Sunday, July 31, 2016

Extra-Thick Rootbeer Malt, Please!

I was pleased to see in this week's  Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Mullen's Dairy Bar in Watertown, Wisconsin has been lauded by as one of the  "21 best Old-School Ice Cream Shops in America".  Way to go, Mullen's!

Home Again.

Watertown, Wisconsin.  Late 1970s.  My friend Norm and I were just hitting the ground, after college, and were experiencing first-hand the realities of working in the real world.  Norm was working for a Watertown sod company, and I was working in a Watertown lumber yard.  I lived downtown with my piano, and two cats, Miss Riley and 3285 Unwanted. It was a 10-room strangely colored apartment with leaking skylights above an office supply store on Main Street.  In the spartan living room on Main Street, we'd spend many Saturday nights having beers, comparing notes, and working at uncovering and discovering wonderful neglected songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Using reel-to-reel tape recorders and miles of patch cords, we'd achieve multi-track recordings that we thought were spectacular. Listening to them nowadays, they aren't quite as spectacular, but still are full of the joy of being in your 20s. Looking at these two care-free musicians 6 years later, you can see us performing polka favorites almost every weekend in beer tents, taverns, and dance halls throughout the area with the Jolly Cholly Band.  Norm was the singer and sax player, and I played the accordion.

On musical Saturday nights such as these, around 8:30 or 9:00, we'd develop a thirst for something friendly and frosty. to go with our cheap cold beer and  warm music. Where else to go but Mullen's Dairy Bar, 212 West Main Street, Watertown, Wisconsin?

A Lifetime of Mullen's Dairy

Mullen's Dairy (est. 1911) was a familiar backdrop to Watertown life going 'way back to our childhood, and that's a long time ago, kiddies.

Those refillable 1/2 pint bottles made of thick glass that we received as part of our school lunch program, full of white or chocolate milk. You peeled off the heavy aluminum foil shroud, or poked a straw through it, and you could drink right out of the bottle or through your straw.

Butter, cream, and ice cream was made and packaged right in the back room of the dairy.

And the milk was home-delivered, early in the morning by Pinky Herold, with his squeely-brake delivery truck. He'd even pick up the clanky glass empties.  Pinky was Watertown's last home milk delivery driver, and he retired in 1980, the very year that the home delivery service stopped.

And, of course, there was everybody's favorite part of Mullen's operations, the Mullen's Dairy Bar, 212 West Main Street.  This retail outlet was opened in the front of the dairy, right on Main Street, in the 1930s - in those particular days it was unusual for a new establishment to call itself a "bar", with Prohibition and all . . . It was a classic Ice Cream Parlor.  

Mullen's Ice Cream!  The ice cream was made on-premises, and you could meet your friends there for a sundae, at a booth, or on a lunch-counter stool.  Fresh-roasted nuts, and just about any other topping in the world!   Remember those stainless steel holders for the paper-cone serving dishes? And, if you wanted to take some ice cream home with you, they'd pack you one right out of the soda-fountain freezer barrel, fresh.

The malts! A stainless steel shake cup - frosty on the outside, and the seemingly rock-hard thickness of a root beer malt, to pour into your paper-cone-lined stainless-steel paper cup holder. You could barely pull a Mullen's malt up through a paper straw, without the straw collapsing. But, your first taste was something you remembered for the rest of your life. Usually one steel cup was enough for two people - cheap date!

A Dark Cloud

One cold dark night in the late 1970s, Norm and I came in for our usual extra-thick root beer malts. It was shortly after "Moon" Mullen died. There were rumors of major changes to the dairy operation. Bill Mullen was behind the counter, introduced himself - the "new sheriff in town".  He'd been to college. Bill had given up a career with a container manufacturer in northern Illinois, when he moved to Watertown to take over the family business when Moon, his father, died. Reminiscent of George Bailey staying in Bedford Falls in that movie, sacrificing his plans for the sake of his family's business.

We told Bill how much Mullen's had meant to us throughout our entire lives.   Bill was forming plans to remodel the whole complex and make it look more modern and up-to-date.  He pictured a dropped ceiling instead of the high ceiling with its ancient metal ceiling fan, to save on heating bills. Paneling would modernize the institutional green walls. And those old high glass-block windows would be replaced by a nice, uniform recessed fluorescent lighting grid.

Realizing we had gotten there just in time, Norm and I told Bill in no uncertain terms that he was out of his ever-loving mind.  These things he planned to tear out were the very things people came to Mullen's for, besides the extra-thick root beer malts, that is...

Citing countless examples from real life, as we knew it, or wished it to be, we convinced Bill that the old, circa 1930s look was just now on the cutting edge of new nostalgic soda-fountain restaurant design.  "It's a Wonderful Life" was becoming a ubiquitous archetype, and this was even before the VHS boom brought the nostalgic movie into every home in the USA. The baby-boomers were just starting to shape the world. Everything the Baby Boom generation touched, was, without question, to reflect the image of their own childhood memories.

Ceiling fans, we told Bill, were a great way to cut down on the winter heating bills - they acted against the convectional heating forces of a high ceiling.  Ceiling fans would soon become a coveted item, entire stores there are, selling Casablanca ceiling fans that were patterned after the one he was about to kick to the curb.

A stark wall of institutional green lit by the diffuse beauty of glass-block windows would very soon become a trendy and nostalgic design standard.  Filtering through those glass blacks was the holy light of beloved lost childhood.

The red-seated steel-legged stools, and those old booths - people were nowadays throwing away jet-age furniture and buying imitations of the very furniture Bill was pulling out by the roots.

Bill, nodding, said he'd sincerely give it lots of thought before committing to any design. Leaving things as they were would certainly save Bill lots of money.  If that's what people wanted, why fool with success? Accept.

And, luckily for our credibility, most of the things we told Bill that night about trends turned out to be true. Over the years, Mullen's Dairy has become more like itself than ever before, and that is a very good thing.

references for further study:

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Garage Door - Adventures in Property Management

I received a call while I was at work from the Mrs. - the upstairs tenant couldn't get into his apartment - a very old lock was frozen up. So that evening I jumped off of the bus already knowing that I was stepping into One of Those Nights.

No answer at the broken-lock tenant's house, I left a message.

Mrs.: "He wasn't home?"

Me: "Nope, not home. Just give me the keys, and I'll go up and take a look at the lock without him"

"I don't have the keys, they are lost - I had them when I left the house"

Sigh. Another call to the tenant's answer machine: "We'll have to wait until you're home again, Milt, because we have no keys."

Retracing my wife's steps, I found the keys mashed into the slush in the road, the key ring in pieces. Another victim of Parallel Parking.

I let myself in to the tenant's apartment, the sluggish lock had been worked open. Annabelle, the Labrador answered the door. She decided that there was nothing she could do to help, what do dogs know anyway? Annabelle went back to her sofa, and resumed her nap. Then, I heard Milton's voice.

"Gary is that you?"

"Yes, I'm here to look at the lock."

"I'm here on the bedroom floor. I couldn't get to the phone."

Milton is a weight trainer. One of his over-tensed muscles had tangled into a paralyzing leg cramp. He wasn't even able to get to the phone.

"Could you bring me a glass of water from the kitchen?"

I brought him the water - "Say, isn't Annabelle supposed to run for help or something when you can't get to the phone? Like Lassie?"

Ignoring the sarcasm, slowly, Milt worked the hydration into his system, and soon was able to try standing up. While waiting to make sure Milt would be OK, I fixed the lock with a judiciously placed spritz of WD-40.

And So - Milton standing? CHECK
Lock working again? - CHECK-O My work there is finished.

Arrived At Home. - My wife was waving the TV remote at me menacingly. "I can't get this @#$@ to work." Wanna see vexation personified? Separate my wife from her TV! The remote had lost its programming. I think it was just despondent from all those lawyer ads and courtroom shows. Reprogrammed it to factory freshness while waiting for the Mrs. to put on her coat - we had places to go! Couldn't do anything about the crappy programming, that's a network thing.

Next Stop - 3rd street, a mile away, to show The Duplex to Dave, a prospective tenant. Dave was on time, he took the tour, and talked awhile, and then he wanted to see the garage. I've always believed that if you've seen one empty garage, you've seen them all, but the customer is always right. So, we left Mrs. inside the heated house because she had a cold, too. And I took my own cold, the remote opener control, and Dave, and went out to the garage to have a look.

I pushed the button on the remote control, and, the door went up three feet. Then it changed its mind and went back down. Repeated that a few times. Finally, wanting something more than a 3-foot preview, with a little upward pressure, we got the door to go up all the way. Dave toured the empty garage, that didn't take long, and we headed back. Close the door? Push the button!

This time when I pushed the button on the door control, the door rumbled down halfway, and turned around and went back up to the top, kind of the opposite of its opening act. A few of these capers, and Dave and I decided to give it an assist via the handles, me on the inside, Dave on the outside. Finally the garage door rode all the way down. Me on the inside, Dave on the outside. Yes, this is, after all, Excelsior's Adventures in Property Management, and something always goes wrong. And to answer your question in the back row, "Yes, yes. Gary has trapped himself inside the garage." As the garage door settles down and comes to rest on the driveway, I just knew that the door had completed its last move for the night. We tried the button a few more times, and all we were able to get was one side of the door to shrug up about 2 inches.

In the stillness of the winter night, one comes to the realization that there is no door, no other way out of the garage, except through the garage door. But the garage door does not go up. Dave was asking if there was anything he could do, but by then I was already making plans to spend the winter in the bleakness of an empty garage - we could slip some books through the 2 inch space under the door, maybe some protein bars, and sooner or later, it would be spring.

But, then gradually, I regained my will to live. MacGyver that I am, I found a 3 ft length of 2x4, and went to work wedging it into the space at the bottom of the door. Heave the door up about 9 inches above the ground. Dave kicked away an ice shelf at the base of the door. I took off my jacket, and managed to ooze through the 9 inch space. Filthy but free, I emerged into the cold and spacious freedom of the near-zero Milwaukee night. Free at last.

Of course, my wife was mad at me for keeping the prospective tenant out in the cold so  long with my time-consuming shenanigans. Why, yes it IS a beautiful night when you're watching it from the comfort of a heated house!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sparkle - (repost - but look at the new photo!)

This post was originally run a few years ago, and has been a perennial reader favorite, judging by the analytics.  The reason for the repost is to show off a photo of something I got for Christmas.  My friend Norm has a brother in Minnesota, Dave.  This year, for Christmas, Dave sent me an antique Sparkle Spritzer. I filled it up with the secret formula, and what we now have is a tangible piece of good times gone by.  Thanks, Dave!
It occurred to me as I started writing this, that, at the time this story takes place, 1959, my grandfather was the same age that I am now.  He always seemed so old, even then...When he was at home, my grandfather, Lionel Kuhn, would wear a white t-shirt and blue-and-white pinstripe bib overalls.  He'd be constantly puffing on a cheap cigar - White Owls were his favorite. 

Grandpa worked for a commercial painting contractor.  When he was not on an out-of-town contract, Grandpa's world was a finished basement in the house he had built himself on Center Street in Watertown in the 1930s.  Every corner of the basement was finished - ceilings tiled, walls papered, and floors painted, kitchen, refrigerator stocked with frosty bottles of Hamm's beer.  

One of Grandpa's favorite pastimes on weekends was cleaning paint brushes.  Raue and Sons would supply their workers with the finest paintbrushes available, but at the end of the week, the brushes would be tossed away, for a new start the following week. Properly cleaning a brush is a time-consuming process, and the contractor found it more cost-effective to discard the brushes. Grandpa would save the old brushes in sealed paint cans, and would take them home and clean them.  Sometimes there would even be remnants of paint, which Grandpa would meticulously strain, and bring to proper consistency.  Grandpa knew and loved paint.  From his arsenal of thinners, linseed oil, turpentine and white lead, he could practically build his own paint. 

We'd use wire brushes, and a crank-operated brush spinner, and plenty of hard work to get the brushes back to like-new cleanliness. Grandpa had hundreds of paintbrushes that he had rescued, and kept them in a metal steamer trunk. While we worked, there was plenty of entertainment.  An old phonograph worked away at a stack of 78s.  The Missouri Waltz, polkas and waltzes by Bernie Roberts, Lawrence Duchow, and Frankie Yankovic, Oh Them Golden Slippers, organ music by Ken Griffin, and tunes by the Andrews Sisters.  We'd sing along, beat on the table with paint sticks

And ... we'd cuss.  Why, where the hell else is a kid going to learn to say "Goddammit!" when he hits his thumb with a hammer?  Hey, what happens in Grandpa's goddam basement stays in Grandpa's basement!

Grandma seldom came down into the basement - only to do the washing.  But she had Grandpa trained to come whenever he was called.  So, no matter how inconvenient, when the call came floating down the stairs, he was there for her ....

"Lionel, I can't find the Windex!  Were you using it to wash the car?"

under his breath, "Goddammit!", then, yelling back up the stairs


Even though he heard her the first time, he'd make her repeat the question a few times just to be cantankerous.  Grandpa looked quickly through the shelves of the paint room, and found a bottle of Sparkle Window Cleaner, but no Windex.  He went to the bottom of the step:  

"I've got Sparkle!"

Grandma's smoldering reply to this helpful hint came booming back down the steps:  

"I'LL SPARKLE YOUR ASS! Go downtown and get me some Windex!"

We were stunned, at first. She was really in a mood, today.  Then Grandpa, aside to me mimicked softly  "I'll Sparkle your ass!"
Have you ever been laughing so hard that you couldn't even breathe?  Neither of us could speak for about 10 minutes, we were laughing so hard, and then, Grandpa would gasp out in a whisper "I'll Sparkle your ass!"  and we'd start laughing all over again.

We resigned ourselves to having to go downtown.  But, it wasn't all that inconvenient - there were plenty of other necessary side-trips on the way to National Tea - Albrecht's Badger Paint, Kusel's Hardware, coffee and donuts at Zweig's Grill, Charlie Howard's Tavern if Ed Raue's truck was there, Drost's Smoke Shop for some more cigars -- another story another time.  But, we almost drove Grandpa's '39 Chevy into a light post when Grandpa once again whispered "I'll Sparkle your ass!"

To this day, with a little turpentine and a cigar, I can travel in time back to my Grandpa's basement. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Meatball Sandwich

A few weeks ago, my true luv and I went grocery shopping.  The holidays had taken their toll on our pantry - we can usually only go shopping on Friday nights, and the last two Fridays had been Christmas Day and New Year's Day.  

I love that Joyce has taken an interest in the weekly grocery shopping. We are both so busy, me with the Day Job, and her with her Women's Apparel shop and then we are always both working on the rental properties.  So, grocery shopping actually gives us time to do something together, for a change.

Let me tell you something about my wife - she is a careful shopper. She's been called thrifty, frugal, and a whole lot of other less pleasant things by people she's done business with.  She will not buy anything without thorough cost comparisons. This carries over into our everyday life as well.  If we're dining out, I am not surprised when she calls the restaurant ahead of time to get a quote on a martini.  

On the way home, after an evening of taking advantage of the grocers, it was getting kind of late, so I suggested that we stop at Subway and pick up some nice tasty meatball subs. Subway Meatball Marinara sandwiches are, in my opinion, the best sandwiches available from a sub sandwich chain. 

We went down the order  line. You get to choose your type of bread, type of cheese, and then on to the garnish table, where you can add lettuce, peppers, spinach, onions, olives, who all knows what else, and various salad dressings. Well, on a meatball sandwich there's not too much to add, it's kinda self-contained, put on a few pepperoncini, (yellow peppers) and you're good to go.  I headed for the wrapup/cash register counter.  

But Joyce was being precise, as usual.  She told them she wanted to heat up her meatball sandwich in the oven when we got home, so she would like her toppings on the side, thank you very much. The sub technician said 'no problem', and got out a small container, and put the garnishes in there.  There was spinach, lettuce, some red onions,, green peppers.. . and then I suspected what Joyce was up to....   I looked at her, and she gave me that "shut up or you'll die" look.  I looked straight ahead and paid for the order.  After the tech had assembled Joyce's vegetables, Joyce asked for a bit of ranch dressing as well, and then the tech put a cover on it.

When we got out in the mini-van, I said to her. "You're welcome.  I didn't use the 'S' word inside."

"Good thing for you." She replied. "And I'm not going to give you any of my FREE SALAD."

The things we do to get through the winter....