By Tim Hayes

It’s astounding to think of how limited one’s universe used to be while growing up.

For instance, a bunch of neighborhood kids and I walked to and from elementary school every day – including walking home for lunch and back to school, then walking home at the end of the day again.  We had an established path of streets, staircases, and sidewalks, from which we never strayed.  That wasn’t because of any rules or safety concerns.  It was simply because our familiar path represented the way to school and back home again.  Period.

To have walked up the hill to school on the other side of the street?  Unthinkable.  Outrageous.  Completely out of the question.  The perception of our established universe precluded any such variations.

In the small business district of the neighborhood where we grew up, these guidelines also held.  You bought your shoes at Enlow’s Shoes.  You got groceries at Kroger – maybe the A&P, in a pinch.  You bought 45-rpm records for a dollar apiece at the Mt. Oliver Music Store.  You killed time and maybe bought a model airplane kit at Bill & Walt’s Hobby Shop.

And you ate hamburgers at Mike’s Lunch.  Hey, we didn’t make the rules.  That was just how things were, in our preadolescent brains.

We never had the guts to actually speak to “Mike,” whom we assumed was the angry guy with the apron frying up paper-thin patties, slapping them onto skimpy buns and squiring brown mustard on them, whether you asked for brown mustard or not.  We acquired a taste for those burgers, though.  And it went way beyond any culinary qualifications.

Mike’s Lunch meant so more than hamburgers to us as kids.  Mike’s Lunch was where the cool kids went, not unlike “Arnold’s” on the old “Happy Days” TV show.  It looked like a beat up old hole-in-the-wall, full of booths along one side, and the grill, cash register, and bathrooms on the other.  Yet, somehow, in the perspective of our limited universe, Mike’s Lunch became almost intimidating.

It took some courage to place yourself into such an awesomely hip environment.  Then to order a burger and actually eat it there?  Lines got crossed.  Reputations elevated.  Swagger soared.

And the biggest proof of all that Mike’s Lunch epitomized cool and dominance and superiority in our little early ‘70s world?  The Little League team it sponsored.

Never much of an athlete, my involvement in youth baseball revolved around keeping the written box scores in large scorebooks for various teams.  Our league sported four of them – Beckman Motors, Firemen, Kiwanis, and Mike’s Lunch.  Beckman Motors and Kiwanis most years fielded guys with similar talent levels.  “Not great, but always giving a good effort” might be the kindest way of describing them.  The Firemen squad played a little better.

But Mike’s Lunch always kicked everybody else around.  They were the New York Yankees of our little four-team league.  I usually kept score for the other teams, since I knew there wouldn’t be much to mark down any time those other poor chumps played Mike’s Lunch – they were that good.

That was a long time ago, though, and one’s universe changes and expands with the passing years.  I took a drive recently along the path we walked to school as kids, and couldn’t believe how narrow the streets were and how short the walked seemed.

Riding down the main drag of the old business district, I saw that all of those old stores have either converted to other establishments or been boarded up.  Even the mighty Mike’s Lunch.  But back in the day, you sure couldn’t get any cooler.  Now, where’s my brown mustard?

Copyright 2014 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting