March 11, 2014
Taped on the inside of the entry door to the diner, this hand lettered felt pen manifesto:
NO RESTROOM FOR NON-CUSTOMERS
NO OUTSIDE FOOD OR BEVERAGES
WE AIM TO PLEASE
These ten dictates -- one is reluctant to call them commandments -- are posted at Mickey's, a 1939 railcar diner parked stubborn just a block from our backstage loading door in St. Paul. A tall office building rises behind it, its blank wall testimony to the modern builders frustration in their attempt to drive the diner and its small parking lot off the downtown block entirely.
Robert Altman's film of our show began and ended in a booth there at Mickey's. The regulars accepted it as no big deal; nothing in the rules against filming Hollywood movies in there.
Your driver here has been a Mickey's Diner irregular for two score and seven years and it's the same as it's always been, and aging more gently than staff or clientele. Their Swing omelet is still the best anywhere. Sits high on the plate. Lighter than angel food.
Mickey's was sanctified into the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, now in the grand company of the St. Paul Union Depot, the St. Paul Cathedral, Central Presbyterian Church, the State Capitol Building; our Fitzgerald Theater joined the group in 2010.
In my old late nights at the biker bars the biker bars bouncers would bellow "You don't have to go home but you can't stay here." So we'd go to Mickey's.
Mickey's at night
These days I get to Mickey's when we load in and load out of the Fitz. Stagehands don't need to see the trucker lounging around while they grunt and shove and lift and sweat our 20 tons of gear into place so I slip away for an omelet at the old railroad car. Out of simple consideration.
Mickey's in the morning
It's been in Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Easy Rider, Playboy, Elle and the Smithsonian, and in at least four other movies (three of the 'Mighty Ducks' and 'Jingle All the Way'); plus an album cover and four national TV shows. It has been open 24 hours every day since 1939 and is still owned by the same family that put it there.
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Some months ago in Memphis I bought two metal signs in a souvenir shop. I asked the owner where he got the first one and he said a street guy in some city -- I don't think it was Knoxville but it could have been -- was sitting holding a poster as a personal fundraiser to attract donations from sympathetic passers-by.
He said, "I had my camera along. I leaned over to him and said I'm going to rip you off on your sign here and do you think twenty dollars would ease the pain for you a bit? And he said Twenty Bucks! You kidding! No problem! You wanna buy this here jacket? I'll give you a good deal on it, and I said well let's just start with the picture for now. So I gave him the twenty and took the photo and had a company make these metal signs."
Who could be so heartless as to resist such a critical need?
I paid him fifteen for the sign and the more I looked at it the more I saw. The lettering. It's all upper case, like an architect's, and pigeon, killed, family, money, buy and revenge -- words easily bungled, especially these days -- are all correct. And the off-kilter font is consistent within itself -- the wide hat and base on the I, the U with a spade bottom, the R, F, M and T all leaning backward; the E's all identical.
These, including the intentionally jumbled lines, suggest to me an education. At least some training. I'd like to have a photo of the writer, just for the heck of it. Next time I'm in Memphis I intend to go back to that shop.
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The second sign may not as literary as the first but is enough to bring a smile. This also hangs in the back porch of this old farmhouse, where people sometimes gather for the modest consumption of canapés and fermented grapes and perhaps brewed or distilled grains.
Subtlety in action
The pleasantry isn't meant to stifle; it will hopefully lead to a higher quality conversation; a reminder that no matter how interesting we may be at any particular moment there might be another who could add even more interest. Someone might even have a new joke. A roll of duct tape rests near the sign.
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A newsletter of the shipping industry, Bow Wave, is also a source of humor. Some time ago they published a poem I sent, written by a friend of mine, and we had an exchange of letters. In this series of signs I am confident my friend Sam Ignarski will have no objection to my quoting his South African friend's collection of notices seen around the world:
In a Bangkok Temple:
IT IS FORBIDDEN TO ENTER A WOMAN, EVEN A FOREIGNER, IF DRESSED AS A MAN.
Cocktail lounge, Norway:
LADIES ARE REQUESTED NOT TO HAVE CHILDREN AT THE BAR
Doctor's office, Rome:
SPECIALIST IN WOMEN AND OTHER DISEASES.
Dry Cleaners, Bangkok:
DROP YOUR TROUSERS HERE FOR BEST RESULTS
In a Nairobi restaurant:
CUSTOMERS WHO FIND OUR WAITRESSES RUDE, OUGHT TO SEE THE MANAGER.
On the main road to Mombasa, leaving Nairobi:
TAKE NOTICE WHEN THIS SIGN IS UNDER WATER, THIS ROAD IS IMPASSABLE.
On a poster at Kencom:
ARE YOU AN ADULT THAT CANNOT READ? IF SO WE CAN HELP.
In a City restaurant:
OPEN SEVEN DAYS A WEEK AND WEEKENDS.
In a cemetery:
PERSONS ARE PROHIBITED FROM PICKING FLOWERS, FROM ANY BUT THEIR OWN GRAVES.
Tokyo hotel's rules and regulations:
CUSTOMERS ARE REQUESTED NOT TO SMOKE, OR DO OTHER DISGUSTING BEHAVIORS IN BED.
On the menu of a Swiss restaurant:
OUR WINES LEAVE YOU NOTHING TO HOPE FOR.
In a Tokyo bar:
SPECIAL COCKTAILS FOR LADIES WITH NUTS.
THE FLATTENING OF UNDERWEAR WITH PLEASURE, IS THE JOB OF THE CHAMBERMAID.
YOU ARE INVITED TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE CHAMBERMAID.
In the lobby of a Moscow hotel, across from a Russian Orthodox Monastery:
YOU ARE WELCOME TO VISIT THE CEMETERY, WHERE FAMOUS RUSSIAN AND SOVIET COMPOSERS, ARTISTS AND WRITERS ARE BURIED DAILY, EXCEPT THURSDAY.
A sign posted in Germany's Black Forest:
IT IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN ON OUR BLACK FOREST CAMPING SITE, THAT PEOPLE OF DIFFERENT SEX, FOR INSTANCE, MEN AND WOMEN, LIVE TOGETHER IN ONE TENT, UNLESS THEY ARE MARRIED WITH EACH OTHER FOR THIS PURPOSE.
BECAUSE OF THE IMPROPRIETY OF ENTERTAINING GUESTS OF THE OPPOSITE SEX IN THE BEDROOM, IT IS SUGGESTED THAT THE LOBBY BE USED FOR THIS PURPOSE.
Advertisement for donkey rides, Thailand:
WOULD YOU LIKE TO RIDE ON YOUR OWN ASS?
Seen in an Abu Dhabi Souk shop window:
IF THE FRONT IS CLOSED PLEASE ENTER THROUGH MY BACKSIDE.
A laundry in Rome:
LADIES, LEAVE YOUR CLOTHES HERE AND SPEND THE AFTERNOON HAVING A GOOD TIME.
Airline ticket office, Copenhagen:
WE WILL TAKE YOUR BAGS AND SEND THEM IN ALL DIRECTIONS.
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So is this a cool language or what?
© Russ Ringsak 2014