The dog and I had been driving for hours, flanked by endless walls of trees and we both needed to pee real bad. Our road finally wound out of the woods and into a town so small it didn’t even seem to have a name.
The street was deserted, far from unusual in any small town on a Sunday night, and the only place that looked open called itself “The Burger Scoop”.
I pulled into the parking lot figuring they might have coffee as well as washroom facilities and popped the door so the dog could do her business.
As she made a puddle in the parking lot, I realized that every single space was taken, urging her back in the car quickly so I could take care of my own urgent agenda.
I told her I’d get her a cookie. She cocked her head the way every dog does when you say “cookie” and then tipped it that extra 5 degrees to petition “Peanut Butter?”.
What is it with dogs and peanut butter? Show ‘em a peanut. Nothin’. “Butter” it and you’ve got canine Oxycontin.
I hurried inside, making a beeline for the john, but unable to miss noticing that the couple at the corner table were dead ringers for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill – if Tim and Faith were 19 and three times their original size.
The guy was wearing a Tim T-shirt, so I figured I wasn’t the first to make the connection. He held Faith in a pinkie lock as the pretty Ojibwa girl behind the counter finished decorating their ice cream cake and bubbled at how exciting it was they were finally tying the knot.
Faith began detailing their first date as I entered the washroom and it couldn’t have been that long a courtship, because she had gotten all the way to Tim’s proposal by the time I came out.
The guy who ran the place had a celebrity resemblance as well, impersonating Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee right down to the gravel in his voice when he asked what was I havin’.
I scanned the overhead menu hoping all those trees hadn’t drifted me into some alternative dimension Hollywood canteen. Burgers and ice cream (hence the name I guess) were featured, augmented by cheese steaks, fries and chicken fingers.
I ordered a coffee to go and asked if they sold cookies. Stan smiled and poured me a paper cup so scalding hot I knew his lawyer had never heard of McDonald’s. He said he had a dozen coming out of the oven in a couple of minutes.
That suggested they were probably worth waiting for. Any cafe owner making cookies in a town this small late on a Sunday night was either ridiculously optimistic or knew they’d sell.
He went in the back and I looked around, realizing for the first time that the place was packed – or as packed as a place with four small tables can be.
There was Tim & Faith, now lip-locked in the corner, an older couple huddled over a banana split, a handsome single mom with two husky teenage boys and a raw boned father and son with their dressed to the nines wives and a little girl in a party dress.
I should have known it was family night.
It was New York that introduced me to the concept of Sunday being family night at the public eateries. Weeknights were mostly for the business crowd. Conversations were important. People took notes and conference called from their tables.
Those not doing business had just as important appointments. Yoga class. An obscure French film. Group therapy. Activities approached with the same intensity as a hostile takeover. The meal and the ambience were secondary.
I once watched a weeknight couple finish dinner and pull out a copy of “New York” magazine, ticking off a highlighted mini-review and debating how many stars they felt the place really deserved.
Friday nights, everybody unwound with rounds of pre-dinner cocktails and Saturday was date night.
The only time you saw people slip comfortably into sync with their dinner partners and what a restaurant was selling was Sunday. Sunday they were out with their families.
You can tell a lot about a place by who you see there on a Sunday night. It usually depicts their brand and demographic personified.
I once did a series with a fellow producer who was a practicing wine snob. Nice guy and all but having dinner with him was mostly about finding palate matches.
One Friday night, as he and some of the other staff went off to unwind and figure out what went with the exotic vintages he tried to slide into the show budget, I stayed behind at the production office.
I was interrupted by a squeal of delight from a young production accountant who turned up with bunch of last minute cheques that needed to be signed.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, “I thought you’d all be out dining. That’s what producers do Fridays, isn’t it? You dine.”
As I signed the cheques, she went on about all the receipts she processed from establishments she’d always dreamt of enjoying. I didn’t have the heart to tell her most of the people submitting those receipts probably didn’t even register what they’d eaten.
Sunday dinners out were different.
Sundays in New York you’d see a couple who’d probably first dated to see Disney’s “Lady & The Tramp” replay that movie’s dinner scene at an Italian bistro in the East Village. Splitting the last meatball, him still blushing a little when she brushed his hand in public.
Here at the Burger Scoop, the elderly couple playfully pushed the Banana Split’s last cherry back and forth across the ice cream tray with their spoons so the other could have it.
The raw-boned son stopped his raw-boned father from paying for their cheese steaks. He was on a highway crew for the whole summer and could cover this one.
His wife and mom both smiled proudly as the older man relented and scooped up his giggling granddaughter instead. You got the feeling the young couple`s luck had recently taken a turn for the better.
By the window, Mom teared up as the elder of her sons reminded her how early the bus was coming in the morning. He was on his way to try out for the hockey team in the big town an hour away.
The way his younger brother looked on with envy you could tell this was his first real trip away from home. They both had that lanky, too tall for their age build and oversized hands that make hockey scouts salivate.
I hoped one of them might someday get far enough that he could pull Mom out of here too so she could see parts of the world not hemmed in by trees.
Stan came back from the kitchen and gave me a nod. Cookies were up. And the cookie gods were smiling. They were peanut butter.
I paid the bill and tried to pretend the coffee wasn’t still burning my hand when I turned to go, stopping to take them all in one last time.
At the table by the door, Tim and Faith had almost finished their engagement cake. The elderly man munched the last cherry as his wife pulled a sweater over her shoulders with a satisfied smile.
Stan picked up the bill from the highway worker, handing back a couple of Toonies because the sign on the cash said “No Tips”.
Mom smiled, looking on proudly as her sons debated the Big Town team’s chances in the coming season.
Nobody talked business or politics or television, giving those of us who write it about as much thought as we usually give them. But there they were, a whole room of who we write for.
I got back in the car and the dog inhaled the cookie bag, her eyes rolling back in her head at the first whiff of peanut butter. She folded into my shoulder patiently as we drove back into the tunnel of trees.
I put my arm around her. It was family night and time to split a cookie.