Lesson 12–The Frosted Mug
Every kid has a marker for summer. Last day of school, dandelions punctuating a swath of green grass, the sound of a lawn mower, a pool pass clipped on a backpack, a glass jar with holes poked in the lid for catching lightening bugs.
At the EZ Way Inn, there were summer markers, too. The bang of the screen door when you entered through the kitchen, the red, ripe tomatoes Fuzzy picked for Nellie and set up in a row on her scarred wooden cutting board, the constant loop of Cubs and White Sox games playing on the television perched on the high corner shelf and of course, the iconic harbinger of the dog days of summer, the frosted mug.
I marked the beginning of summer when Don took out a piece of white cardboard and, in fat, black, permanent marker, printed, FROSTED MUG, 50 cents ! A regular draft in a slimmer, handhold-friendly curved glass was 35 cents. The mug, appearing larger, seemed to contain an ounce or two more beer, but more important, it held the ultimate promise of cold and quench, the very taste of summer.
“Yup,” said Don, taping up the sign, “they all complain about the price the first week, but they know it’s worth it.”
Then he taped the second sign in the window.
HOME OF THE FROSTED MUG
Don had a small glass-doored freezer next to the rinse tanks that were situated behind the bar, just west of the taps that dispensed already cold beer. I could tell he was proud of that little freezer with the gleaming mugs lined up in rows on two shelves. He liked being an innovator, offering the boys something new and improved. Holding up a mug by the stem so his fingers wouldn’t begin to warm the frosted glass, Don always smiled as he set the frosted mug down in front of a customer. By the time the glass hit cardboard, it was already sweating in some kind of ecstasy of condensation.
I had never tasted beer, of course. Not in a frosted mug, a regular glass or a chilled bottle. I was, after all, nine years old. The smell was not particularly enticing. But the look of that frosty mug with exactly the right measure of foam on the top? Seeing Don or Nellie place one in front of a regular customer, who grumbled as he coughed up the extra 15 cents on a 80 + degree day, then watching the corners of his mouth curve into a blissful smile at the first sip? That was summer all right.
When my dad went on errands, I often rode shotgun. It was the era of no seatbelts, so I could wiggle around in the front seat and look at the sights of greater Kankakee as we made the rounds. We’d cross the Station Street Bridge on our way into downtown. We might stop at the stationers for scratch pads and pens and pencils, the hardware store for more of Nellie’s beloved 40 watt bulbs, and finish up at Kankakee Candy and Tobacco for a few wholesale purchases—a carton or two of Hershey bars (plain and almond), a case of gum and another of Luden’s cherry cough drops, all items sold from a low shelf under the bar and, of course, boxes of cigars, and cartons of cigarettes so my dad could fill the machine when he got back.
One day, a detour to the bakery took us across the Washington Avenue Bridge and gazing out the passenger side, I read something in a tavern window that shocked and horrified me. I wasn’t sure how to break it to my dad or even if I should tell him what I read there, a brazen claim for all the world to see.
HOME OF THE FROSTED MUG
I swallowed hard and told him what the sign said.
My dad, an expert whistler, particularly while driving, stopped and asked me what I had just said. Had he really not heard or was he as horrified as I was?
“Home of the frosted mug,” I whispered. My father was a gentle man, but he was also big and strong and I knew by the respectful way he was treated that he could be tough. I fully expected a screeching U-turn and a march into the rival tavern, demanding the sign be removed immediately.
My dad, however, kept driving, changing neither his speed nor his direction. He resumed whistling.
“But, Dad,” I said, “aren’t we the home of the frosted mug?”
My dad pulled into a parking place in front of Myers Bakery.
I peppered my dad with questions. Wasn’t he the first in town to serve the frosted mug? He thought he might be. Doesn’t that make the E Z Way Inn the real home of the frosted mug? He smiled and said that maybe it did. I asked him if he would insist that the other tavern owner take down his erroneous sign. He shook his head.
“Honey,” my dad said, patting my knee, “we’re all the home of the frosted mug.”
Since my dad went back to whistling and offered to buy me a chocolate donut or a cherry turnover, I went with him into the bakery and dropped the subject. The lesson of course, is generosity. My dad believed in sharing credit, glory—he was confident and comfortable in his own skin and had no ego that had to be served. At least not when it came to the frosted mug.
And perhaps he knew what I only learned later as a writer. You can’t copyright a title. If someone wants to use a title you used, he or she can. The key, of course, is to just write the better book—make your title the only one that counts. For years, I watched my dad clean the coils of the beer tap, observed both Don and Nellie wash the glasses, clean out the little freezer, keep everything in their tiny bar immaculate. I always saw them both treat the customers with respect, honesty, dignity and good humor. So maybe my dad knew that in every way that counted, the E Z Way Inn was, if not the center of the universe, at the very least, the true Home of the Frosted Mug.