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Archive for February, 2009

Erby Walker, Sr.

erbywalker

October 1, 1937 – June 23, 2008

I know that many who read these pages are concerned about their general health and well being, so it is quite likely that many of you have never had a meal at the Varsity Drive-In. Alas, I am not one of those people. I admit to a certain affection for the original Varsity at the corner of Spring Street and North Avenue. It bills itself as the world’s largest drive-in, and I believe that. In fact, I am so Varsity-adept that I have served as a tour guide for the curious, leading them through the intricacies of the Varsity menu. It is not exactly fine dining, but the Varsity has always been a place without pretense. Founded in 1928 by the late Frank Gordy, the Varsity is fast, the food is hot and the environment is truly unique.

Over the many years of my patronage of the Varsity, I have plowed my way through the entire menu at least twice, trying, over the span of several months, everything that the place had to offer. Except for the egg salad sandwich; you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. I have a friend who is a vegetarian, and she assures me that there is plenty to eat on the menu for those who do not eat meat. This is especially so since they stopped using lard for frying the potatoes and onion rings. And, as was pointed out by the Varsity’s founder, there are no leftovers at the end of the day. The place moves.

My relationship with this institution started in the 1960’s, when I was a callow youth in high school. To be sure, I did not go inside the restaurant, but there was a substantial reason. Several of my youthful associates had developed a relationship with a particular car hop outside. This particular curb man would sell us beer without engaging in the formalities of determining if we were of legal age to be buying alcohol. It was a dream made in teenaged heaven; we gave him substantial gratuities and he let us into the adult world. Once I left for college, this relationship withered, and when I returned to Atlanta in 1972, there was little reason to buy beer under the counter.

But I remained faithful to the Varsity. Going inside the place was intimidating, very much a man‘s world. It was rough and tumble, so much so that the ladies’ restroom was located outside the restaurant. The general feeling in that era was that any woman seen inside the restaurant was of dodgy character. The litany was “Have your money in hand, have your order in mind so we can get you to the game on time.” There was a long line of counters that ran the length of the building. At that time, there were two “Men’s Lines”, there was a separate counter for French fries and onion rings and other counters for sandwiches, called “Ladies Lines”. The men’s lines had an order taker at the end of a conveyor belt, standing on top of a box so they could look down on you, making it even more intimidating. The hot dogs and hamburgers (called “steaks” in Varsity lingo) came down the conveyor belt; the counter man took your money, slammed your food on a paper plate with the same hands, and verbally pushed you on so that the next person could order.

The pace was hectic and woe be to those who did not know what they wanted. I stood behind some innocent soul as he stumbled through with his order. After two hearty “What’ll you have’s?” from the bellicose counter man, he finally got out with “I’d like a hamburger”. The counterman turned to the cooks and called out “Gimme a steak, I think.” After stammering out that he wanted a Coke, he then had the temerity to ask if he could get mayonnaise on the hamburger. The counter guy looks at him with a withering glare and says; “You’ll need to go down to the ladies line for that. Next man, what’ll you have?” But, along the way, I also began to discover the Varsity people, people who had worked for the V for many years. The first was Mr. Minnix, a quiet dry man, who was one of Mr. Gordy’s managers. There would be more.

When Frank Gordy passed on in 1983, his daughter, Nancy Gordy Simms, took over and the Varsity became a place where families could gather. It was a slow process of transition; no one wanted to disturb a successful tradition. Beer quietly disappeared from the menu and the ladies’ restroom moved inside the restaurant. Eventually, the counter personnel stood at the same level as the customers, order taker and order giver looking at each other, eye to eye. The Varsity patrons took the transition fairly well. There were a few stutter steps along the way. Salads joined the menu of fat heavy offerings; I have never tried one since it seems to be so contrary to what the Varsity has always stood for to me. I’m sure that they’re perfectly fine, but the truth is, most people don’t go to the Varsity to lose weight. On the other hand, the Varsity seems to want its patrons to live longer, a perfectly fine notion.

An event that was outside the control of the Varsity would introduce me to Erby Walker, Sr. After months of expensive research, Coca-Cola determined that people did not like their main product anymore, and the New Coke was born. Since the Varsity is the largest Coca-Cola outlet in the world, it was introduced to the world there. For so many years, Coca-Cola had been marketing water with a little sugar, flavorings & color, with some fizz, and people had been buying it. Now, the research pointed to the fact that people actually did not like what they had been buying. And in a colossal move, the paying customers were told that the product that they had been buying was gone and replaced with something new, and to get used to it. It did not go well. Oddly, the New Coke proved to be quite popular in Detroit.

I’ve never been a big Coke drinker, but even I was offended. I came home one afternoon to find a six pack of the small bottles filled with the New Coke sitting on my doorstep, a gift from a friend who worked at Coke. One taste was enough. As is now well known, the public’s reaction was swift and sure, but Coca-Cola held on for quite a while before finally recognizing the error of its decision. But, in the early days of the rollout of the New Coke, I rolled in for lunch at the Varsity one afternoon. The place was crowded, the lines long and Erby was working one of the Express Lines, which meant just that. Fast, fast, fast. You could always hear his voice above the din, shouting orders and directions.

I rattled off my order, without including my choice of beverage. Erby then asked, “What do you want to drink?” And in the middle of all the turmoil that is the Varsity at lunch, I was standing there, dug in and ready to fight, and I stopped him cold. “Let’s talk about the Coca-Cola.” “Yes?” “Is it the Real Thing or is it the new shit?” And in that moment, Erby won me over forever with “It’s the new shit, sir.” There was a sly smile on his face, and I knew then that I liked him greatly.

Eventually, the market spoke loudly enough to Coca-Cola that the New Coke went away, and there was a sense of triumph about the land. I rolled in for yet another Varsity lunch and once again stood in front of Erby. My order was quick and to the point, but once again, it was “Let’s talk about the Coca-Cola.” “Yes?” “Is it the Real Thing or is it the new shit?” His answer remains a classic, “It’s the Real Thing, sir”. “I’ll take one.” And Erby reared back and bellowed out “Gimme a Real Thing!” The woman drawing the beverages turned and looked at him; “What?” His reply, “Don’t you know what a Coca-Cola is, woman?”

Over the intervening years, out of respect for the beating that I have done to my body, my Varsity habit dwindled down to weekly, then monthly, then every three months and so on. But over those years, Erby was always there, and always fun to talk with. I found myself going off-hours, not only to avoid the lunch time crowd but to also get in some conversation with Mr. Walker. He liked to fish and hunt, and he was one of those people who could talk with anybody at any time. Think about it, the Varsity serves over 30,000 people on a busy day, and he probably served at least 3,000 of them. He had to combine the ability to keep the line moving while, at the same time, keeping the paying customers happy. And, the Varsity customers are from all walks of life. His was a rare talent.

He retired from the Varsity at least twice before it finally “took”. The last time I saw him, he was standing on the customer side of the counter, dressed in his Sunday best suit. Several of us standing in the Express Line wanted to buy him lunch, but he would have none of it. The line was creeping along, much slower than it should have, and Erby could see what was happening. When my turn finally came, I saw that the order taker was some poor soul, new to the job, hopelessly playing out of his league. It wasn’t the same. To be sure, others have filled his place, but it was the end of an era for many of us. And on June 23, Erby died.

To honor the memory of the man, I went to his funeral at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in SE Atlanta. Erby had been a member of the Greater Bethel AME, but everybody knew that it was going to take a bigger church to handle the crowd that would show up. They were right, and it was an elegant gathering. Everybody was dressed in their best finery. Many in the congregation had little cardboard fans, funeral home fans they’re called by some, and as people waved them back and forth to stay cool in the warming room, it was as if a 1,000 angels’ wings were beating.

The music was wonderful, and you know that you’re with a certain kind of crowd when everybody knows the hymns by heart, no hymnal necessary. But when the time came for people to get up and talk about what Erby Walker had meant to them, I came to the slowly dawning realization that Erby Walker had touched so many lives, had been so meaningful to so many in such a personal way. One man talked about the fact that his life had been in shambles, his life was at the bottom, when he came to work at the Varsity and that Erby had been a brother to him, helping him regain his dignity. One young man said: “I was as green as a watermelon when I came to the Varsity, and Erby….” One of Erby’s sons got up and said: “I’ve tried to be exactly the same as my Dad. Well, maybe not the ten kids…” People laughed, and you realized that Erby was special.

And, then it was time for the eulogy. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and funerals were somber affairs. After a dry recounting of the facts of the deceased’s life, everybody gathered outside for a few minutes, then went out to the Country Club for a few drinks and dinner. That was not the case here. The minister from Greater Bethel started off slow and quiet, easing toward what needed to be said. This was not for the deceased but for the living. This was not about a life lived so much as it was about the life hereafter. Erby had been a working class guy and this was a working class guy’s eulogy, about the choice between sin and salvation. It was, at the heart, “What’ll you have?” Do you want heaven or hell? The preacher grew loud and stomped his feet and yelled and even when he drew back from the microphone, his words could still be clearly heard across town. It was old-fashioned fire & brimstone. And then it was over.

As I walked to my truck, a member of the congregation caught my eye and we exchanged greetings and a comment about the eulogy. And, for a moment, there were no bridges between us for there was the commonality of having known Erby Walker.

A few days later, I stopped by the Varsity, not so much for lunch but to see the floor manager that I have known for years. He was at the funeral but I had not been able to get over to see him because of the crowds. We talked for a few minutes about missing Erby. And then I went over to the sandwich line, what once had been the “Ladies Line” and ordered a couple Glorifieds and a P.C. The counter lady and I talked for a moment, and I asked if she had been at the funeral. No, she had to work that day. I told her that she had missed something and she smiled and said: “I think that Erby was a lot more famous than he thought he was.

And, in this day of constant public relations push and press released information about celebrities, that’s a very nice way to be remembered.

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