Like a scene from The Wonder Years, I remember the feeling of youthful exuberance when, in the dark of evening, we crossed the six lanes of hectic highway as only reckless eight-year olds could. The thrice daily shift change left Route 5 abuzz with a cornucopia of cars – from speeding muscular sportsters to equally vigorous family sedans. I wasn’t looking at the traffic, though. Instead, my eyes fixed on the heavens above as I followed the path of a faintly glowing satellite arc through the starry sky blanketing us. I pointed it out to my friend, who also had a thing for astronomy. It was the early summer of 1968 and I was about to experience something I would never forget.
We survived the treacherous crossing and made a bee-line to a place I had never been to before. My friend, though, spoke of it with glowing adoration. It was called Curt’s Stop-In. Known as “The Home of the Real Supersize Curly-Q’s,” during the heyday of the Bethlehem Steel Plant, this roadside eatery dominated the Woodlawn scene, especially during those aforementioned shift changes.
This night would have us experience that bustle first hand. If we thought dodging cars was tough on the busy Route 5, it paled in comparison to trying to find a couple of seats at Curt’s. We entered through a rickety metal door only to encounter a sea of humanity and an air filled with a thousand conversations. We swam through the tall crowd until we found two counter stools with enough available elbow room for two more.
My friend’s father had brought his two sons and me to this sacred diner. Although my grandfather owned a fairly popular (at least on Friday nights during Lent) pizzeria on South Park Avenue, I had never been to a place like this. Everything seemed so hurried, the stark walls and backlit menu an unexplainably eerie attraction. When I asked my friend’s father what “Curly-Q’s” were, he and his boys laughed in unison. “Well, Chris,” he intoned with his slightly cigarette-induced rasp, “we’ll order for you. You just sit back and enjoy.”
He pointed to a man behind the counter wearing an experienced white apron. The cook’s big hairy arms impressed me as his fist pawed a raw potato from a waiting pile. He jammed the butt end of the spud into a thin spear protruding from the end of a crank. With the graceful precision of a ballet dancer, his limbs then effortlessly flowed first in opposite directions before coming together again, his left hand clenched onto the small stainless stell column supporting the potato as the other firmly grasped the handle of the turning device. In a flash his right arm whirled with vigor and a grooved camshaft pushed the rotating potato into a cutter I hadn’t noticed. Within seconds that once whole potato became a curled string of an amazingly long French fry.
Minutes later, and joining our frosty mugs of root beer, a tray full of paper boats overflowing with foot-long steaming hot dogs and glistening curly fries arrived in front of us. My mouth watered in anticipation, but the best was yet to come. As I reached for the catsup, my friend gestured “No!” and, instead, offered a glass bottle containing vinegar.
“Vinegar?!” I protested. “We didn’t order salad!”
Again the three of them laughed. “Just try it,” my friend commanded as he sprinkled first the vinegar and then the salt on the still almost too-hot-to-touch Curly Q’s. I tried it.
My life has never been the same.
Now, even after more than four decades, writing these words induces salivation. So moved by the experience, I vowed to one day bring my own children to this greasy Eden.
And so I did. Faithfully. Every summer before the Buffalo Bills’ kids’ day preseason game. And sometimes even en route to the Hamburg fair. And the fruit of my loins discovered the same gastronomical Nirvana as I. They loved it. Each summer they asked, “when are we going to Curt’s Stop-In?”
But each summer, as we travelled to Woodlawn, a certain anxiety gnawed at my stomach. You see, the steel plant, which once employed enough people to fill a small city, vanished a generation ago. The six lanes of super-sized Route 5 have long lost their usefulness. Woodlawn today, compared to my youth, appears as would a ghost town. The only thing missing are the tumbleweeds.
You see, unlike my first visit, every time we came to Curt’s we never had a problem getting a seat. Its once teeming back room, on rare occasion, might have had one other table of guests besides us. The only thing crowded were the once barren concrete block walls, now covered with those nostalgic tin signs so often seen at flea markets, novelty shops and the Bazaar Building at the Erie County Fair. Looking at the empty tables and then at the dead movie stars hawking extinct products on those painted metal squares left me with an ironically bittersweet feeling.
I heard the news the way you usually hear sad news – in an unexpected phone call. My brother called the other day at work. He told me my niece just spoke to a contractor hired to clean out the remains of Curt’s Stop-In. I couldn’t believe it. We had just been there last summer. It seemed so alive (well, at least on life support).
I called a friend of mine who commutes to Buffalo daily via Route 5. At first, he didn’t even know what I was talking about. He had never heard of Curt’s Stop-In (which might have been the first clue there was a problem). When I described its location, he immediately brightened up, “Yeah! I pass by that place every day going to work.” Then he added, “It looks like it’s been closed and run down for a while.”
“I was there last summer,” I offered.
“Really,” he said. “It looks like it’s been closed a lot longer than that.” (Which might have been the final clue the coffin was nailed.)
I went home in a slight depression. I drearily drove up my driveway, exited the car and wearily walked to the house door. I took a deep breath and opened it. A few steps in, I saw everyone was in range of my voice. “Bad news,” I began. “Curt’s Stop-In has closed forever.”
I could see the jaws drop on my wife and daughter.
From my son, though, came the simple plaintive, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
As sad as I was, deep down I smiled with his response. While Curt’s has now been relegated to the tin sign of nostalgia, it was around long enough for me to share with my children. That, in the end, was all I ever hoped to achieve.
RIP Curt’s Stop-In. So long and thanks for all the Curly-Q’s. At least Heaven has them now.