When Hamburger Station is Busy
Whenever I go to Hamburger Station for lunch with my dad and I point out there’s nobody there, he says, “It’s busier at dinnertime.”
Whenever I go to Hamburger Station for dinner with my dad and I point out there’s nobody there, he says, “It’s busier at lunchtime.”
So, when is Hamburger Station busy?
Hamburger Station is never busy.
When I think about Hamburger Station, what comes to mind is the eight-foot fiberglass horse (named American Red), the covered wagon, the font on the sign that could be called Clapboard Bold, the interior that looks like a combination of a Wild West saloon and a 1950s’ diner: some of the linoleum counter’s stools are actually saddles, there are burlap sacks of potatoes, burlap sacks of onions, a rough wooden floor, inconceivably no one’s ever been thrown through the front window at the end of a brawl (a fact that’s always bothered me), a stainless steel flattop grill covered in mouth-watering grease, deep fryers for the fresh-cut fries, a wall menu with those plastic letters and numbers, employees in white T-shirts, an old cash register, booths, the malt vinegar for the fresh-cut fries, and the burgers. The burgers. These aren’t those lousy meatloaf-tasting sliders from White Castle or Krystal. No way. White Castle and Krystal are the elementary school cafeteria version. Hamburger Station burgers. They’re two-and-a-half inch squares. Piled high with onions, pickles, mustard. Dinner roll for a bun. Get yourself a Speed Pack (two burgers, fries, lemonade). Yeah. That right there. That right there . . .
That’s what I think about.
But, uh, right. Not much in the way of other patrons, I mention to my dad.
He takes a sip of lemonade.
He responds in an unconcerned deadpan.
Hamburger Station is only busy when I’m not there.
Although the Menches Brothers, Frank and Charles, invented the hamburger (which is what Northeast Ohioans actually believe, even if the Akron Hamburger Hearings of 2006 graciously awarded that honor to Charles Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin), others perfected what no one calls a plain old sandwich anymore. In other words, the Menches were like the Titans in Greek mythology. Interesting, sure. But what we really want are the Olympians. The line of succession, then, goes like this: the fabled Peppy Service Lunch begat Marvin “Pop” Thacker, who went on to create the exalted Thacker’s Hamburgs; Thacker’s Hamburgs begat Jim Lowe, who went on to found the renowned Hamburger Station.
With such an illustrious history, you can imagine that Jim Lowe, in his incongruous cowboy hat of immeasurable gallons, his inexplicable shitkicker boots (having spent most of his life in burger joints in the Buckeye State, not pastures in Texas), his large glasses that helped him see more than the normal human, well, you can imagine that Jim Lowe had the power of prophesy. And it could be that when, as a little kid, I met him, a meeting I do not remember, a meeting only related to me by my dad, a man who once said, “When I told you honesty was the best policy, I was lying,” during this supposed meeting, the legendary founder of Hamburger Station perhaps had this to say to me:
“Son, don’t be skeered, but I can see the future. Yessiree Bob. And what I see off there in the heretofore, and this is the Simon pure, is twenty Hamburger Stations, son, twenty Hamburger Stations spanning Northeast Ohio. A purty thought. Yet somehow, and now, I don’t rightly know why, somehow, and I don’t mind jawin’ at you like this on account of no-way will you recollect what I’m clapping down, somehow, anytime you come in, ya little varmint, a fandango it will not be. Fact a business, it’ll be a ghost town. Me, I won’t be afeared. When all you can hear are the winds a-howlin’, the sand a-blowin’, the tumbleweeds a-rollin’, whereas my friendly fellers will be full of flusteration, I won’t be because I’ll know what’s a-comin’—you. It’ll be you. Maybe you and yer paw. Maybe you and one of them scalawags in yer posse. But that’s all. Hain’t no one else will be here. And for the rest of yer dadgummed life, you’ll wonder how this could be. Hamburger Stations far as the eye can see; nobody inside. Whipper-snapper, that there’s yer fate. Why’s for the folks up the doxology works to know.”
I tell Scott Schulman, a friend of mine, about me and my dad’s routine.
He says that can’t be. It can’t just be the fate of Farkas. Because him and his dad, they have the same routine.
Hamburger Station is busy at an undisclosed, perhaps undisclosable time.
The grease on the flattop grill sizzles and I am enthralled not only by the savory smell, but by the mystery. . . .
In this hipster-dominated era, when people try to one-up each other by being the first to adopt that which will become a trend, either by finding something brand new or by reviving something old (thus the reason for Pabst Blue Ribbon’s re-ascendancy once upon a time), you might think my dad and I fit right in, that we’re trailblazers, that we’re tastemakers. The grease, oh that smell making my mouth water, does not agree. To explain, some Hamburger Station lore:
For years, Hamburger Station didn’t carry ketchup. The burgers were served “neat,” which meant pickles and (lots of) onions, with squeeze bottles of mustard throughout the restaurant and malt vinegar for the fresh-cut fries. But no ketchup. Jim Lowe liked to tell a story about a customer who would come in always asking for that red garbage. Finally, Lowe put it on a burger, and supposedly the man said he’d never ask for ketchup again. According to Lowe, ketchup and the grease Hamburger Station uses on the burgers do not mix well because the tomato product screws up the pH balance making the whole thing taste bad. Being so important, it’s probably no surprise then that the grease recipe is a closely guarded secret.
In fact, during his lifetime, Lowe was the only one who knew how to make it.
(But who knows how to make it now . . . ?)
And so, the reason my dad and I can’t claim membership in an exclusive club is because a place like Hamburger Station, that bases the taste of its primary product on a secret recipe grease, that refuses to change how the burgers are dressed even once they started carrying ketchup and mayonnaise (treating the bottles like they’re full of some infectious disease), meaning Hamburger Station has willfully accepted losing customers in order to adhere to their ideal of what a burger ought to be, well a place like that isn’t interested in being busy, and asking when Hamburger Station is immediately proves I just don’t get it. Likely, then, the people who do get it are initiated into the secret society, the real Hamburger Station, where the mysteries are revealed (obviously one of which is the recipe for the grease), the adepts later entering their perhaps underground chapter room, full to capacity (a capacity that won’t be giving McDonald’s a run for its money, but who would want to, you?! then what in the world are you doing here?!), where they gawk at flatscreens depicting these lunkheads (Farkas? What kind of name is that anyway?!) who think they know what it means to be dedicated to Hamburger Station.
But if this is the case, if Hamburger Station is merely a front for the Ancient Western Order of the Buckeroos of the Mystic Grease, then my family is a splinter faction that hides in plain sight. After all, my mom, dad, sister, and yours truly all hate ketchup, and since, when we’re there, no one else ever appears to be, that means the restaurant itself serves as our own private (one might even say secret) chapter room, and perhaps, when we have quorum, that’s when Hamburger Station is busy.
Hamburger Station is only “busy” relative to other times.
My dad holds up an onion ring and comments on the fact that it’s bigger than one of the hamburgers. This comparison seems important to him, so important he often brings it up. But me, I’m thinking of another comparison, a comparison that focuses on the word “busier.”
It could be that my question, “When is Hamburger Station busy?” is the wrong one. After all, when my dad says, “It’s busier at [lunchtime/dinnertime],” he might just be speaking comparatively. For instance, if I go to Hamburger Station with my dad for lunch one day, and then go there with my friends John Schloman and Scott Schulman for dinner the next day, then technically my dad is right: it’s busier (though not necessarily “busy”).
But a different problem rears its head here. As teenagers, John, Scott, and I often ate with our families, met up later on, and then ate again. Contrarily, we sometimes knew that we’d be eating with our families later and that there wouldn’t be time afterwards, so we went before we were to rendezvous with our families. In each instance, what meal were John, Scott, and I having? If it was neither lunch, nor dinner, then could we justifiably call when we were eating lunchtime or dinnertime?
This confusion reminds me of a story. One day, at school, John was asked how his brother was doing. Since John’s brother, Bill, is considerably older than John, and since the person who had inquired about his brother was younger than John, John wondered how this person knew his brother. Anyway, John said that Bill was fine. “No, not Bill. The other one.” Having no other brother, John was confused. “What’s his name? With the sideburns. Scott! How’s Scott?” It was then that he realized what’d happened. John’s last name being Schloman, Scott’s last name being Schulman, both names being a collision of “shhh” and “el” and “man” sounds, they must be the same: Schuloman. Yeah, that’s right. Or, anyway, close enough.
But close enough isn’t good enough here. So much as John and Scott aren’t brothers, the meals we were eating were neither lunch, nor dinner, meaning for us the times weren’t lunchtime or dinnertime.
Of course, the fact that teenage boys eat a lot isn’t news. So, maybe it doesn’t matter what meal we happened to be having. Instead, what matters is the time. And whereas those times, lunch and dinner, may be variable (in my adult years, I’ve lived and continue to live on a much different schedule than others), we have a general idea of when they are.
I don’t think my dad’s thought problem is semantic, however. If it were, he probably wouldn’t care when Hamburger Station was busy, or if it were ever busy at all. Seeing as how Jim Lowe’s legacy is one of my dad’s favorite restaurants, though, he does care. Since he cares, his fun can’t be nihilistic, ultimately auguring Hamburger Station’s doom. Yeah, I’ve let myself get bogged down in meals and times, when something else is at work. . . .
Again, my dad holds up an onion ring and I finally understand that his constant observation is connected to his thought problem. The reason my dad always references the other time, the time when we’re not there, is to create a kind of circular logic, as round as the onion ring, the onion ring that isn’t just physically bigger than the burgers (which are square), but also figuratively, since within that ring, though we will never truly learn when Hamburger Station is busy, Jim Lowe’s restaurant will go on forever.
Hamburger Station is simultaneously always busy and never busy.
Whereas I do not recall meeting Jim Lowe, I do remember, when I was a little kid, meeting and befriending a different employee, someone I always looked forward to talking to whenever we went to Hamburger Station, a really, really great guy, you could just tell by his name. His name was Andy. Later, of course, Andy would go on to collect college degrees at Kent State University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Alabama, and the University of Illinois at Chicago and become a creative writing professor at Washburn University. Later, of course, Andy would go on to move up in the ranks at Hamburger Station, from order taker to cook to trainer to assistant manager to manager to general manager, before retiring. Whenever they met, the two Andys got along wonderfully, each time happy to engage in their favorite activity: comparing burger bellies. Who could eat more Hamburger Station burgers? They didn’t know, but they were going to find out.
This unadulterated love for Hamburger Station leads me to the fact that just about everyone I know loves the place. And, often, just about everyone they know loves the place. Even the famous rock band The Black Keys, who hail from Akron, when loading the cover of their third studio album, Rubber Factory (2004), with as many hometown landmarks as they could, included Hamburger Station. Not Swenson’s or Skyway or Bob’s Hamburg or Mr. Hero (home of the Romanburger, which comes on a sub roll, has two patties next to each other, both atop slices of salami) or any of the root beer stands or any of the historic joints like Manner’s Big Boy, Lujan’s, Pogo, The Varsity, Dilly’s, The Flame, or Kamper’s, no, The Black Keys chose Hamburger Station (well, they also chose The Corral, home of the NiteMare, a burger that includes a thick slice of chipped chopped ham, but still).
And yet, every time my dad and I go, we have no problem running through our routine. Hamburger Station appears to have taken Yogi Berra’s absurdity and turned it into reality: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
From the world of physics, then, I offer two possibilities. First, Erwin Schrödinger famously used a box, a cat, and a poison trap that has a fifty percent chance of triggering in order to explain the problem of measuring a photon. With the box closed, you’re not sure if the cat is alive or dead and therefore it is simultaneously alive and dead, though that is impossible. What is the point of this thought experiment? The point is that the same is the case for photons: without measuring them (the metaphorical opening of the box), they act like both particles and waves, even though that is as impossible as a cat being both alive and dead. But when you measure photons as if they were particles, they act like particles; when you measure photons as if they were waves, they act like waves. I argue, then, that Hamburger Station, with its many confessed fans, is constantly simultaneously busy and not busy. My own experience, being a drop in the bucket, is irrelevant.
Much as I find that previous argument unsatisfying, Hugh Everett III found the Copenhagen interpretation of physics unsatisfying, since it’s impossible for light to be both a particle and a wave simultaneously. And so, my second argument comes from Dr. Everett: the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of physics. In the MWI, every time a particular action could have multiple outcomes, all of those outcomes take place in separate universes. For instance, anytime my dad and I go to Hamburger Station, it could either be busy or not busy, and therefore it is both, though in separate, unbridgeable realities. When my dad says that Hamburger Station is busier at lunchtime, or that it’s busier at dinnertime, since I cannot access those times in the moment, what he is actually telling me is that in some other reality, Hamburger Station is, indeed, busy, but neither of us can experience that universe. Maybe that’s for the better. Here, we get our Speed Packs quicker.
Back in a less theoretical version of Jim Lowe’s legacy, after eating many, many hamburgers, Andy and Andy, to determine who indeed has the bigger burger belly, turn to an outside judge: my dad. My dad, accepting this solemn duty, rules that both Andys have won. The prize, of course, is a hamburger.
Hamburger Station is always busy.
At the writing of this essay, I admit, I’m afraid Hamburger Station isn’t long for this world. Whereas I knew of six locations, there may have been as many as ten at one point (Jim Lowe never reaching the twenty he predicted). But now there are two. The ones my dad and I went to the most, near Midway Plaza on Britain Road in East Akron and on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls, are both gone. Whenever I’m back in town, we head to Ellet, a neighborhood in Southeast Akron, for our Hamburger Station fix. It doesn’t have a counter to sit at, just booths, like any other fast food joint (the building possibly being a defunct Wendy’s franchise). It does have one saddle stool probably to remind people like me about the excitement we felt sitting on them as kids. But none of the other accouterments are to be found.
Of course, after getting our Speed Packs, my dad and I go through our routine.
Honestly, I wish, on occasion at least, we weren’t able to. Then I wouldn’t have to feat the end of Hamburger Station.
But perhaps I don’t have to worry after all. Perhaps the problem isn’t that there are fewer Hamburger Stations now, or that there are fewer customers. Instead, the problem is that I’m approaching time the wrong way. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Max Tegmark, time is an illusion brought on by perception, not something fundamental to the universe:
“We can portray our reality as either a three-dimensional place where stuff happens over time, or as a four-dimensional place where nothing happens – and if it really is the second picture, then change really is an illusion, because there’s nothing that’s changing; it’s all just there – past, present, future.
“So life is like a movie, and space-time is like the DVD [. . .] There’s nothing about the DVD itself that is changing in any way, even though there’s all this drama unfolding in the movie.”
If Professor Tegmark is right, then we have found the solution to the thought problem. To celebrate I propose a shindig that will require almost nothing of the partiers, because, having been there before, my attendance is already guaranteed – and my dad will be there, and my mom will be there, and my sister, Stefanie, will be there, and the not-brothers John Schloman and Scott Schulman, will be there, and Jim Lowe will definitely be there, as will the other Andy, and even if you’ve never been, as long as you plan to go sometime in the future, then you will be there, too. And when we meet, finally, we will meet at the time when Hamburger Station is busy.