Friday, April 21, 2006

The sad story of the best meal I had in New York City

Laugh at me if you must, but when I lived in New York City, I really started to miss Perkins. If you’re reading this from somewhere other than the Great American Heartland, allow me to explain Perkins to you–it’s sort of like Denny’s, only less raw. If Denny’s is the wild child of 24-hour freeway exit dineries, what with its loud 1950s music and its wacky entree names, then Perkins is the bosomy grandmother. There, you can eat your meatloaf, your face-sized omelets, and your oh-so-spicy quesadillas surrounded by fake bookshelves, mass-produced family heirlooms, and pea-green wallpaper. It’s all very calming. Sedating, even. Plus, their master chefs are capable of turning even the “ethnic” items on their menu into something that wouldn’t cause too much commotion at your average Muscatine pot luck.

Needless to say, Perkins doesn’t factor heavily in the New York City dining scene. At first, I hardly noticed, so interested was in their swanky restaurants and their delicious pizza. But it wasn’t long before I came to recognize Manhattan’s Perkinslessness as a plus-sized hole in the city’s cultural fabric. Yes, the Chinese joints on Pell Street were wonderful and the Soho bistros were glamorous, but sometimes a man just wants a $6.99 cheeseburger with fries and unlimited Diet Coke refills. You can take a boy out of Perkins, apparently, but you can’t take the Perkins out of the boy. Soon I couldn’t give two shits about sushi, about transvestites serving up world-class Thai food, about miniscule little figs flown all the way from Morocco–I just wanted some chicken fingers, goddamn it, chicken fingers!

That’s why it was a grand day when I found New York’s Perkins. It was on Staten Island. Now Staten Island–the city’s boringest borough–has two distinct parts to it. There’s the northern tip, the Wu-Tang Staten Island, which is down-and-out and sort of intimidating; and there’s the rest, which is hardcore Italian–the Sopranos Staten Island. The Perkins was way down deep in the heart of the Sopranos side, tucked away in a strip mall on a mildly busy commercial street, just like the Perkins back home were. When I saw it, my heart soared, but I couldn’t eat there that night. It was late, and I was desperately searching for the transit station so that I could catch the last train back to the ferry terminal. Why I was lost in Staten Island at 10:30 on a Wednesday night is another story entirely–what’s important was that I saw a Perkins, glorious and shimmering like the mythical city on the hill. I knew I’d return to taste of its wholesome goodness soon enough.

A few weeks later, a friend from St. Paul came to visit me. I could barely wait. “You know where I want to eat?” I piped up, as soon as I could.

“Where?” he asked.

“Perkins!” I exclaimed and, I have to admit, I was somewhat baffled that he didn’t share my excitement.

“I didn’t come all the way to New York to eat at a Perkins,” he told me, and his enthusiasm for the idea didn’t increase any when I told him it was on Staten Island. “I sure as hell didn’t come to New York to eat at a Perkins on Staten Island,” he said.

It wasn’t a big obstacle, though. I just pouted until I got my way. With him doing is best not to gripe and me so pleased I could hardly stand it, we made the two-hour journey. We rode the subway to the ferry terminal, took the ferry to the Staten Island train, took the Staten Island train to the deep Sopranos side, and then walked for a mile or two until we reached the Perkins. “Why are we doing this? Explain it to me again,” my friend said, but I wasn’t even listening to him anymore. I got myself some chicken fingers and some fries and all the refills I wanted, so happy to be there that I almost broke out crying and flooded us out of puke-colored booth.