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When I moved "out West," I never thought I'd make it. Not really. Not way down deep, where a boy's roots grow.
1500 Curtis St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Waffle sandwich: $6.49
Corned-beef hash burrito: $6.99
Chorizo and onion burrito: $7.75
Chili cheesedog: $2.99
Coney dog: $2.49
Hamburger steak: $6.99
Green-chile cheeseburger: $6.49
When I first came here with thoughts of commitment -- as opposed to the little visits I'd made in the past, tooling around Santa Fe and Boulder and Tucson and those dinky shitheel towns of eastern California like Barstow and Blythe, but always tied to home, to "back East," by one umbilical or another -- I was figuring on a year, tops. Find an apartment, eat a few tacos, stumble around the border a little if the opportunity presented itself, maybe get weird with the wife for a while, wandering around in the high desert looking for alien spacecraft or unexploded atomic bombs -- and then get the fuck outta Dodge before I started wearing crystal necklaces and buying Kokopeli sculptures for the mantel.
This was the plan -- myplan -- but circumstances were conspiring against me (as circumstances often do) long before I'd shaken the Rust Belt dust off my tires.
We'd been headed, ostensibly, for San Diego, Laura and I. We never made it. Along the way, we stopped for a night in Albuquerque, which turned into a week, which turned into two years before we'd even noticed. I like to say that my New Mexico stint was deliberate, that I went there to learn about Mexican food with every intention of bringing that knowledge back to New York, where fame, fortune and the adulation of the masses would inexorably follow. But the real truth is we'd gotten stuck in construction traffic, got lost, got tired, and just decided to stay.
Still, I got my out-West address (even if it wasn't as far out West as I originally envisioned) and did eat a lot of tacos (because I couldn't afford much else), and although Laura and I never found any alien spacecraft, we did get plenty weird. Along the way, we got married out West, and nearly divorced a week later. I changed careers -- giving up my chef's whites and knife kit for a barbecue-stained T-shirt and a cranky laptop -- and when Albuquerque lost its charms, Laura and I moved to Denver, which is where we are today.
So I've been out West five years and change, all told. I'm happy here. And yet...
And yet I still have it in my head and my heart that this is temporary. When I talk about home, I mean back East -- where our families are, and the friends we left behind, and the lives we interrupted for this extended vacation that accidentally became our lives.
And when I talk about home, I'm most often talking about the diners there. Not about my parents' living room, my childhood bedroom, the neighborhood where I grew up; not about the weather, the accents, the green of it all. When I think of home, I think of the chrome-and-formica greasy spoons where I did all my growing up that mattered.
Greasy spoons that I just didn't find out West. In the same way that a dream of home can turn sinister with the alteration of just a few key details, my homesickness was triggered every time I walked into some place with burritos on the menu and not croquettes; with Patsy Cline in the juke and no Sam and Dean. The look, the smell, the feel of an out-West diner was close to the diners back East, yet different in so many small but fundamental ways. Not better or worse, but different. And in being so close, these diners just reminded me how far away I was.
It's got to be a lot stranger for the Armatas brothers -- Alex, Patrick and Sam. Whereas I'm removed by only five years and a couple thousand miles from what I consider home, the Armatases are two generations and a whole lost world gone from the place where their diner originated.
In the early days of the twentieth century, Sam Armatas, grandfather of the three Armatas boys, arrived in New York City on the deck of a steamer. It was his second trip here -- the first one was interrupted by World War One, when he returned to Greece to fight alongside his countrymen -- and he was again staking his future on an ocean crossing and the promise of the American dream. It was a Scorsese moment: grainy film stock, swelling music, a long sepia-toned view over young Sam's shoulder at the Statue of Liberty or the New York City piers -- and then a splash as Sam jumped ship in the harbor, going over the rail and swimming ashore in order to avoid the complications of the United States' strict wartime immigration standards, an honest-to-Jesus wetback.
Sam made it to shore somewhere in the vicinity of Coney Island, where he got to discover the delights of American diners before a job shoveling coal on the railroad (or just a bed in a boxcar, depending on which brother is telling Grandpa Sam's story) brought him to Denver in the '20s. And while I can't be sure, I'm willing to bet it was homesickness like mine that convinced him to build an out-West Coney-Island-style diner, followed by a second Sam's, then a third -- his flagship joint -- at 15th and Curtis streets. At its high point, Sam Armatas's mini-empire had five locations, all offering ten-cent bowls of chili, Coney Island hotdogs and the tastes of the home where Sam had washed ashore.
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