Monon memories more than biscuits and gravy

Friday, September 9, 2011

If the apparent demise of The Monon restaurant is as final as it looks from the bare walls and the empty parking lot, the prevailing feeling is sadness from my little corner of the world.

During its heyday, The Monon was one of those unique small-town eateries where a guy in a suit and tie was just as comfortable as the fellow in farm overalls and the mechanic in coveralls.

The biscuits and gravy, gigantic tenderloins and legendary meatloaf manhattans temptingly teased taste buds whether you were wearing Brooks Brothers, Carhartts or Oshkosh, by gosh.

Most of you, I am sure, have memories of The Monon. Good food, good times, good conversation.

That's why it was so sad to be an unwitting part of The Monon's final act on Monday afternoon ... as the restaurant's last customers -- maybe ever from the way it looks.

Like many a weekend day before, we found ourselves hungry for lunch, while the young people staying in our midst were just rolling out of bed even though it was after noon. The go-to local place for breakfast all the time (at least through Monday) and lunch for others? The Monon, of course.

So wife Ruth, daughter Emily and her boyfriend Josh and I headed to the little place along the railroad tracks, hoping to feed our hunger with good, old diner food. It was about 1:45 p.m. now.

We made our way inside the front door and stood, waiting for a table. One in the front window had to be cleared so we could sit. But we noticed a tenseness about the place. The waitress was far from her cheery self in wiping down the booth.

And then she dropped a hint. "First I have to tell you what we don't have," she began. "We don't have any hamburger. We don't have tenderloins. We didn't have any eggs but they went and got some a little while ago."

Still, I was thinking, OK, it's Labor Day. The delivery truck probably doesn't come in until Tuesday and the holiday probably brought out a bigger breakfast crowd than normal.

A few moments later, the waitress returns with our drinks, just as another group is coming through the front door, including a woman in her Scooter Chair.

"I'm sorry, we're closed," she tells them as they look around to see several tables occupied with diners. "We're just waiting for them to finish eating."

Actually, we hadn't even given her our order yet. And when we do, she is sniffling like she's been crying.

"You OK," Josh asks her.

"Yea," she is able to voice between sobs.

Obviously, Columbo, we know something is wrong now.

Another waitress ventures to the front door with a paper sign that says: "2:00 closed." Somebody else locks the door.

We are waiting on our food now, wondering if we will be hustled to eat fast and get out when suddenly comes a great crash from the kitchen, the obvious sound of dishes being broken.

The staff runs to the back, and a few moments later one of the kitchen help storms through the dining area, a towel wrapped around an injured hand. Bad news seems to have made him dangerous to himself, and he walks out, only to return a few minutes later.

We're all wondering if our food was on those flying dishes, just as we're hoping we're not about to see someone actually "go postal."

Nobody wants to talk about it, but the waitress at the next table is overheard telling the customers, "Yea, it sucks, especially when I've been here 16 and a half years."

So there we were, flush in the realization we were about to be the last people possibly ever served at The Monon, as we know it.

The food really didn't taste the same after that.

But memories of The Monon came flooding back.

I remember setting foot in the place the first time the night the Skelton-Skinner lumber yard burned on the opposite side of the tracks. It was The Monon Grill then. That was pre-Jerry and Bev Monnett and the place was half the size it has been in recent years.

The Monon became a weekend morning staple for my daughters and me. We'd eat a late breakfast there after Kara's swim practice was over or Nicole's paper route was finished.

We got to know the characters. Like the guy who practiced his sermons in a booth there -- out loud. Or the guy with the briefcase who laughed and carried on conversations -- with himself (always fun to watch others encounter him for the first time, thinking he was talking to them).

It was the place where Ruth, Pat and Sue and I planned out the best vacation ever -- a long-ago Labor Day weekend trip to Key West that we have longed to repeat but know that the sequel could never match the original.

I even have a great memory of the time my late mother, visiting here from California, asking a waitress at The Monon about the myriad sides on the menu.

The poor girl looked like she'd just been asked to reveal where they keep the Holy Grail when Mom questioned the green beans. "Are your green beans fresh or are they canned?" Mom wanted to know.

Strange, since I had never before heard my mother order green beans in a restaurant.

In a painfully halting response -- nonetheless framed in perfect "Jeopardy!" fashion -- the uncertain young waitress phrased her answer in the form of a question: "Freshly canned?"

Those are among the memories The Monon evokes for me.

And ever since Monday, everyone I have told about our unique situation as the final customers has had the same reaction: Oh, you have to write about that!

So there you have it. Just wish it didn't have to end this way ...