I first moved to JC in 1988. I think it was February, after I'd spent my first local month up in Riverdale with my then-boyfriend's sister, Glennia. JC was really different then, much more like my old block which was full of character and history.
So it's with great shame that I admit that I'd never been to the local slider dive, White Mana. This burger joint was built for the 1939 World's Fair and opened at its current location alongside the grimy, pockmarked lanes of Route 1 (locally referred to as "1 and 9") in 1946.
(Before you judge me too harshly, half the time since 1988, I was living on a small island across the Hudson or sometimes more exotic places. Like Australia, Cairo, Barcelona, or Kuwait. I even spent a month each in Berlin and Namibia.)
I had Henry the 1990 Ford Taurus repaired last week. His harmonic thingymajig was making a hole in a casing gadget. And Mike—the mechanic that I found years ago on the Cartalk.com forum—sternly told me I wasn't driving enough.
"If you drive at least once a week, it'll keep rust from forming on the brakes."
Or something like that. I wasn't listening past "Drive once a week."
Intent on giving my car some exercise this weekend, I'd wondered "Where can I go?"
That's when I thought of White Mana. I wanted to go to photograph the Pulaski Skyway and look at the Jose Marti statue in Weehawken too, but rain kept my ambitions slight.
I don't like driving over the Pulaski Skyway or under it, so I avoided it by driving the back roads to the Heights and cutting over behind the diner. I turned in at a faded sign that advertised "Curb Service."
"I'll have a cheeseburger and some fries," I told a woman who worked in the back. I'd have told the counter guy, but he was BS-ing with a man trying to sell pirated DVDs and a cartoonist who was there with his kid. I don't think the cartoonist recognized me.
"Uh... one," I stammered. Okay. It was like White Castle or Little Tavern where I grew up. "Buy 'em by the bag."
She brought me a cheeseburger and fries, then disappeared into the back. I nibbled it, judging it a closer relative to White Castle than to In N Out or Shake Shack. I watched the counter man shooting the breeze with the cartoonist and DVD-salesman for a while. Then they left, promising to return next Sunday.
Right after the other customers left, the counter man suddenly yelled: "I'm going for my beer!"
He tore out the door and raced across the traffic of 1/9 towards Ringside, the bar across the street.
Was he joking? Did he really go get a beer? It didn't matter. He'd showed me that JC's still got it, little pockets of character and quirkiness, which is exactly why I came back here after years in the big city next door.