What I miss in this town

It was gastronomic déjà vu. I’d taken a bite out of an Italian sandwich at the Head West restaurant on Main and the gooey juice ran down my chin and into my beard. I’ve learned in my bearded days to avoid things that drip … overly-sauced spaghetti, eave spouts, babies … but the café’s sandwiches are just pretty darned good, so when I have a day that I can run home and shower, I often treat myself. But while sitting there trying to daub the sauce out of my whiskers, I was hit with a jolt of memory … that sauce … where had I tasted it years ago? Then it came to me. Top’s Big Boy restaurant on Morton Avenue. Part pickle, part vinegar, part sugar and a whole lot of Thousand Island dressing. I was eating an Italian Big Boy! Gosh, I miss that place. If you were a college student in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was your go-to restaurant for hot greasy food back in the days when trans-fat meant really good, and lactose was something they only mentioned in chemistry class. Top’s was the meeting place for ladies who lunch, early morning truckers, families and college kids wanting to avoid dress up night at Illinois College. Loved that place. What other restaurant would dare choose as its mascot a grossly overweight child?

All of which put me in mind of other things I miss from Jacksonville’s past. Like … the Jacksonville Theatre Guild marquee at the north entrance to Community Park. Whether you were interested in theater or not, it was always neat to drive by and see the handiwork of Steven Varble or Rob Shaffer or Sylvia Burke or Jay Jamison or Linda Van Aken proudly announcing the next show. The Guild pumped out one performance after another on a 12-month basis and you didn’t need to consult a newspaper or website to see what was coming up. Now, the sign looks like the victim of shotgun blasts or perhaps a negligent state legislature.

The Times Theatre was a cool place to visit for a taste of old-fashioned movie going. A single screen, ushers at the doorway of the auditorium to take your ticket, popcorn that didn’t require taking out a second mortgage and plenty of parking nearby. I’m glad to see that the building has become a great place for kids to climb and have some fun, but gosh, I miss the Times.

Also, although he wasn’t made of brick and mortar, this guy had grit. I miss Vern Fernandes. If anything needed promoting, you went to Vern. Want advice on Jacksonville’s taste in planning upcoming events? Vern could tell you. And he was there on the front row of every concert, play, speech, recital and fundraiser in town. Fernandes was the town’s best … and loudest … cheerleader. That booming bass voice would call out to you across a crowded auditorium and for a moment you thought you’d died and that God was calling your number. I miss Vern. Sorry God called his so soon.

The 67 Drive-In movie was operated by the Frisina Enterprises and may have nurtured more marriages than the Catholic church. The movieland south of town had a 350-car capacity and I recently saw a picture of its stainless steel concession area touting ham sandwiches for thirty-five cents and popcorn at fifteen cents a bag. I remember the intermissions of the movies at which time you’d make a mad dash for a Coke. Families took the front rows since there was a playground up there, and young lovers fought for places in the rear tier. I never actually snuck in hidden in the trunk of a car, but some of our town’s present stalwart residents did. They told me so. Of course those of us who once thought about gaining free admission by stowing away in the rear of a car can no longer get in and out of a trunk.

Walking in the front door of Lukeman’s Clothing on the east side of the square was like entering the lobby of a fancy hotel. All the male clerks were in suits and ties and there was a distinct aroma of new suits and pipe smoke in the air. The guys called you by name and there was no guessing sizes then pulling something close off the rack at Lukeman’s. Every customer got measured on the way to his wedding or prom. It was a rite of passage and you could be assured of both a good fit but also a good supply of the latest jokes from your dresser.

The sandwich at Head West was delicious and I drove home wiping my beard while remembering some of the good things I’d like to see once more, and I remembered one more scary tale from Big Boy when my fraternity brother dared me to sneak up and steal one of the hats the Illinois State Troopers always left on the coat rack while they ate supper. No worries. Not only did I lack the nerve, but also they’d have been able to track me by looking for the trail of Big Boy sauce out the door.

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