CHICAGO - The touch of homesickness hit on the fourth day of the extended Stanley Cup Finals weekend in the Windy City.
At first, it made no sense to this aging, well-traveled sportswriter. Something was missing. Then it hit. It's the people here. So kind. So accommodating. No what-are-you-lookin'-at stares. These good folks don't even jaywalk, for crying out loud.
I'm a Philly guy, born and raised in a neighborhood rowhouse. And I really don't know how else to say this, but I needed a dose of that Philly addy-tood, our noted edginess, to set me straight, make me feel at home.
Then I remembered Ed Debevic's, a downtown Chicago 1950s diner, the one with the sign that doesn't welcome you. It reads: "Get in here."
Full disclosure: The servers at Ed's are encouraged to be smart alecks. It's part of the training process, part of the schtick. Fine, so it's contrived, but I had to take what I could get, and I figured I could get it over lunch at Ed's.
So, it was quite the disappointment when I was cordially greeted by a smiling face as I sat at the counter. So, I asked for the supervisor. Eddie Perez asked if anything was wrong, and I explained. He offered to help. "Times have changed," Eddie said. "I'll send you someone who can tell you about it. She trains our servers."
"E.J.?" I said.
"Yeah, like in Elton John," E.J. Hoefler replied, rolling her eyes. I started to feel better already.
"The clientele has changed," E.J. said with a hint of resignation. "I guess it's the p.c. [as in politically correct] culture. People now take everything so seriously. We started to get some complaints. Some servers even got fired. I don't know. Maybe the economy has something to do with it. We had to draw a line between being sassy and being rude. Now, it's all about reading the clientele, realizing what you can get away with. We just can't cut loose any more."
"Kind of sad, isn't it?" I said.
"It really is," said E.J.
But these are understanding folks. E.J. must have spread the word there was a guy from Philly at the counter who wanted more than the grilled cheese sandwich and onion rings.
"Take your time, I'll be here til I die," Kevlar said as he tapped his pen on the counter, waiting for me to order. Kevlar, he said, was his stage name.
"Grilled cheese? Is that what you want? B-o-o-o-ring." Kevlar said. "I know. It's hard to screw up grilled cheese, right?"
Kevlar looked over my shoulder at a couple seated in a booth. "You people must be from Indiana 'cause I'm getting that creepy Indiana vibe from you." They didn't take offense. Kevlar had read them right.
Shawn Graves, another server, came over. He said he was a hockey fan. I asked him his opinion of the Flyers-Blackhawks series.
"We call them the Hawks. Not Blackhawks."
"Sportswriter, huh? Did you write about Halladay's perfect game?"
"I was at the Hawks game. I can't be in two places at once," I told him.
Shawn paused. "You could work here."
In my mind, I was back home.