A few weekends ago, I made a return "home" to Waverly, IA...the place where I spent my college years. I was amazed at how much cooler this little town of 9,000 people had become since I graduated in 2001 (and this is only 9 months after 1/2 of the town was under water due to record flooding in June 2008). Subway moved to a larger spot...Hardee's turned into Family Video...they added a Pizza Ranch and a Domino's within a few blocks from campus...there were at least 3 new bars that looked pretty cool...they gave the Hy-Vee an extreme makeover...Wal-Mart became "Super"...Applebee's showed up...even the golf courses had been redone.
Amidst all of the progress is a, right on the main drag across from campus, you will find a tradition unlike any other -- The Other Place. Everything about this joint was the same as I had left it...right down to the tacky "Prime Rib special" sign out front that hadn't been changed in 10 years. Upon entering, I was greeted by the stale air of cigarette smoke (even though smoking has been banned in restaurants for over a year) and all-you-can-eat popcorn. I grabbed a faux wood bowl for each of my two comrades before sitting down. We had the place almost entirely to ourselves.
The waitress (who called us all "hon" and "dear" throughout our stay) brought menus. Silly woman. There was no need. I knew exactly what we wanted. A large FourStar pizza, a pitcher of 1919 root beer, and three frosty mugs -- a.k.a. The Friday Night Special.
Our diner-quality waitress did a double-take. I had placed the order with the prowess and panache of a townie...but she had never seen me before. In fact, I hadn't darkened the OP doors since May 2001. Clearly, she was in the presence of true greatness. Needless to say, not only did I arrive, but I brought the fire.
The origins of the Friday Night Special dated back to my freshman year of college. New friend and future best man, Sir Daniel Robert Bock, would accompany me to the OP on Fridays, just as our friends were getting their drink on. It's not that we refused to be in the presence of *gasp* under-age drinking on a college campus...it just wasn't our scene at that point. We just wanted to eat good food and talk for hours. The FourStar pizza - an intoxicating blend of sausage, mushroom, pepperoni, green peppers, and a metric ton of cheese - didn't just fill our (growing) bellies with deliciousness. Those nights filled our souls with great conversation and an evolving kinship that we shared during our college years.
Sadly, like many college friendships, Dan and I fell out of touch in the years that followed graduation. I got married. He moved to Denver. I moved to Illinois. He got married. I had kids. He got a dog. I moved to Des Moines. He had kids. Yadda yadda yadda. In other words, life got in the way...or, more appropriately, we allowed life to get in the way. We would catch up on the phone every few months; always ending with the usual "we need to do this more often" caveat that was never fulfilled. (To be fair, he was always better than I was at picking up the phone.) We completely lost touch a few years ago. Maybe he was discouraged that I never called him...maybe he just got invested in his own rocky mountain reality...or maybe this is just what happens when you turn 30 and live 500 miles apart.
No matter what, though, every time I go to the OP on Bremer Ave. and order way too much pizza and pop, I'll think of my good friend Dan...and the special times we had on Friday Nights.