Stories and sliders

May 15, 2002 at 12:00 am

There’s just something about all-night diners. Telway, on Michigan Avenue west of Livernois, is the kind of place where the waitresses had tattoos before everyone else. It feels like it would be easy to become a regular; with only seven stools, right on top of the workspace, you can hardly avoid getting involved in conversations. Nobody’s in a hurry for you to leave after your 45-cent hamburger.

Telway’s outstanding characteristic, in a corner of the parking lot, is a life-size model of two longhorns pulling a cart piled with burned lumber. It’s surrounded by a tall fence to discourage vandals; it was there when the owner, Earl, took over 50 years ago. (The tiny structure is 78 years old.) What they have to do with Telway’s mission is lost to history.

One night, a pale woman staggers in, leans on the counter, and asks for a grilled cheese sandwich (not on the menu). “I just got out of the hospital and my stomach’s still upset,” she explains, and exits with a soft drink, leaning on a young boy’s shoulder. “She didn’t get out of no hospital — more like a crack house,” snorts a waitress. “That’s either pills or heroin — it ain’t crack,” says a cook. The woman provides conversation for patrons and staff for the next little while.

Another slow evening sees a prolonged argument between Archie, a retired Chrysler worker who is one of the regulars, and the young hamburger cook: Is there really such a thing as an engine called a “flathead six”? Archie promises to return on Friday with proof. Throughout, the cook continues his assembly-line production, making a dozen miniature hamburgers at a time: a squiggle of ketchup and mustard, a pickle and some fried onions, thick buns and a dab of beef.

The hamburger guy says they go through 300-400 pounds of ground beef a day. A different hamburger cook (also a young guy — this job demands speed and dexterity) claims they sell a thousand burgers on the 9 p.m.-6 a.m. shift on a Friday or Saturday night. Factoring in the slower shifts, that means the meat in the burgers is around a fifth or a sixth of a pound.

At four for $1.50, nobody’s complaining. In fact, they’re lining up; most of Telway’s business is through the order window, and it’s rare to see that window not framing a line of faces. It’s the burgers and the double-cream/double-sugar coffees that keep ’em coming. The reason Earl can make a profit on tabs of $1.59 and $1.43 is repeat business. Everybody knows the drill, putting in orders like “two double-doubles and two triple-triples.” Those would be 40 cents and 50 cents, respectively.

One of the pony-tailed waitresses, in addition to the name-and-date tattoos on her forearms, has a fresher one on the back of her neck. It looks like Chinese characters, and I ask her what it means. “I can’t tell you,” she says.

“Can’t or don’t want to?”

A minute later, she slips me a note: “It says bitch.”

How am I supposed to assign stars to the Telway? What am I comparing it to — the Whitney? Starbucks? In the fast-food genre, it’s a hell of a lot friendlier than McDonald’s (“Can I help who’s next?” from a sullen teenager), and some of the food is better.

The fish and chicken sandwiches are crispier than McDonald’s and only 95 cents. The 55-cent fries aren’t quite as crisp as McDonald’s, but they’re pretty good, and Telway serves onion rings too. The “hillbilly chili” is the thin kind, more of a soup and medium-mild. (And it does taste like the kind I grew up on in West Virginia.) There’s a large array of doughnuts and cinnamon rolls, also big sellers. I didn’t have the nerve to try the egg or tuna salads.

My friend and I had a leisurely meal, all we could eat — three sandwiches, chili, onion rings, two sweet buns, coffee, two juices — for $7.79. Nobody was in a hurry to scoot us out the door.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].