Philip and I have been at it again. We’re working on another big writing project together. Our last collaboration was a full length musical called Howl: The Life of Allen Ginsberg. It was grueling and took several years to write—music and lyrics—but watching it performed on stage got us hooked, and so now we’re giving it another go.
This time, it’s not a musical. It’s not even a play. Well, yes it is a play. It started out as a situation comedy, but the more we fleshed out characters and plots, the more we realized we needed a pilot. That led us to the decision to write a stage play so we could establish the main characters, their relationships, and a beginning to some threads that could be carried into a sitcom. Seeing the pilot on stage, we figured, would give us the chance to see what worked and what didn’t and to work on whatever revisions the piece might need.
The play is called In like Flint. Four of the five main characters feel trapped in their Flint lives and try desperately to get out of town in order to chase their dreams. The problem is that each character has a personality flaw that sabotages their efforts to move on. The problems of each of the characters is offset by the one character who is content with his life in Flint and turns down multiple opportunities to leave the comforts of Flint life for what others would see as much greener pastures.
My favorite main character was created from the inspiration of a dear friend of mine. This particular character is named Helen, and she is working on a local access television program that she hopes will launch her career and shake her out of her miserable existence. The show she’s created is called Helen Haddock’s Hot Dog Cooking Show for Kids. There’s only one problem: She hates kids!
Well, actually she has a second problem. Her dad is a local restaurateur who wants her, eventually, to take over the family business. She’s only concocted the cooking show idea as a way to get out of town, but her dad thinks she’s doing it as training to carry on a family tradition. He doesn’t know that she hates cooking too!
It wasn’t in the original plan when Philip and I started, but our script needs a regular public place where the characters can congregate. It dawned on me that if Helen’s dad owns a restaurant, that could be the meeting place. Like the diner on Seinfeld, or the coffee shop on Friends. After my lunch date with Stephanie last week, we may have found the perfect place: Gillie’s Coney Island on the corner of north Saginaw and Stanley Roads (www.gilliesconeyisland.com).
This place is a character in itself! The building looks like it came from the set of a cheesy Hollywood Western movie. The light paneled exterior is adorned with the skull of a dead steer, a bunch of mining tools, an American flag, and what looks like a drunken cowboy about to jump off the roof.
Wanna eat outside but can’t stand being in the scorching Michigan sun? Then the covered wagon picnic table (which almost blocks the front entrance) is just the spot for you. I imagine this Western theme becoming the inspiration for one of the characters in In Like Flint, perhaps the therapist with anger issues who longs to move out west and tame wild horses. Perhaps.
Gillie’s is a mom and pop operation that opened its doors (sadly, they’re not swinging saloon doors) in 1985. Owners Dave and Cindy Gillie are proud that “both our restaurant and our cuisine have rich histories.” They also have a tag line on their web site that proclaims: Fast Food in a Sit Down restaurant. And in a short, self-testimonial, also on the web site, we learn that their food has “evolved over the years. We now use 100% vegetable shortening to deep fry in and have added items like chicken and salads to the menu.”
The dining room is so busy, I can barely concentrate when we finally get to our booth. Not because there are so many customers but because there is so much crap on the walls, tables, floors, and yes, even on the ceiling, all screaming in unison: “LOOK AT ME!”. The western theme is continued throughout the dining room, but it’s paired awkwardly with an American patriot theme, which makes me feel like I’m in two different time periods at the same time.
But the advertisements strewn about the dining room eclipse all of the dead animal heads and American flags put together. They’re on the table, on the placemats, on the menu, and some of the ceiling tiles have been replaced with two foot by three foot ads that loom ominously overhead. (I’m not sure if this is considered an advertisement, but the whole front page of the menu is dotted with mini photographs of random people.)
I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect set design if I tried.
I’m not sure if we’ll make a running gag of the food in our fictitious In Like Flint diner, but we’d have plenty to work with if we did. The food at Gillies was atrocious, even by Coney Island standards. We made a couple of choices that didn’t totally stink but, overall, the quality of the food was pretty bad. We started out with a rather unusual appetizer, deep fried green pepper rings. When they and their Ranch dressing sidekick arrived, Stephanie and I gave the plate the once-over, shrugged our shoulders, and dug in. They weren’t all that bad. The batter was fresh and thick and the green peppers barely mushy from their vegetable shortening bath.
Our ritual Coney Dog arrived shortly after, and it too was pretty ok. It wasn’t nearly as good as Angelo’s or Tommy Z.’s; in fact, I’ve been disappointed in most of the samplings we’ve had this year. As much hype as I’ve heard about how great the Flint Coney is, I expected more diners to make more of an effort than they have. The Gillie’s Coney Dog is ok, and they also stock their grills with Koegel’s. Our waitress informed us that they use Vienna’s because unlike the regular Koegel’s hotdog, the Vienna “snaps when you bend it because of the extra thick casing.” I did not know that.
The bun, once again, was over steamed and almost rubbery. The sauce had enough flavor for me not to put the whole thing back on the plate and leave it uneaten, but this version had almost no grease in it, which I’m discovering really does contribute to the flavor. With the best sauces, a reddish grease soaks into the bun when you open it up for inspection. Our Gillie’s sauce left only a slight trace of a stain on the bun and it was more tan than reddish. (My Coney vocabulary just keeps expanding, doesn’t it?)
Stephanie’s fish sandwich was flawed but acceptable. I could not say the same for my salmon patty burger and Stephanie’s onion rings. They were both inedible. The onion rings appeared to be the run-of-the-mill frozen variety, somewhat on the order of Burger King’s. What could possibly go wrong then? Well something did because these babies tasted like they’d been dredged in metal. Low quality aluminum, most likely. There was no hint of onion and even less of a hint of batter. If Gillie’s can put out a decent (and fresh) deep fried green pepper ring, then don’t you think they could do the same with their onion rings?
The salmon patty was also an affront to the taste buds. It had a smidgen of fish flavor upfront, but it was quickly overtaken by a similar metallic taste. This one, though, was more like licking the inside of a fifty-five gallon drum. I gave up after just one bite.
Going to Gillie’s was a bittersweet experience for me. As a writer, I appreciate that our visit sparked a creative idea that I plan to use for In Like Flint. Helen Haddock’s Hot Dog Cooking Show for Kids might even tape an episode at Willie’s (I have to change the name so I don’t get sued) In reality, though, I don’t see myself becoming a regular at Gillie’s anytime soon.