Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Crying Bob and Bernie

I took my first restaurant job in 1978 as a busboy at the Anchor Inn in Manistee, Michigan, a small greasy spoon in a small fishing/factory town on Lake Michigan. What an eye opener that was for a sheltered teenager like me. I met an alcoholic who came in drunk every day, complained about his miserable life, and at some point began bawling like some little kid whose candy bar fell in the dirt. He called himself, "Bob. Just plain Bob." The waitresses and I dubbed him Crying Bob, a name he always lived up to.


I also met Bernie Patulski, a delusional acid-head who believed he was Jesus Christ. And he looked like Jesus, too. The first time he walked into the restaurant, draped in a flowing white garment, standing in front of the illuminated Specials of the Day board proclaiming to be the Son of God, I actually thought I was witnessing to the second coming. His story about being trapped in the belly of a whale was compelling. Since I wasn't very intimate with Scripture, it was lost on me that it was Jonah and not Jesus who actually held claim to that fish tale.


I eventually worked my way up to waiter, and then on to cook. This is where I learned how to crack an egg with one hand, how to make a square omelet, and how to cook anywhere from one to a dozen meals at the same time. These are skills that have stayed with me and that I use in my own kitchen adventures at home. After outgrowing the monotony of line cooking at a local diner, I moved on to become a cook at Big Boy, then Burger Chef, The Birdfeeder (another local diner), and The Drydock (an upscale dinner joint with less than upscale customers). Through it all, I learned a great deal about the restaurant business. But I learned even more about the human condition. Put the two together, and you have the perfect recipe for a Blog like Eating Flint.

Despite the horrendous reputation my adopted city has developed over the years--murder capital of the country, the bastard child of General Motors, the most undesirable city on the planet to live in--Flint really is a flourishing metropolis. Did you know there are 7 theatre troupes in the city, more than a dozen art galleries and museums, and a staggering 482 restaurants--this includes the entire county, of course, but that's one restaurant for every 200 people? This may be a city that always seems to be down on its luck, but we love to eat! And we love to eat out. If you're a golfer and want a guaranteed tee time, then hit the course between 5:00 and 7:00 in the evening. Everyone's gone out to eat and the golf courses are as empty as the eating establishments are full.

What I find unique about dining out in Flint is that most of the locally owned places have embraced the city of Flint and their establishments help create a collective identity that most outsiders rarely see but that locals find as comforting as a plate of Angelo's Coney Island gravy fries at three o'clock in the morning. Coney Island Diners, by the way, make up the backbone of Genesee County's restaurant industry. And each of the more than 50 diners has its own unique identity. Atlas and Colonial on Corunna Road are known hangouts for college students. Tommy Zs, Angelos, and a handful of others host the after-the-bar crowds. After it burned to the ground, the Olympic Coney Island rebuilt and the name changed to the Olympic Grill, an attempt, I think, to create a more upscale Coney Island dining experience. A contradiction for sure, but as the poet Walt Whitman once wrote, "So I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes." Like the transcendental poet himself, our Coney island diners contain multitudes, and from every walk of life. It's were the shop rats, the academics, the unemployed, the retired, and the families converge. It's where first dates happen. And not infrequently, it's where homecoming and prom couples come for dinner.

But Flint boasts an expansive menu of other dining options as well, and each one creates it own unique family portrait of Flint's people: Middle Eastern, Indian, Japanese, Italian, Soul, Thai, Mexican, lounges, even an award-winning brew pub. My goal for this blog is to share the cuisines and cultures of Flint's diverse and dynamic restaurant scene and to help my readers see the Flint that I see every day, the vibrant city I choose to live in, play in and, of course, eat in! The mainstream media have made my city the poster child for what's wrong with America. What we're spoon fed by the media isn't always accurate and too often sacrifices contextual truth for out-of-context sensationalism. Telling Flint's story, and telling it around the dining room table, is my way of inviting the world to sit down for lunch or dinner with me, to get a close up look at the diverse and colorful people who call Flint home, to understand why we are so protective of our beloved city, and to break bread with some of the kindest, most generous people you'll ever meet. So pull up a chair, fill up your wine glass, and let's order!












3 comments:

  1. How strange to read something about Bernie, I'm glad you didn't mention his sad fate. I'm wondering who "Crying Bob" is since you spared his family the mentioning of his last name. Manistee will alway be home to me.

    Bob Patulski

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  2. Great Blog Bob!! Check out our Flint-Style Coney Page on Facebook facebook.com/flintconey Keep up the great writing.

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  3. Hey what's up Bob! I, Bill Lynch, was the owner/operator of the Anchor In Family Dining (The official name, do you remember.) My son found this article and I just had to say "HI." Great article, I just had to respond, though I realize the chances of you receiving this may be slim to none, assuming the age of the article. If you do get it, maybe I'll hear back. One more thing from my childhood, Flint has always had an air of excitement attatched to it, the size as opposed to Manistee yes, but more than that. Something (in the air maybe) was their that was intriging, and coaxing me to come and enjoy and experience Flint!! Maybe now I no why, there is a lot happening their!! Thanks again.

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