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Counter Culture: Wintering at Al’s

By Norbert Blei

It’s not all silence and snowstorms, solemnity and solitary walks, reading “Snowbound” by the light of the fire on long winter nights — as idyllic, or stifling, as it may sound.

There are places to go no matter how bad the weather, how deep the snow.

It’s winter. It’s February. It’s been snowing all night. The path I shoveled from the house to the coop in the dark, earlier in the morning is already covered. The path I have just shoveled down the driveway to my road leaves me standing in wonderland, exhausted and aware my escape route is blocked, drifted-in, a sight to behold, an epiphany in white. I gaze west to where an adjacent road lay buried near a field, the road which is my link to the main, state highway — which I assume the county has plowed at least one lane by this time in the morning. Looking up into the sky, lost in a swirling snow that won’t quit, I surmise there is no chance in hell the plow will get me out till late afternoon at best.  At worse, tomorrow.

A slight seizure of claustrophobia invades my psyche, a flash of fear. My choices are limited: 1. Try it.  2. Visualize ORANGE SNOW PLOW--SOON until it becomes a reality. 3. Hope that a truck may soon appear creating wide, deep tracks that I might hook into with my own vehicle, if I ever get out of the driveway. 4. Accept. Enjoy. This is the stuff of Currier and Ives paintings. This is real rural winter. You want to live here? You get what’s coming to you. Deal with it. Go back in the coop and write. Suck up the silence. Drink lukewarm coffee from the Thermos. No one promised you a garden in winter. Look out the desk window, meditate: white on white. Enter the Zen zone. Write a haiku, something as perfect  as Hashin’s “Loneliness”:

No sky at all;
   No earth at all—and still
      The snowflakes fall…

This is your life in winter…But none of it works. Not any more. There are needs to be addressed.

I must go to Al Johnson’s for coffee…for conversation, camaraderie, my late morning break. This has been going on since 1969, BG (Before Goat times) more than thirty years ago. I can’t explain it. I’ve considered other morning breaks. I’ve tried other restaurants, tried walks on the beach, visiting people, listening to Public Radio, playing jazz — Miles, Monk, Billie Holiday, phoning friends. Nothing works. Al’s keeps calling me. Especially in winter. I need the world. I need people. I need my mail, my newspapers. But mostly I need to sit at the counter of Al’s awhile to put a little everyday-ness into my life.

The challenge of summer is the Open Door, open way too much. The tourists just keep on coming, filling the roads, gift shops, lighthouses, beaches, bars, parks, restaurant, destined (eventually) for the full Al Johnson treatment in Sister Bay: to wave to, talk to, photograph the goats on the grass roof; to eat Swedish pancakes and meatballs with lingonberries and a basket of limpa bread; to interrogate all the waitresses, in search of the true Swede; to ask a waitress what tack sa mycket means on the bill; to buy a pair of clogs; to experience the rapture of rosemalling; to feel just a little bit Swedish, as they occupy every square inch of the restaurant, every seat at the counter, leaving me (a spring/summer/fall/winter regular) standing, fretting, waiting for a spot to open at the counter. But often in July and August, leaving me alienated from my own haunt, frustrated, headed back home without my daily fix. Which throws off my writing, my life, my whole day and night.

The challenge of winter is precisely what I face today, this snowy morning in February: I can’t get even there from here. I’m trapped.

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In the past, in my other life in the city, the neighborhood, this kind of thing was easy. I could walk within minutes to my downtown coffee joint/neighborhood corner restaurant, early morning, late night, all night, buy the latest edition at the newsstand outside the restaurant, sit contentedly engaged with the sounds, sights, and smells around me, always find a bright, tough-cookie/cutie of a waitress with a Mona Lisa smile, foul mouth and dirty laugh, to love for the moment or forever, order eggs and bacon for breakfast, a grilled cheese and black coffee for after dark or the midnight hours, dining delightedly with all the denizens at the counter, all those from Hemingway’s story, looking for a clean, well-lighted place, smoking, gawking, reading newspapers, men, women, old-timers, talking smart, talking trivia, talking funny, talking stupid, talking drunk, dirty, depressed, crazy, talking weather, news, sports, and the odds on horses running at Sportman’s Park or Hawthorne…till you knew that happening moment at the counter was over, and it was time to return to whatever equated the real world: a job,  unemployment, shopping, sleep, a rented room, unfinished business, a house and family, a woman waiting in a warm or cold bed. And once returned to one’s private habitats and inner lives, one was left with a vague feeling that a part of your life you liked best was left back at the counter among strangers and friends.  

But here in the rural, the once rural that grows increasingly un-rural, suburban, surreal, there is always distance…and weather. Winter weather, which can play havoc with a man’s needs and daily routine. You can’t get there from here — now.  The concept of ‘snowbound,’ my first few years of living in Door, was like nothing I ever experienced — with the exception of being denied a weekend pass in the military, which I would just as soon forget

But, “This is crazy!” I would fling my hands anxiously toward the snowy heavens. “This just won’t do. I have to get out of here. I have to go to Al’s.”

I didn’t give a damn if the car was buried up to the tailpipe, if the roads were all ice, if the schools were closed, if the local radio and Green Bay gloom and doom TV weather terrorists treated listeners like children in their, fake fatherly/motherly voices:  “Better button up. It’s snowing today. Ten to twelve inches by tonight. Falling temperature tomorrow followed by more snow tomorrow night. Dress warmly. Don’t forget your boots and gloves. Be careful. The roads are snow-packed and slippery. If you don’t have to drive, stay home.”

That’ll put the fear of Old Man Winter in you, as it did me in the early days when their dire predictions seemed knowledgeable and sincere. I listened and heeded their advice. Thankful to be safe at home, going nowhere. Let it snow. There’s TV to watch, music to listen to, popcorn to eat, spirits to drink, books to read. Snowed-in and loving it. I’d call all my friends in the city with plowed streets, salted steps, shoveled sidewalks, public transportation. Softies, one and all. Try roughing it in the rural, buddy. I can’t even find my road. I’m snowblind. I’m stranded in a snowbound woods! I may never get out of here! And I don’t care!

That attitude lasted about the first two winters. Till I discovered Al’s. Related to it the moment I sat down, so similar to my old Chicago coffee-counter haunts…the sheer energy of the atmosphere alone, the owner barking out tables, orders, greetings… not to mention the fact that the owner, Al (Axel)Johnson himself, while passing for a legitimate Door County Swede with old world connections going back to Ole and Lena, (Did you hear that Ole and Lena got married, and on their honeymoon trip they were close to Minneapolis when Ole put his hand on Lena’s knee, and Lena started blushing and says to Ole, `Ole, you can a little farther now if ya vant to’…so Ole drove to Duluth.) and Lutefisk, and  Aquavit, grass roofs and goats, what’s more was married to a real Swede, Ingert, who spoke the native tongue—and English, like a true Swede and remains the true spirit behind all that is the best of Door County which reflects the Scandinavian tradition…Johnson was Chicago to the core, knew all the old neighborhoods, spoke true Chicagoese (high volume,  gesture, bravado laced with common sense, conversation punctuated with such fall-back remarks as: “You got that right…”) exhibiting a sure sense of self characterized by hard work, constant motion, a  passion for news, sports, politics (local, state, national), and a genuine concern for people--his staff, customers, and anyone in need. It took only a few trips to the counter of Al’s, and I was hooked. Home free. In place. Tack sa mycket.

Winter_Book_cover.jpgIt’s mid morning. I’ve been working for a few hours. The writing has been coming or not coming. No matter. It’s all the same. I’ve done my time for now. Now I have to get out. I’m here most of the morning, all afternoon, back in the house all night. every day of the year. I seldom see anyone. I don’t want to see anyone. I am not that social — except for Al’s each day, when I’m a different creature entirely. Someone I don’t even recognize. Mr. Nice Guy, meeting friends and strangers at the counter of Al’s, babbling with my favorite waitress/waitresses, listening to all of their stories (my job): Annika, Susie, Corrie, Karen, Mindy, Barb, Katie, Julie, Rose, Trina, Jodi, Cricket, Erin, Jennie, Brinn, Bridget, Lisa, Michelle, Jill, Jamie, George, Amanda, Molly, Maria, Maggie, Britton, Erika, et. al. You name ‘em. I can’t …can’t remember all their names. Given the years I’ve logged at the counter enjoying their service and company. My cup of coffee and glass of water appear on the counter without even asking. The day’s dialogue begins. I’m back in the Al’s comfort zone, where I belong. My cup runneth over—thanks to the phalanx of attentive, perceptive, considerate, informative, intelligent, beautiful waitresses dressed in their Swedish dirndls, born to serve with a smile: “Would you like some more coffee?” Tack sa mycket.

This is the pause that refreshes…my major social break of the day which, upon occasion, might be extended to include a little lunch—should hunger pains persist, should the conversation at the counter be exceptionally stimulating this morning…(Louie Smolak on one side of me discussing Russian history, boxing, the art of Aleksandr Archipenko; George Koller on the other, telling another lame joke, suggesting another one hot stock pick and I can’t afford; the late `Wall Street Charley’ (Clemensen) sitting on the other side of Koller, discounting everything Koller says because in Charley’s not so humble opinion, the world belongs to Coca-Cola — and Charley Clemensen, who once worked for Coke, knew the secret formula, bought and grew the stock, and though he can’t quite come up with the change to buy coffee at the counter this morning, he just might flash his current portfolio (worth at least a cool million), smile, act a little befuddled as to where all that money came from, and lecture us all again that he didn’t owe anybody anything because he worked hard for what he’s got. While Louie Smolak turns with a humpf and a shake of the head, stares somewhere beyond Charlie’s consciousness, and in stern, resonant tones announces and reminds Mr. Clemensen for the two hundred and fifty-sixth time (in the last ten years alone) that: “There are no pockets in shrouds.” Charley ignores the remark, puts his daily batch of scratch lottery tickets on the counter, and religiously begins scraping them clean with a fork, determined to increase his life savings by at least another dollar or two.

 “Would you like some lunch? The special today is a cheeseburger with cream of mushroom soup.”  It sounds like a perfect combination to me. “You want raw onions on the burger? (She knows.) I flick my newspaper out, arrange my mail for quick reading, peruse  the restaurant momentarily to see who else may be around today, check the weather outside the front windows and across the bay, take another sip of hot coffee…notice my soup is already on the counter…This is it. I’m alive and well and living at the counter of Al’s once again. I slurp the thick mushroom soup, dripping deliciously down my long, raggy mustache, unattended in winter, scrape the last loving spoonfuls out of the cup. Savor the cheeseburger’s aroma, working its way not too subtlety up to my senses, center the slab of raw onion, shake shake shake the catsup bottle over the onion, smear on some dark Swedish mustard, and take a first warm, wet, bite mingling all the flavors in tasty harmony. The waitress discreetly tops off my coffee cup, keenly attuned to my personal hamburger/coffee consumption ratio.

“How about some dessert?” she inquires. “Your favorite--banana cream pie today.” They’re all my favorites—with the exception of bread pudding, the absolute end of the dessert line in my book. Just mentioning it makes me gag. When you’re out of banana cream, coconut cream, cherry, strawberry, raspberry, rhubarb, blueberry, apple, lemon chiffon, and pumpkin pie…you’re out of dessert.

And so it goes. The Al Johnson connection. All the ingredients. A daily life at the counter which begins and ends with a waitress’  “Hello” and  “Goodbye, see you tomorrow.”  (And tomorrow, and tomorrow…) A staff of year around regulars, supplemented by a huge summer staff of mostly college students and some foreigners. All smiling and chatty, dressed fetchingly in their Swedish dirndls, ready to serve, ready to trade pleasantries, answer all your questions with a smile (if possible). Fifty-two of those answers, and still counting, taped to the hostess’ desk near the front door where thousands of customers hang around desperately hungering for answers to their burning questions…

No, you don’t have to be Swedish to work here; There is a ramp in the back; No, I’m not Swedish; Yes. Mr. Johnson is still living; No, that is not a lingonberry bush outside; Yes, our menus are heavy; 45 minutes to an hour; They are like a crepe, thin and flat; In the lobby to your right; It means “Thank You Very Much” in Swedish; No, the goats do not fall off; It is like rye bread only sweeter; Yes, the goats are real; It was remodeled in l973; Yes, the blond boy running around is Lars; Yes, the goats are real; No, we do not have tables on the roof with the goats; Yes, this is Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant.

And though the center of culture consists of the ordinary people, strangers, visitors, who merely touch down at the counter for a moment and the regular cast of characters who hang on at both the counter and the adjacent long table, almost daily, past and present (some for the rest of their lives)…people with a history of the place including Baldy Bridenhagen (sheriff), Winky Larson, Eddie Valentine, Bill Beckstrom, Eddie Scheider, Doc Farmer, Pete the pharmacist, Mike Flood, Tim Weborg (fisherman), Louie Smolak (sculptor), St Pat (bartender), Peter Diltz (now Judge Diltz), George Erickson (retired teacher/counselor), Tom Wilson (dentist), Lyle Lundquist, Mike Till (design engineer), Dynamite Oldenburg, Oscar Burrstrom, Amos Rasmussen, Ollie, Dick Nelson, Frank Liptrot, Dean Warner, Harley Holt,  John Nelson, Jay Whitney, Don Stott, Bud Evenson, Charley Clemensen, Bill Bastian, Sandy Hollister, Dickie Burress, Belgie, John Maring,  Chuckie Sully, Poo-Bah, Ingert and her friend, Peg Morton, Cindy Taubert, Wanda, etc. etc. etc. the heartbeat of it all rests with Al himself — who rarely sits for more than 45 seconds, has never been known to finish a cup of coffee, is always coming or going somewhere (a customer’s table, the office, the kitchen, the house, the farm, the Bowl (to play Hearts in winter), the bank, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Chicago, Lake Tahoe, another cruise, etc.), and is always prepared to add his opinion to whatever the ongoing story. And almost no story is left untold or unended given the range of information to be digested and decimated on any given encounter at the counter of Al’s.

Because of all this and more, (a solid sense of `extended family’ beyond Al and Ingert, Lars, Annika, Rolfe, spouses, children and grandchildren) I sweep the snow off the car, yank open the door, turn over the engine, turn on the wipers, heater, defroster, and start the slow backward journey down the deep drifted driveway on another winter mission to Al’s…whatever fate awaits me. As fate is wont to.

I’ve had some close calls both going and coming from Al’s…when I should have heeded at least the possible ounce of truth to the dumb local weather reports:

Once (going), sliding backwards, sideways, lane to lane, all the way down the Ellison Bay hill. Then refusing defeat, determined not to return home without my morning coffee break, abandoning the main highway for a crazy-quilt  pattern of flat backroads that led me, eventually, to Al’s. “Little late today, eh?”  “Busy.”

Once (returning), losing control of the car off the main highway, on to an icy side road that first beckoned me into a ditch (careening between a Speed Limit sign and a telephone pole…taking out the Speed Limit sign) next turning me over and upside down in a snowy field of stillness…extraordinary…but for the pounding of my heart. I crawled sheepishly out the window on the driver’s side. Looked to see if anyone had witnessed the event. But there was no one, nothing in sight. Only Snow. Only winter.

I retrieved my gloves, scarf, cap, and trudged homeward through the pure snow, shaping the story I would tell tomorrow at the counter of Al’s.