There Are Places I Remember

For the last 30 years, the Le Peep restaurant located in the quaint downtown section of my hometown of Park Ridge has been a stalwart post-Mass brunch option for my family. For the majority of those 30 years, you could find our party of 5, 6 or 7 (depending on the era) occupying one of the restaurant’s corner round tables on nearly every single Sunday.

Last Sunday we once again gathered to break bread (or devour French toast) at that round table for the last time. The building’s owner is not renewing Le Peep’s Le Lease and just like that–a huge chapter in my family’s history is closing and a stop on the historical tour of my life will most likely be dismantled or demolished. Read more about the restaurant’s sad demise in this Chicago Tribune article that allowed me to star in my first-ever anecdotal lede. I’ve probably written hundreds of them myself, so I’m proud to represent lovers of Le Peep in this one.

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So why am I crying over spilled milk? It’s not just because no one will ever again have the opportunity to spill milk there. Le Peep was about more than just a delicious open-faced BLT sandwich, waffle fries and the best french toast I’ve ever tasted. It was on a very short list of places–my parents’ house being one of the final holdouts–that has not undergone major changes over the course of my life.

I’m 33 years old. I know that’s too long a time period for my physical surroundings and “special places” to go completely unchanged, and I would never hope for that anyway, but it’s nice to have a few reminders of the past and the ability to step back into a place that remains familiar and essentially the same–even though you and/or your life circumstances might have changed significantly since you first got there. It doesn’t help that I’m a hopeless romantic and an avowed nostalgic. I’ve often said that I hate change in life almost as much as I hate change as currency. (I’ve also had this line of thinking proven wrong recently, as the past few years of my life have been among the most tumultuous while concurrently being among the best.)

As a young’n, I remember the endless line of Sundays when I knew that the end of 12:15 Mass meant that my family was heading to Le Peep. The idea of not going there wasn’t really on my radar. My grandma moved in with us, and she came along, too. My youngest brother was born, and we were back to a high chair and kids menu. My grandma passed away, and we returned as a party of six.

Though we did abandon our hometown Le Peep during some stretches for another location in a neighboring suburb and more recently for the unbelievable buy one/take one home special at Maggiano’s, Le Peep was always there as a viable option. It wasn’t going anywhere.

After getting married, my wife and I moved into a house that was actually a lot closer to Le Peep than the house where I grew up. The Ultimate BLT was suddenly more frequently filling my belly again, as we found more excuses to go there–a convenient location for brunch, especially when friends were in town. Much like for my family’s meals, the food was good, the price was right and there was plenty of room for a larger party without a wait. Theresa and I even developed a more recent tradition of eating there after my early morning PET scans.

Since my family had found alternative brunch locations for the last year or two, I liked going there alone with my wife at random times, fulfilling a subconscious prophecy I had made to myself as a kid: One day I would come here with my own family, and the manager would beam, remembering the nerdy kid in the oversized Cubs t-shirt who ordered French toast every Sunday.

IMG_4226Much like the chance to spend some quality time with a relative you didn’t know was terminal, my family had returned to Le Peep as a group again a couple times in the past month or so. If things had been able to continue, it might have become a regular part of our rotation again. But then the news broke when my mom and brother randomly went there last Saturday. Le Peep was toast, and the following day would be our instant farewell tour.

We spent our final meal fondly recalling all the waitstaff we had come to know over the years and wondering about how many times we had actually eaten there. We took a family photo with the manager and the head table busser, who had been there literally since our first trip. We debated whether or not they would give us the neon Le Peep window sign or what other souvenir we might take home as an everlasting sign of our commitment.

IMG_4228We finally settled on three framed Le Peep ads that had been hanging above the cashier for as long as we could remember, and the manager said we could have them. One of the ads, pictured here as it now hangs in my dining room, contains a joke that my brothers and I had turned into a “dirty” joke when we were kids. (I didn’t bother trying to explain that to the Tribune…) That was the one I wanted, and that was the one I got–even though I had to argue with one of the hostesses who misguidedly thought she had a claim to it. “But I work here!” “But I’ve been coming here for 30 years.” Theresa almost died of embarrassment.

We have a baby on the way who will never eat at this Le Peep. They will never see my now-closed Catholic grade school or the pre-renovation version of my childhood church. Chimpy’s Jungle and Discovery Zone are long gone. Once-bustling malls where I fled after half-days of school are shuttered or mere shells of what they once were. When we go to Northwestern to explore Dad’s alma mater, Dad won’t recognize all the new buildings and won’t find the places he frequented as an undergrad that made way for this progress.

You’ll never find me placing a flower on a bulldozer as I stoically stand in its way, but I will take a moment of silence for the vanishing spaces of my youth.

At least fellow Park Ridge residents who might be mourning the loss of Le Peep’s French toast can take solace in the fact that some things are forever:

We’ll always have the Pickwick…

…Right?

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When Glory Days Begin to Fade

In the stream of Veterans Day content floating down the Internet river today, my alma mater tweeted a link to this excerpt from a documentary about Vietnam (and other) War veterans who gather to reenact war zone scenes from the troubling conflict, right down to authentic uniforms, equipment and weaponry loaded with blanks. The clip is decidedly haunting and left me with some uneasy thoughts on the efficacy of such an endeavor. These are not Revolutionary or Civil War enthusiasts recreating a historical reality that they never could have seen. Rather, these seem to be men who lived through a reality and are haunted by it or, perhaps even worse, defined by it.

What is gained by a shot-for-shot remake of your glory days? Maybe it initially stirs some of the original feelings, triggering memories and offering some sort of emotional consolation or mental security blanket, but after a while, I imagine the memory of the recreation would either water down memories of the original experience or fail to live up to them. I don’t think these men who sacrificed so much and continue to struggle from that sacrifice will find the closure they seek by spending the night sleeping on a forest preserve floor and rounding up fellow veterans to be their new band of brothers or pose as the hunted enemy. To me it seems more like a calculated way to remain in the mental purgatory of unresolved issues and a definite roadblock to moving on.

I can’t judge any of these men, as I have sometimes thought back to supposedly greener pastures and longed to relive them or tortured myself with ill-resolved troubling pastures and longed for a convenient do-over.

But there are no do-overs. And any attempt to recreate your glory days or redeem a mistake usually ends up unfulfilling. Eventually you realize that you’re just wearing a costume and shooting blanks in the woods. See also: Dumb and Dumber To.

On this Veterans Day, I am grateful for the sacrifice of everyone who has served in the military and protected me and my country. They have my respect, my gratitude and my prayers for a peaceful postwar existence. I’m just not sure that this reenactment is the best way to achieve that. I would be curious to know what my friends who have served in the military think about it. Is this different from a veteran’s perspective? I also really want to watch the rest of this documentary…