The Bel Loc
Miss Ruth ambles across the brown-speckled tile floor.
“Eee-ann … Eee-ann …” she calls. My nearly two-year old son, Ian, eyes her and continues to chew his saltine. He then decides to favor her with one fist clenching and unclenching in a wave.
“Ahahahaa! I got a wave!” Miss Ruth crows and picks up my glass to refill my Diet Coke.
We’re tucked into a booth at the Bel-Loc Diner, a cigarette-stained and kind of sticky place where it’s virtually still 1962. Named for the traffic-choked area it calls home (at the Beltway and Loch Raven Boulevard in Baltimore), the Bel-Loc sits in an increasingly sketchy neighborhood with liquor stores, bail bondsmen and slightly ominous motels. It’s a temple of hot turkey sandwiches on white bread drenched in fluorescent yellow gravy and chopped beefsteak dinners with whipped potatoes and peas.
It may be sticky, but for my family and me, it’s always been home.
One warm Saturday night without air conditioning, we were on our way to have dinner at the Bel-Loc after a stop at Toys-R-Us. In my small hands was a freshly purchased big box containing (after much cajoling on my part) Thunderbolt, a magnificent Marx Toys Johnny West black stallion.
When we arrived at the Bel-Loc, my parents somehow convinced me to leave Thunderbolt in our station wagon, so I elbowed my big sister out of the way to sit by the window. As I ate my favorite Spaghetti with Meatball (not balls, mind you) ordered from the children’s menu featuring a scowling clown, I looked down into the parking lot. Through the sunset gleaming off of the Bel-Loc’s chrome starburst entrance, I could see the photo of Thunderbolt, his rippled plastic muscles shining, on the front of the white box sitting in the passenger seat. My heart started beating faster. I quickly chewed a piece of Italian bread with a pat of nearly frozen butter on top. I could not believe that Thunderbolt was ALL MINE. (It gave my 5-year-old brain a rush even greater than Peter Brady did.) I could not stop staring at him.
Somehow, I managed to choke down a bite of chocolate cream pie. My dad, eyes gleaming behind his Drew-Carey-Before-There-Was-A-Drew-Carey glasses, saw an opportunity. “You gonna eat that?” he asked while simultaneously stabbing the pie with his fork and plunking it down on his plate.
I did not care. MY horse was waiting for me. And I felt the kind of pure Christmas-morning excitement only a child experiences. That humid July night became one of my favorite childhood memories.
As I grew older, the Bel-Loc was still the site of many a memory. Midnight confessions over gravy fries and rice pudding. Post-alcohol pancakes at 2am. Quasi family reunions. And a few first and (at the same time) last dates.
Like the height of my hair, the Bel-Loc has made a few concessions to the passing decades. The star-flecked tabletops have been replaced with tasteful plain beige. The gold harlequin wall sculptures are gone and only tile walls remain. The jukebox at every booth no longer plays 45s but CDs. The tiffany lamps dangling over each table (I was partial to the pear-motif lamp) dazzle no more.
Happily, some things never change. The gigantic steel milk dispenser advertising a long-defunct local dairy. The candy box at the counter with its fading foil stickers, where I would scoop up a roll of Butter Rum Lifesavers and slip it to my dad while he paid the bill. The waitresses with their old school nurse-ish white polyester uniforms who call every customer “Hon” and aren’t afraid to say the soup du jour is no good.
Miss Ruth arrives with my refill, along with Ian’s Spaghetti and Meatball. He greets the steaming plate accented by a sprig of parsley with an “Ooooooh.”
Cue Elton John on the jukebox, the circle of life (and cholesterol) goes on.