Cafe Society

Columbine Steak House keeps the home fires burning

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It's 1983, I'm ten years old — and it's steak night at the Sheehan household.

Steak nights didn't happen very often at my house. But every now and again, Mom would go to the freezer and pull out a frost-rimed, plastic-wrapped Styrofoam tray of thin, choice-grade steaks bought on sale at the neighborhood Wegmans and then saved against need. She would scrape some of the ice off with a thumbnail, check to make sure that the beef inside was still vaguely meat-colored (never pink, of course, or bloody, beautiful red, but rather gradations of purply-gray) and then leave the package to thaw on the kitchen counter. Mom was a great believer in technology, in the near-magical powers of the upright freezer in the kitchen. That miraculous white box — jammed full of mysterious packages, ancient Tupperware and wrapped balls of what might've been cookie dough, might've been meatballs — could keep food safe and edible for years. Decades. It was like a time machine for comestibles. Reach in blindly, pull out a package, and suddenly you were back in the middle of the Carter administration or thawing leftover beef stew first eaten on the night the Steelers beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII, January 21, 1979.

The steaks would sit on a plate on the counter, slowly losing their pre-Cambrian frost. My brother and I would come home from school; Dad would come home from work. He'd see the steaks, change out of his work clothes and go out into the back yard where his grill sat. His elderly, gas-fired charcoal grill. His elderly, gas-fired charcoal grill that, depending on how the household finances were shaking out, how the weather had been, might not have been used for weeks or months. He would bend down, start fussing with gas lines and igniters, tapping at the tank with the metal end of a pen or a pair of pliers. Because Dad was a mechanic and a repairman, we got almost everything — every appliance, every piece of home electronics — second- or third-hand. We got the things he hadn't been able to repair during the regular course of his job so had brought home to tinker with in his spare time. Sometimes he got them to work grudgingly, sometimes he didn't. Like a dedicated preacher, though, he considered these castaway domestic devices as part of his flock and never gave up on the possible salvage of their mechanical souls. The grill was one of his more recalcitrant projects. It never worked well, sometimes didn't work at all, and so there was always the chance that, on steak night, Dad would go outside, start poking around the guts of that intractable grill and accidentally blow himself up.

My brother and I were always waiting for it, knowing full well that such an explosion wouldn't kill the man — nothing could do that, not to a guy we'd once seen cut one of his fingers nearly off while working in the garage, then tape it back together with black electrical tape and go right back to work — but just drive him back into the house, smoke-black and probably bleeding and laughing, looking for the tape, maybe a staple gun, with which to reassemble any of his own missing parts. But the explosion never came, and Dad would eventually gimmick the grill into action, take the steaks and stand outside in the lowering dark cooking, smoking, gently hitting a can of Genny Cream Ale, doing what a man does on a good night when he has done good work and is proud to be able to offer steaks to his little suburban tribe.

The smell of cheap steaks burning on a grill, of char smoke on the spring air mixing with the smell of hyacinth and burley-and-bright. That will always remind me of my dad, of my mom watching him through the little window in the kitchen looking out over the back yard, of good days when I knew in some deep and mostly inaccessible part of my childhood self that things were, for the moment, okay. Steak nights were like quiet celebrations of small victories — solid knowledge that there was enough money to pay the bills, that the grownups had done whatever it was that grownups do to make things all right for a few hours or a few days.

If I were Proust, that smell would be my madeleine — the trigger for a crashing flood of recall, of me in the warm comfort of boyhood. And walking past the back door of the Columbine Steak House, I get a whiff of it. Just a hint — a trick of the breeze sucking a breath of blood and smoke and fire out through the open door where a busboy stands smoking a cigarette in the afternoon sun — but it is enough to stop me in my tracks and nearly drive me to my knees from the weight of memory. The scratched black paint of Dad's grill. The pop and hiss of him opening his can of Genny Cream. The taste of bloody, low-rent beef on my tongue.