As if there’s any doubt about the profound difference between men and women – the way we act, think and communicate – consider this case in point to illustrate the matter.
The scene was Platter, the restaurant-in-progress we stumbled into Monday night in Ashland, Wisc., and, by doing so, making new friends in the form of two inebriated elderly sisters and the one-armed bartender/owner Tim Walworth. Now, it’s fairly well known that Midwesterners have a penchant for friendliness and openness, but little did we know that in the span of a couple of hours we’d know far more about these three people than we’d care to admit.
And the gates of familiarity opened very differently along gender lines.
Within minutes of inquiring whether food was available (it wasn’t, since Tim and his brother, Robert, had just begun ripping the entire joint apart and remodeling it stem to stern), Tim began a tour of the facility with me in tow, making a guy’s assumption that a kindred spirit would be fascinated by the plumbing, electrical, structural, and cosmetic changes in the works.
We began, of course, with the men’s room, where Tim diligently pointed out the old-style floor urinal that’s not long for this world, adding that the newer, water-free version was waiting on deck in the kitchen. He planned to rip the porcelain depository out that evening, after he’d finished serving the sisters their fill of margaritas.
Meanwhile, back in the bar, Gabi was perched on a barstool alongside Janet and Sandy sipping on a margarita (one of the worst I’ve tasted for a while, by the way (this is G writing now).
As the two very inebriated women took me under their wing, they started telling me their life stories. Both Janet and Sandy were from Ashland but Sandy had moved away with her husband and was now living about three hours away. Janet’s husband died last year and the three of them (Sandy’s husband included) did a road trip of 1,500 miles where they explored the country and also went through Colorado where Janet’s stepson lived. They wanted to blow up his home as he was fighting with them over money left in his dad’s will last year and there is bad blood between them.
Tim and I moved to the kitchen, where the fryolator, industrial stove, warming and holding shelves and prep counters had all been ripped from their foundations and sat, like islands in the sea of industrial linoleum, awaiting the dumpster. He explained that the new appliances would be arriving soon, courtesy of a state small business grant.
The conversation over in the bar, meanwhile, had become even more heartfelt. The women told me that it they’d started life as three sisters and how the third had died just a few years ago when she retired. Janet was in Florida when Sister #3 got sick, so she hastened to her side and the three of them were reunited at her deathbed. We talked about the pain of losing a sister and they told me they’d originally planned for the three of them to travel together every year. And now there were just two left. Sandy recently retired and Janet recently turned 70 but still tells her family she’s the younger sister.
We consoled one another and drank our horrible margaritas.
Tim flipped the switch to the basement and proudly showed me the brand new wooden stairs that led, predictably, below. We headed down, where I got the cook’s tour of the new electrical conduits and the new HVAC system and ductwork. Tim took a slight detour to show me the original hot water boiler, a massive cast iron monster that, he told me, had been originally shipped in parts decades ago and put together where it sits today.
This was all fascinating stuff, particularly for someone like me with a storied history of construction experience and deft mechanical hands. I considered offering to stay on in Ashland to help Tim and Robert pick up the pace, but realized that plans in Southeast Asia and my lack of handiness might get in the way of progress.
Upstairs, the girls had bonded for life (or at least till the margarita buzz wore off). Sandy called her husband (who told her she was slurring her words) and told him she’d met a “lovely couple from England” in Ashland and needed to know her email address (she didn’t have a clue about using a computer herself). She told me again how her husband loved her sister (“but not in a kinky way, you know”) and that they had been in the bar since 5 when they stopped in for a drink (it was now after 8). It wasn’t often that she and her sister spent time together and they were going to enjoy every moment since “you never know how long you have”.
Tim took me further into the building’s bowels, pointing out the three extensions previous owners had made to the original foundation. “Solid as a rock,” he said, rapping the same with his knuckles and, like a proud parent overlooking his chilld’s flaws, ignoring the enormous crack that ran from floor to ceiling in the middle of the wall. Maybe it had passed inspection, maybe not, but if that sucker were in my basement I’d be on the phone to a mason pronto.
Returning upstairs, Tim took me into the three dining rooms, all of which were probably state of the art when they were built 50 years ago, but now looked and smelled like your grandmother’s attic. He told me he planned to rip up the carpet, thereby also removing a few decades of au jus from the battered rugs, but otherwise will leave the original dining rooms intact for future generations of diners.
Topsier than ever, the sisters had taken me under their wing. They wanted to speak like me and tried to imitate an English accent. They promised to write to me (even though I have no address) and would visit us if they ever came to Massachusetts (which they could not pronounce after half a dozen cocktails and didn’t seem to get it that we’d be leaving the country in 6 weeks).
Wrapping things up as we returned to the bar and joined the estrogen contingent, Tim tossed a draft of the Platter’s menu my way so I could get a glimpse into what sort of culinary magic would be coming down the road. He intends to use local produce and fish as much as possible, liberally making use of Lake Superior’s bounty of herring and whitefish along the way. Since I despise both, his intent was pretty much lost on me, but I suppose the locals will love it.
What astounded me about the project that Tim and his brother have undertaken is its breadth, scope and aggressive timetable.
“We should be up and running in late June,” he predicted to a caller who’d asked when the restaurant would be open for business.
My bet: Unless four seasons’ worth of staff from “This Old House” show up to pitch in, Tim and his brother will be lucky to serve Thanksgiving dinner in their new digs. Much as I wish them well, I think their vision is a bit more reasonable than their expectations.
Downing the last bit of margarita, my new friend Sandy invited us to stay with them. Her husband wouldn’t mind a bit, she said, and we were welcome in their home any time we were in the area.
Tim wrapped up our time by inviting us to stop back for a meal sometime.
We left the bar with a spring in our step, laughing out loud at our good fortune at meeting up with such a zany collection of humanity. After all, we set out on this trip to meet plain folks and get to know our country a bit better before we leave it. And it’s safe to say that our understanding was deepened that night by two drunk sisters and a one-armed restaurateur with a dream.