It’s the morning of January 11, 2012–a gray, cold Wednesday in Highlandtown–and as people wait outside for the bus on Eastern Avenue, Andy Farantos dumps a stainless steel tray of potatoes on the grill in the front window of G&A Coney Island Hot Dogs, the fried onions and chili sauce landmark started by his grandfather in the Roaring 20s.
Just before 9 a.m. and the day’s rush is about to start. Farantos works next to a tray of five dozen eggs while his 19-year-old daughter–the waitress and aspiring model Anna–runs around in Keds with holes in the toes.
And then the show begins, a cabaret of odd balls and life long customers who know that the best place to pretend it’s 1955 is the diner off the corner of Eastern Avenue and Eaton Street, next door to the lottery outlet/liquor store and across from one of the city’s first supermarkets.
The first guy in the door has a face like George “Goober” Lindsey on a bad day and some kind of not-from-around-here accent, maybe Crisfield or West Virginia.
Goober stands by the grill and bangs Andy’s ear about the weather–how it always feels colder in the winter if you’ve been caught in the rain. Affable as only someone with nothing better to do can be, he talks about the weather for a full five minutes before taking a stool at the counter.
Andy notes on the sly that such a man will often comes in, ask for nothing but a glass of water and never shut up. The man promptly proves the Greek wrong by ordering a cup of coffee. Running between the grill and the cash register, Andy has an off-the-menu discussion with a much slower speaking young man–good hearted to the point of naivete, an unsettling, tapered shape to his head–who has saved up to buy himself a New York strip steak on Friday.
Farantos unwraps a rectangle of aluminum foil to show the young man a defrosting slab of prime beef and the regular leaves with a breakfast sandwich in hand and dreams of eating like a king in less than 48 hours.
By this time Goober has befriended a middle-aged African-American woman on the stool next to him.
“My son, he’s been sick,” says Goober to this perfect stranger. “He’s got nerve trouble. Who doesn’t have trouble?”
The woman nods–mmm-hmmm–and somehow the conversation turns to Goober’s art work–how he’s been getting back to it lately, how the quiet sketching relaxes him, how, if she doesn’t mind waiting for a moment or two he’d like to show her some recent drawings.
He runs across Eastern Avenue and returns with a large sketch book, opening it on the counter while Anna sets a blueberry pie into a see-through cake dish and dear old Dad lays out the first wave of the day’s hot dogs, described as “all the way” when served with mustard, onion and homemade chili.
On the counter: drawings of barn swallows, magpies and tree swallows while egg sandwiches fly out the front door.