It's 1 AM on a Friday night at the Diner Grill, and Steve the Grill Man has hit a lull. He's flipping cups, stacking plates, and scraping his grill with a spatula.
"You wouldn't mind if I got an order to go," says a guy in a leather jacket who's sitting at the counter.
"Nothing would make me happier than to get you outta here," Steve says.
"It's for Spike," the man says. "He's my pit bull. He's out in the car waiting for me."
"What's he want?"
"Double what? Double martini?"
"I didn't know dogs were cannibals," Steve says. "I didn't know they ate their own."
"If you guys don't mind, I'll bring him in to eat."
"Don't bring him in."
Steve the Grill Man serves up a double cheeseburger. The customer takes it outside. Five minutes later, Spike comes roaring through the diner, tongue wagging. He's slipped his leash.
"Man, you can't bring that dog in here!" screams Steve. "What's the matter with you? This is a restaurant. Get him the hell out."
"You wanted to see him, didn't you?"
"Always a pleasure," Steve says.
Spike, who's still roaming, heads for the bathroom.
"Spike, goddamn it," his owner says. "Get outta the toilet." He turns to Steve. "Aw, you love him."
"He thinks you're a lousy fucking cook, that's what he says."
"Yeah, well I hope he chokes to death."
Ever since Steve the Grill Man started working the late shift at the Diner five years ago, he's been praying for his job to end. "I hope that every night is my last night," he says. "You never can tell. Something might go right for once."
The Diner is made up of two old streetcars, one of which is for seating and the other for storage. There are video poker machines and a hand-painted menu on the wall, but otherwise no decorations. It was established just west of Ashland on Irving Park in 1937, "but they didn't have Steve the Grill Man back then," Steve says.
But the Diner did have quite a reputation--a few years ago a customer stabbed a cook in the back and emptied the cash register, leaving a steaming bowl of chili on the counter. Soon after, a new owner, Arnold DeMars, moved in, and among other things, wiped the grease off the counters and hired Steve the Grill Man.
Steve's an enigmatic figure with big eyes and a nervous, wiry body. He always wears a White Sox cap. "You wanna wear it?" he asks a customer.
"Man oh man, this hat is diseased. The EPA wants this hat."
Before he worked at the Diner, Steve "did the same thing, different place. But I don't want to talk about that." When he's not working, Steve says, "I sing the national anthem at cockfights. That's my real job."
Tonight Steve's a little more strung out than usual, mixing himself big glasses of iced tea with cream. "You gotta excuse me," he says. "I'm kinda zoned. I'm coming off a two-day drunk."
Marty Abney, who works the grill with Steve from midnight to 5 AM Fridays and Saturdays, huffs and slaps his forehead. Steve the Grill Man is his eternal torment. "He has driven good men to drink," Abney says.
"What am I, a cabbie?" Steve says. "I can't respond to anything this guy says, because I don't take it seriously."
"He doesn't deny it, though," Abney says. "I can't stand more than five hours with this guy."
There's an enormous bone ham sitting by the grill. Abney slices off a piece and throws it on the heat.
"Hey guys, that's beautiful," says a woman customer. "That's a really nice hunka ham."
"You shoulda seen it when we brought it out yesterday morning," Abney says.
"I slaughtered that ham myself," Steve says. "That's a Ziffel ham. That was Arnold Ziffel from Green Acres. He flew his own plane in here, and I jumped on his ass. I killed him, and Marty dated him." He breaks up laughing.
"Goddamn it," Abney says.
The Diner features mini-jukeboxes on the counter, with great songs that Steve likes by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, George Jones, and Hank Williams. Unfortunately for Steve, he does not control the music selection.
"That's how Marty gets even," Steve says. "While I'm slaving away here, Marty picks out the worst songs ever written, because he has the ear of the jukebox guy. He tells them to play the worst songs of all time, 'American Pie,' 'King of the Road.' He does it to get back at me."
Marty hands some quarters to a guy sitting by a jukebox. "Give me a dollar's worth of Black Betty," he says.
"I've never met a bigger fleeb in all my life," Steve says.
"What's a fleeb?" a customer asks.
"That's what Marty is," Steve says. "Marty's a fleeb."
The Diner Grill sees all kinds of customers, but its late-night patrons have two things in common--they're all drunk and they all love greasy food. The major staple at the Diner is eggs, which are served with everything imaginable. You can get eggs with baked ham, with bacon, with sausage, or with mysterious "patties." The Diner's eggs come with pork chops, strip steaks, cube steaks, and burgers. They're available in sandwiches, fried, scrambled, or covered with chili. An "extra egg" is 35 cents. On Steve and Marty's grill, mounds of potatoes and hash sizzle next to quick-frying pork chops, burgers, buns, grilled cheese sandwiches, and other assorted slabs of meat and lard.
"You see what they eat here," Steve says. "They love me as I slowly kill them. This is the natural progression. They've gotta get something to eat. This is the last stop, I'm the sleeping pill. I tuck them in once the police get them driving on the way home. They're so drunk, they've gotta close their eyes or they bleed to death."
Steve scrapes grease and flips meat like he's conducting a symphony, all the while keeping up a steady patter with the customers. "I burn everything, not necessarily to order," he says.
"Double cheese, hold the onions," Marty says.
"Double sleaze, hold the unknowns."
A guy comes in and sits at the counter.
"How 'bout a nice pork chop today?" Steve asks.
Meanwhile, someone else has ordered a bacon double cheeseburger with grilled onions and an egg on the side. Steve serves it up. "Here you go, fella, here's a big old boat of cholesterol for you," he says.
The pork chop guy is busy loading ketchup onto some steaming hash browns. "Hey, this is really good," he says.
"You mean pretty good for my first day sober," Steve says.
At about 2:30 the Diner is stacked three deep with people waiting for a seat. "How's the perch?" someone asks Steve.
"It's floppin' around in a mop bucket back there. I'll bring it out and beat it for you with a bat." He goes back into the freezer and brings out a frozen fish filet, which he's bouncing around in his hands. "Look out, it's a live one!" he shouts as he tosses it on the grill.
Steve's had his share of famous customers, he says. "Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins used to come in all the time. I knew him when he was dirt poor--it was all I could do to get the bill outta him. And when they finally get an article in Illinois Entertainer, who do they promote? Not the Diner. Jim's Grill! Well, I'll see them on the way back down."
By 4 AM Steve's looking pretty worn-out. He's chain-smoking, and he's covered in gunk. "You should be here when I really care," he says. "Once every three months I'll give you a hell of a show. Like the Beatles in Hamburg, it's Steve in hamburger heaven."
A guy wearing dark glasses walks in. Two men in John Deere caps, who are sitting at the counter, go nuts.
"Aw, that's our bartender," they shout. "Heeeeeeeeeey!" They hug sloppily.
"It's time for the bartenders now," Steve says. "You want to talk about drunks?"
"Hey Stevie Wan Kenobi!" the bartender shouts. "How's it hangin'?"
Steve the Grill Man rolls his eyes and lights another cigarette. "Tonight's my last night, I can feel it," he says. "At least it has potential."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Yael Routtenberg.