Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Edward Gorey and Jack's Out Back

For Joy Davis Ripley

Sometimes someone carves out their own little space within which he/she becomes a genius; doing something really original, doing something unlike anything anyone else has ever done.  That would be the class Edward Gorey falls into. Nothing like him, before; nothing like him since. Nothing even resembling him. His work is difficult to describe; you need to check him out, you need to discover the amazement for yourself.
Edward Gorey

When, in 1999, Mark and I bought a small cafe on Whites Path in South Yarmouth, I knew that Edward Gorey lived in Yarmouth Port, not far away (2.2 miles, actually). When a customer who claimed to know Gorey told me that Gorey went out for breakfast everyday it was easy to fantasize that on any morning he might walk into our cafe. What that customer didn't tell me -- maybe he didn't know -- was that Gorey went to the same restaurant everyday, a place called Jack's Out Back.

Gorey died on April 15, 2000, less than a year after we'd bought Cafe Au Lait.  My fantasy died when I read that news in the Cape Cod Times.

I went to Jack's Out Back several times after Gorey's death. The place had tons of character. My favorite facet of the place was the doormat out front that said in bold yellow letters on a green background: GO AWAY.  Inside there were all sorts of signs instructing you how to order -- you had to write your own order slip; much wit was used in the instructions. There was a gigantic copper bowl on the counter near the cash register with a sign, in Gothic font, unmistakably drawn by Gorey, that read FORGET NOT THE WIDOWS AND ORPHANS.  Jack, the owner, already then an old man, tended the grill in the open kitchen, near the cash register. His white hair was always disheveled.

Jack Bragington, owner of Jack's Out Back
One could feel intimidated going there. While writing this I've come across a blog called "The Preppy Times" in which some of the character of Jack's Out Back is charmingly captured:

Jacks back then was a good wake-up call to those with delusions of grandeur who needed a slice of humble pie.  Come to think of it, humble pie might have been on their menu. 

Jack's was set down a lane (of sorts) off Route 6A.  A small sign on the highway, set amongst six or eight similar signs, was the single guide for a stranger to find it. You had to drive slowly and look carefully. But all the locals knew where it was. Again, from "The Preppy Times":

Yet the real appeal for visitors and one not understood by the local diners, is the odd restaurant rules set up by onetime proprietor, Jack Bragington.  These rules are so eccentric that an unaware tourist might think they may have somehow stepped into the twilight zone. Here is what you could expect on any given day; celebratory hooting and hollering by the staff over tips and confused tourists waiting for someone to take their orders, at Jacks you write your own food ticket and place it on the wheel.  You also get your own coffee and silverware and if you do not pick up your food fast enough, expect the wrath of Jack.  You were also expected to wipe down your own table and pay with cash, no credit cards allowed.  Think Mayberry in New England where everyone has gone crazy and you will have a feel for the place.  Honestly, it is all in good fun and no one took Jack seriously.  That was then.  Jack has since passed away, God rest his soul.  

I did not feel intimidated on any of my visits, and was grateful that Jack was always friendly to me. The place is beloved by so many of the old-timers in Yarmouth Port that one can feel like an intruder, certainly an outsider, if you're not one of those old times. Not me. I didn't care. I was too old to care about such matters.

I had a friend in Lansing, Michigan, named Dennis Little. We met in 1964 and, quickly recognizing one another as a kindred soul, became very close. If we were separated, as we were for most of our friendship, we wrote letters regularly. We wanted each other to be the witness of the other's life.
Dennis Little, 1970

It was Dennis who first turned me on to Edward Gorey; he owned, already in 1964, several of Gorey's self-published little masterpieces; they were not, in those days, easy to acquire until you learned that the legendary Frances Steloff, owner of Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan, carried Gorey's books, and did mail orders.

A must-go-to place when in Manhattan.
I was thrilled in 1977 when I was spending a winter in Manhattan and saw Edward Gorey, attired in his long raccoon coat and white tennis shoes, walking on 5th Avenue. I could hardly wait to get back to my room and write Dennis about this astonishing experience.


A month's worth of Gorey's Guest Check orders framed at Jack's Out Back

One morning in the autumn of 2000 at Jack's Out Back I wrote my order up and hung it on the wheel. I poured myself a cup of coffee, grabbed a napkin and silverware, and went to the one vacant seat at the high counter. It was the seat closest to the door. I was wearing my vivid yellow sweatshirt that I had just bought at the Quad-Cities airport after attending the Illinois funeral of a beloved brother. Just as I sat down the man on the next stool, looking to be about sixty, a little heavy, nice-enough looking, said to the grill-tending Jack, pointing at me,"Look! Edward's yellow!" Then he turned to me. "Do you know who Edward Gorey was?" I said that yes, I did, and that I had been a fan since the early sixties -- an unintended exaggeration; I couldn't think quickly just when (1964) Dennis had introduced me to Gorey's marvels.

"Edward had a sweater that color and he gave it to Jack in his will!"


"In fact, your sitting in his chair!" I couldn't help but wonder if I was supposed not to sit in his chair.

"This is where he sat? I'm honored"

"In fact, we're going to be putting a plaque on it soon."

We chatted a bit, without introducing ourselves, and I gathered that this man was very close to Gorey -- probably his neighbor and friend. When I asked where Gorey had been buried the man said, "Some of his ashes are buried in Ohio, and some were scattered at Sandy Neck, and I have a little jar of them which he asked me to scatter in his yard. I haven't done it yet, but we'll do it sometime before the end of the year."

"Why Ohio?" I asked.

"A favorite aunt of Edward's lives there, and she wanted his ashes to be buried there."

"He grew up in Chicago, didn't he?"


There wasn't much more to our small talk than that.  A couple had come in and sat to the man's left, and he said that one of his cats -- he named it but I didn't catch the name -- had returned home the night before after a two-week absence. The woman wondered why the cat left home "like that." The man said that the cat began doing it since he'd taken Edward's cat in, that it doesn't like Edward's cat. I wanted to say, "Oh! Give me Edward Gorey's cat!" but I didn't.

As I walked to my truck after a good breakfast I thought how fascinated Dennis would have been to know that I'd sat in Edward Gorey's chair, and would have listened raptly as I described what kind of place it is that Edward Gorey took his meals in. I would have had to go to the nearest telephone and report it all to him. It couldn't wait until I got home.

But I couldn't tell Dennis because he had died eleven years earlier, at forty-seven, of lung cancer. It still hurts that he's gone.

I wondered, walking to my truck: What are we supposed to do with these sorts of experiences? These sorts of things that need to be communicated to the exactly-right person? These experiences bottle up inside. There's no where to put them. There's no right place for them to live.

Some day you can start a blog; you can put your memories there.

No comments:

Post a Comment