-tone blue Pontiac parked in the Friendly's lot, and I'd head inside to sit with him. The restaurant had become his office; it was the place where he searched the want ads of the Cincinnati Enquirer for a new job, met up with his AA sponsor, or wrote the journal entries he had started keeping on a growing pile of yellow legal pads.
Outside of time at Friendly's, I didn't see my father all that much. Our lives were too busy: him with his AA meetings and the baby steps he was taking back into the dating world, me with running, girls, and the social life that had flooded in to fill the empty space the dissolution of my family had left. Our dinners together were my chance to see how Dad was doing, to check in on his process of changing back into the father I loved. And they were his chance to check in with me, too — he was working his way through the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and to him, the most important steps were the eighth and ninth, the steps where you make a list of the people you have harmed, ask for their forgiveness, and make amends.
"You act like you're fine. But all of the things I did are going to catch up with you if you don't start talking about it now"
Within the high walls of his favorite booth, he tried to explain himself, his actions, his destructions. It was there he told me that there were reasons his drinking had become so bad. It was there I learned he was an anxious and insecure man, a man who had spent his life trying to live up to the expectations set by a demanding father of his own, who had died when he was just a teenager; that he felt pressure to transcend his modest upbringing, to marry a beautiful woman, to own a big house in an affluent suburb somewhere far away from the crumbling streets where he grew up. He told me he had accomplished his mission, but it hadn't been enough: he hated his life; he hated his job.
"I'm worried about you," my father would say to me as we sat across the laminate-topped table from each other, our arms folded the same way, our matching hunched postures. I would tell him I was fine, I was happy, that there was nothing to forgive him for. He wasn't buying it: "You act like you're fine," he'd say. "But all of the things I did are going to catch up with you if you don't start talking about it now."
I appreciated his effort to make things right, but I was a teenager and it was the 1980s — my life couldn't possibly have been better. Because of my mother's absence and my father's guilt, I could get away with everything. I could stay out all night without calling, crashing with the college girl I'd started dating; a simple excuse like "I was at a friend's house and didn't want to wake you" was enough for Dad to forgive me for the anxiety he must have felt waiting up for me. I could skip school for days at a time, and bring home without fear a 1.9 GPA report card for him to sign. And when my father would leave me home alone while he was away on his weekend-long AA retreats, I could host huge parties fueled by cases of Coors Light and handles of Jim Beam, confident that he wouldn't — he couldn't — freak out about the cigarette burns that appeared on his pink recliner or the corduroy sofa. I knew he would endure with fortitude the smell of spilled beer and whiskey that permeated the apartment long after the party was over.
As junior year turned to senior, my grade point average continued to plummet, and so did my attendance. I would go in on a Monday maybe, and pop in for a half-day on Thursday and a full day Friday. I quit track and spent most of my time at home watching horror movies on HBO with a box of Better Cheddars and a can of cheese dip, or drinking Amstel Light and smoking clove cigarettes at the tavern that never carded over near the university. One night, dad came home to find me sitting at the kitchen table with an army recruiter. After politely asking the sergeant to leave, he put me in the car and took me to Friendly's.
Tina was our waitress. After giving her our order, my father turned his attention back to me. He told me he'd made a mistake. He should have been tougher on me. "You have to get your act together," he said, looking me in the eye, and in response I told him I was fucked. I admitted that I'd all but stopped going to school. I told him I knew there was no money for college. Even if there was, I probably was going to have to repeat senior year anyway.
"You have to get your act together," he said, looking me in the eye, and in response I told him I was fucked
A few days later he went to see my high school counselor, Mrs. Arnold, to talk to her about my prospects. "He's a smart kid," she said to him. "But, you know—the whole divorced parent thing, the child of an alcoholic. He's taking advantage of it." Somehow this led to my father telling Mrs. Arnold his own story, and her asking him to come speak to the school about it, part of the regular lineup of Reagan-era "Just Say No"-style assemblies that punctuated our school calendar, speakers warning us of the likelihood of heroin overdoses, drunk driving-induced decapitations, and acid trips that would lead to murder, suicide, and worse.
Dad agreed to come in. My presence at the assembly wasn't required, but from what I learned afterward, he steered away from the scared-straight route. Instead, he talked frankly to a room of six hundred teenagers about the reasons he drank, the insecurities that befuddled him, the terrible things he'd done to his wife and his son. He mentioned me by name. He cracked jokes about his anxieties around women and was charmingly self-effacing, and while I doubt he stopped anyone from popping open a California Cooler that night, he nevertheless got his point across: that the thing to worry about with alcohol or drug addiction wasn't the shocking finality of murder or suicide, but the everyday pain it inflicts on the people you love, and the ease with which it could lead to a person losing track of the essence of who he really is.
Somehow that year, Dad and I both managed to get our acts back together. He made it through his twelve steps and found a job he loved, working as a drug and alcohol counselor at a halfway house across the river in Kentucky. I raised my grade-point average high enough to get into Ohio State by the skin of my teeth, and my grandfather and my mother's new husband paid my way.
My father's demons still needed working out, though, and with me gone for college he took the attention he'd paid to our relationship and turned it to them. I heard from him less and less as he started to focus his energy on his friends in AA, on his patients in the halfway house, and on Pat, the pretty, bespectacled recovering addict he was dating. He rarely called. When I came home to Cincinnati to surprise him one weekend, a look of annoyance washed over his face when I walked through the door. In that moment, it seemed, I had been an unwelcome reminder that he still had a son, that his relationship with me was still a work in progress. When I opened his refrigerator a few hours later, the only thing inside was a white paper takeout bag from Friendly's. I stood in the kitchen eating cold fried clams, wondering if I still had a place in his life.
On a Sunday evening just after my sophomore year of college, my dad called me at my apartment in Columbus, and we talked for two hours. I don't remember too many of the details of that conversation, but I remember how excited I was he'd reached out to me, and I remember suggesting we make plans to rent a cabin back in New England in the fall, maybe do a little fishing — some time for just the two of us. He said it sounded like a great idea, though I remember hearing a waver of hesitation in his voice.
When I opened his refrigerator a few hours later, the only thing inside was a white paper takeout bag from Friendly's
"Are you okay?' he asked me, like he always did. "Sure," I said, like I always did. He pushed back, fully embodying the compassionate counselor he'd become in the previous years: "No, are you okay? Do you think you will be okay?" I told him my grades were good; I told him my girlfriend was the best thing that ever happened to me. He told me he was proud of me, and then apologized — like he always did — for the things he had done.
Then he died. Three hours after I hung up the phone, it rang again, and this time it was Pat. She told me he'd had another heart attack while he was sleeping. I threw the phone down on the floor, punched a hole into my closet door, and picked the phone back up and asked her if there were any warning signs, if he'd known, somehow, that something was wrong — if that was why he'd called me. She said no, he'd seemed fine. He'd told her simply that he needed to talk to me.
When my father died he didn't leave — he was just gone. When we were at Friendly's, when we were on the phone, or in the rare times we talked together at home, he always made a point of asking me how I was doing, his questions powered by the sincere, penetrating attention of an addict in recovery. But no matter how vehemently I told him I was fine, no matter how truly I believed it back then, I now know I wasn't. And my father was trying to tell me that — considering everything he'd put our family through — it was okay for me not to be. I couldn't have been. I'm still not.
I'm just a few years shy now of the age my father was that summer night when he died. Do I drink too much? Maybe. I'm not sure. I do know what it's like to be a middle-aged man sorting through the regrets he carries forward from his past. I've inflicted my own hurt on my friends and my family. I want to be a better husband than my father was. I want to be a better father. My first child, a daughter, will be born soon. And someday, maybe, I'll burst into her room, channeling the grandfather she never knew, lip-synching "Fly Me to the Moon" as she buries her head in her hands in embarrassment. I want to make her laugh more than I make her cry.
I want it to feel the same way it did back when I was a kid, but it doesn't, and I doubt it ever will again
The Friendly's where my dad and I used to meet for our weeknight dinners closed in the 1990s; the building was turned into a gardening store, then sat empty for years before it was bulldozed to make way for an auto parts emporium. It's not an uncommon fate for Friendly's outlets these days. There aren't many near where I live in New York, but when I'm traveling and I see one, I almost always pull over and visit, fearing it might be the last time I have the chance.
Whenever I walk in the door, I want it to feel the same way it did back when I was a kid, but it doesn't, and I doubt it ever will again. I'll remember how the sun would pour through the restaurant's bay window as Dad and I sat there eating hot dogs and onion rings, how the place always smelled like deep fryers and sugar cones, the row of solitary men sitting at the counter drinking coffee and reading the paper, dragging fried clams through trails of ketchup or slurping watery chowder from white ceramic bowls. I'll remember the Fribble milkshakes served alongside their frost-covered stainless steel shakers, the promise that once you were done with what was in your glass, there would still always be a little more.
Sitting there in a booth, I'll stab my fork into a side salad or wrap my hands around a burger, waiting patiently: for the smell of my father's cigarettes to signal his arrival; for the tight, back-slapping hugs he always bestowed when he saw me; for Tina to show up at my table and smile that big toothy smile of hers. I wait for the chance to revisit the conversation with my father that I once tried so hard to avoid, to remind myself how intensely he tried to make things right, and to apologize for taking advantage of both his guilt and his love. I want him to know that I eventually found a girl who loved me back, that there's a child on the way, that after doing double duty to make sure I turned out all right, my mother is a happy septuagenarian who walks another poodle named Cabot past oaks and palm trees on warm Florida evenings. I want him to know that it all worked out in the end, sort of. That here, at Friendly's, everything is forgiven.
Keith Pandolfi is a Brooklyn-based writer. A former editor at Saveur, his writing on food and culture can be found in the Wall Street Journal, Oxford American, and Cooking Light, among other publications.
Header image: Mike Mozart/Helen Passy/Flickr
Editor: Helen Rosner