Brennan's and the New Old
Picture a lunch counter. Two guys with stained white aprons and heavy accents slicing off the end of some freshly corned beef. A silver steel tray of stewed cabbage bubbles next to an overflowing mound of mashed potatoes. There is gravy in every color you can imagine, each with heavy ladles waiting to be poured. The people in front and behind you in line are old.
Twenty years ago this was an industrial zone. Fat warehouses ringed by barbed wire fences occupied every block. Except on one corner. That’s where Brennan’s is. It’s a meeting hall with an arched roof and looks more like a Mason’s Lodge than a restaurant. Except for the large sign, you’d expect to see people entering and leaving wearing a fez and maybe a cape.
Now the neighborhood is different. There are trendy boutiques just down the block. There are two Starbucks. The new wealth has swept into the area, wiping out the industrial depression of old. An old man, back on Fourth Street, wouldn’t recognize the block. But he would recognize Brennan’s.
Sitting at a communal table, it’s easy to hear people talk. They’re less restrained here, more willing to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Some part of them feels drawn to act like the past was what they imagine it. It could be any year in any place. The bartenders are old friends and know the regulars by name and drink.
Were things ever different? Did people twenty years ago have the same discussions, the same loves and hates? The things have changed. The toys and the ways to communicate and the places one can go, these have all changed. But does the human experience change? When our parents were young, did they feel as we do now? When their parents were young, was everything as exciting and dull and new and special as it is now?
Timelessness is so rare in modern America. So much has become the same. The country is an occasionally interrupted stretch of strip malls featuring the same wares in the same stores. Here and there though, hidden between the retail giants that have so soullessly stripped the commercial sector of personality and choice, you can find a place to escape. That’s a valuable lesson to learn when your face is covered in gravy.