There’s something about driving around Lima when it comes to conjuring up memories. Lima is the town where I did most of my growing up after moving from Chicago after my first-grade year at St. Christina’s. As for the schools that helped to form what I have become, they remain in the education business, St. Charles and Lima Central Catholic, and while each has certainly undergone changes, I can still walk in and remember what it was like to experience a good old-fashioned parochial education.
But then there are those other landmarks, buildings that still remain but no longer function as they once did. Despite the fact that one building is still there, now a trophy shop, whenever I drive past the former site of CJ Zerante’s Carryout on the corner of Allentown Road and North Cole Street, I can still remember the trips there with my dad. He got the Bud but always made sure my trip wasn’t in vain when I got to pick out a pack of baseball cards.
Another building that speaks to me of my past is just down from the former Zerante’s on the north side of Allentown. Unless you’re of a certain age, you certainly won’t remember the building as it once was back in the early 1960s. A sign now hangs on the stone exterior that says “Under the Bar,” indicating that now those interested in strength and fitness pass through the same doorway on the southeast corner to work off a little weight rather than where people once went to, perhaps, gain a little.
In my youth, that building was the Hi Grade, one of the many diners that once were the culinary “go-to” places in small towns across the country.
While I don’t remember ever going there with the rest of my family, the Hi Grade certainly holds a special place in my memory bank. Actually, I think the thing that made it so special to me is because I shared it with no one. And that declaration, of course, comes with a story.
Once I reached double-digit age and the shackles came off in terms of my mom’s attempts to keep me tethered as much as possible to our 1500 block of Latham Avenue, I was granted permission to ride my bike to the Hi Grade on Friday nights.
Because my father was often out of town on the road plying his trade as a steel salesman during the week, Friday nights were date nights when Mom and Dad would go out to Lost Creek Country Club.
We had a membership as a family although my appearances were more of a cameo nature, because I didn’t gravitate to golf as my sister Joan and Dad did, nor did I see Lost Creek as a great social experience as my mom did. To me, time spent at what my family simply referred to as “The Club” was time not spent playing whiffle ball with Jim Fry in my backyard or up on the hill at Faurot Park on an all-dirt infield trying to master the technique of catching a short-hop grounder.
So, on those warm-weather Fridays, sadly so very long ago, with Joan amusing herself playing 45s and trying to emulate the falsetto sound of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with her gal pal Linda Hartman next door, I was left on my own for dinner. My folks would leave me exactly $1 for my dining-out experience, which turned out to be just perfect for the Hi Grade.
After arriving, I took my customary counter seat, which always was open, the middle of the three seats facing west. While people tended to avoid it because the setting sun streamed in, I thought the brightness and warmth were wonderful side dishes to my meal.
The meal on those Catholic meatless Fridays never varied — a fish sandwich, an order of french fries and a chocolate malt, you may remember, the one that came in a tall thick glass with a pedestal and, of course, an accompanying stainless container with the frothy bonus confectionary delight. It was the extra goodness in that stainless container that I think was my first realization that there are indeed some good deals to be had, and, somehow, that part of my malt was certainly the tastiest.
While I’d like to tell you that’s what a dollar bought back in 1961, I’d be lying, because, actually there was money left over, money put to good use for penny candy at the Equity, a carryout a bit further west on Allentown.
Each time I drive past my old Hi Grade, I think of my first experience in independent dining on those Friday nights from so long ago and marvel at how far a buck could be stretched once upon a time. While the exterior now says, “Under the Bar,” I remember that, once upon a time, it was my place for fish, for fries and for chocolaty froth.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.