Coming-of-Age Novel, Bittersweet, Side of Fries | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Coming-of-Age Novel, Bittersweet, Side of Fries 

Southwest-side native John McNally comes home to Duke's Drive-In.

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At Duke's Drive-In, a hut in a block-long parking lot at 81st and Harlem in Bridgeview, the regulars know that a "beef sweet, dry and fry" is a sandwich with sweet peppers, a little gravy, and a side of fries. A "beef hot and juicy" is the opposite. This is common to all Italian beef stands, says Bill Humphrey, a Chicago firefighter who manages the place for his mother-in-law (his father-in-law, Duke Ziegler, ran the place for 28 years before he died of a heart attack in 2003). But to John McNally, who began eating there as a child, the lingo of the beef stand was always a source of fascination. He devoted a chapter of his first novel, The Book of Ralph, to Duke's, and returns on Saturday, May 28, to sign the just-released paperback. "It may be the first book signing at a place that sells Italian beef," McNally says.

An episodic coming-of-ager that reads like a collection of short stories, The Book of Ralph (Free Press) follows 13-year-old narrator Hank Boyd and his new pal Ralph, the worst kid at Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Grade School, as they navigate eighth grade and the southwest side in 1978 and '79. The hardcover, published last year, was called "a fiction" on its cover, but the paperback is labeled a novel. "I figure if it goes into another edition it'll be a libretto," says McNally, who'll do additional readings this weekend at bookstores in Oak Park and Oak Lawn and at a release party for Sleepwalk magazine at the Hideout (see Readings & Lectures in Section 2 for details). He's currently adapting the book into a screenplay.

McNally was a regular at Duke's until he left for Illinois State University in 1983. Now 39, he teaches English at Wake Forest University, but as a high school student he wished he could work at the beef stand. "There was always this sense of envy that I had of the people who worked there," he says. Yet he never applied for the job. "I felt like you had to have an in or something." Humphrey doesn't dispute that: "It's almost all friends and family that are working here," he says.

Humphrey has worked at Duke's since it opened in 1975. He met McNally last year, after getting an e-mail from the writer telling him that the shop is in the book. Humphrey bought the hardcover, read it, and had it signed by McNally at an appearance at the Chicago Ridge Mall. He put up a poster for the book at Duke's, which McNally says was some of the best advertising it has had anywhere. "Most of the e-mails I get are from people who saw the poster in Duke's and bought the book," says McNally, who put an e-mail address (bookofralph@aol.com) on the dust jacket. He says the print run of the hardcover "almost sold out." (Simon & Schuster, which owns Free Press, has a "long-standing company policy not to discuss book sales," according to Free Press publicity manager Tara Kennedy.)

"Growing up around here, it's impossible not to like that book," Humphrey says. "I mean, the Sheridan Drive-In used to be right here at the corner, Haunted Trails is right next door to it, everything is so right here in this area. You almost feel like you know the kids in the book, 'cause everybody knows the dirtball they went to school with." Hank and Ralph's main drag is Harlem Avenue around 79th Street, where McNally grew up in a succession of apartments ("It seemed like we moved every year") with his older brother; his father, a roofer; and his mother, a factory worker until health problems put her on disability.

That part of Harlem Avenue looks like any other commercial suburban strip, but the area is about as clannish as the Appalachians. "There's a Mafia sensibility," says McNally, who's been back for visits and says he's still accepted as an insider. "It's always been a close-knit, family-oriented community, and that's how it is down here," Humphrey says. "It's blue-collar heaven."

In the Duke's chapter, titled "You," the place is always packed and the counter people yell "You!" at the next customer, who'd better know exactly what he wants and how to order it. After a fat man with half the menu in his to-go bags wheezes out of the joint a customer remarks, "Must have an appetite, that guy," sparking a conversation joined by everyone in line except Hank and his father. The next week the guy is back, and after he leaves with his takeout Hank speaks up: "Man, that guy was F.A.T., fat!" The place goes silent. Beads of sweat appear on his father's forehead. Out in the parking lot, Hank thinks he hears distant birds, looks up to the sky, and sees nothing. "I turned and saw that the noise was coming from Duke's, from the men and women inside, and I knew that fat wasn't the topic," he says. "I was the topic....Everyone eventually got their turn. Yesterday it was the fat guy. Today it was me."

After the food, the main topic of conversation at Duke's in the early years was cars. Duke owned 11 '57 Chevys, and his future son-in-law (Humphrey was dating Duke's daughter, Sue, at the time, while working at the stand) was a hot-rodder. Humphrey owned two silver Monte Carlos: one with a big engine and a nitrous oxide tank, the other a normal car that he'd show to prospective challengers. "They'd look under the hood, go OK. I'd go home, switch cars, go out to the woods. It was a lot of fun and games back then."

Word got around that racers were welcome to show off their hot rods and muscle cars in the Duke's lot, and they came. "If you wanted to street race, this was the place to be. They said if you go pulling into Duke's with slicks on your car, you'd better be ready to race," says Humphrey, referring to treadless racing tires. The racers would hang around ordering sandwiches and checking out one another's wheels until closing time, sometime between 11 PM and midnight, then 30 or more of them would head out to 159th and Bell Road, or 183rd and Ridgeland, or the Saganashkee Slough in the Palos Hills Forest Preserve. As soon as the road was clear, they'd flash their lights and rev their engines. Sometimes the local police would shut down the fun, but no one went to jail. "A lot of times the coppers, they'd just pull up, you know, 'Hit the bricks, you guys leave, go somewhere for a half hour, I don't want to deal with you guys,'" says Humphrey.

As a result of all this activity, "we were on the cover of J.C. Whitney's auto parts magazine, we were on the cover of Hot Rod and Car Craft," he says. McNally, a decade younger than Humphrey and his pals, watched the scene with amazement. "It was great," he says. "They took up the entire parking lot, and up and down some of the streets." The closest he came to having a hot rod of his own was a '69 Chevelle that started out blue but ended up a two-toned blue and red after an accident. "It would have been a cool car, except it was a four door," he says. "The cool car was the two door."

The date of McNally's book signing coincides with Duke's 30th anniversary, so Humphrey invited some of the old hot-rodders--as well as some of the police officers who used to roust them--back to the parking lot for free hot dogs and balloons, and plenty of tricked-out cars, which aren't so common at Duke's these days. "The hot-rodders don't come up as much as they used to," says Humphrey. "Street racing has kind of died."

"This might be the worst idea ever," McNally says, but if the weather's good he'll sit at one of Duke's picnic tables with a "beef, extra-extra juicy--sometimes called soaked--no peppers and a fry. Maybe I'll rub the sandwich on the people's books as I sign them. Individual stamp on each book, a little grease stain."

John McNally/Duke's Anniversary
When: Sat 5/28, 11 AM-2 PM
Where: Duke's Drive-In, 8115 S. Harlem, Bridgeview
Info: 708-599-0576 or dukesitalianbeef.com

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez, Lissa Gotwals.

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