MILWAUKEE – A woman with a deep laugh and lots of silver rings asks, “What’ll you have?” and I say, “The burger you’ll be giving away for free on Friday.” That’s when the deep laugh reveals itself.
“We don’t know that yet,” she scolds.
“I just want to know what I’ll be getting,” I say.
“Not Friday,” she says. “Next Thursday, 2 to 6. Gotta prepare for something like that. If, you know …”
“Twelve in a row,” I say. “You believe, though, right?”
A deep laugh.
“So, I’ll have that. The soon-to-be-free burger.”
“Onions?” she says.
“If they’ll be free too.”
“Burger, onions, pickles,” she says with a sigh, as though I’d just jinxed the whole thing.
It’s a little after 1 Wednesday afternoon. Two others are at the counter at George Webb’s, a burger joint on 3rd Street, a 24-hour diner that gives burgers away every three decades or so, assuming the Brewers win Friday’s National League Championship Series opener against the Dodgers, which would give them 12 consecutive wins, which will satisfy old George’s original marketing gimmick and have his joint feed the town, just like in ’87, the last and only time the Brewers have banged out a dozen in a row. The smallish restaurant chain paid up with nearly 170,000 burgers that day or, as the T-shirts attest, “Brewers 12, George Webb 168,194, April 19, 1987.”
So I wait on my preview burger. The woman at the counter beside me says, “How’s your day,” and I say, “Fine except for it’s raining and I have no umbrella,” to which she grins and says, “It ain’t that bad.” And I agree.
The night before, in my quest to find Major Goolsby’s, I’d wandered the streets of downtown for an hour before finding the bar three blocks from my hotel. It was raining, a steaming rain, the kind when a drop hits your shoulder it sends up a little puff of smoke. But, the bartender, Kirby, America’s personal bartender, had good stories (the large pig at the front door is named for Charles Barkley and the restroom is straight that way, take a right at the Harley, my kind of place) and a soft spot in his soul for the Brewers and the TV turned to whoever the Brewers would play in the World Series, should they get that far. They’ve been before, once. Never won it, though. Maybe this year’ll be different.
It’s still raining like that, but nobody seems to mind, and maybe that’s because it rains like that a lot or because, hey, it’s the middle of October and it’s still baseball season. Four miles away, Miller Park from the highway looks like one of those new handbags they’re carrying on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. Soon, they’ll be stretching and taking BP and chasing fungoes, preparing for the biggest series in town since they’d lost to the Cardinals at this same point seven years ago. Craig Counsell, the Brewers manager, was a player on that team.
He said he’s never had a George Webb burger. He grew up here. In fact, I couldn’t find a single player who’d heard of the place, which was weird, given it’s been around for 70 years (this year), or its feed-the-world pledge, though Jeremy Jeffress seemed game. “You got one?” he asked, ” ’cause I’ll try it.” Alas.
Yet, I sit on a blue-ish stool, my elbows on a beige counter, game. In the spirit of the thing.
There are signs everywhere. Not the omens kind. Regular signs.
“We’ll fix or remake your food, but no refunds.”
“Restrooms for customers only.”
Wednesday is split pea and ham soup day.
One that says that from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. you have to pay upfront. The counter is very close to the door.
A poster on the far wall: “George Webb predicts the Brew Crew will win 12 straight games.”
There it is, the Brewers sitting on 11, me on a blue-ish stool.
Beneath the breathy analysis of Dodgers-Brewers, the arched-brow breakdowns of this starting rotation and that bullpen, there’s a city of 600,000 people and their ballclub with half the payroll of the big fellas, the sort of newcomer that makes October charming again. The sort of team that with a little luck could win this thing, all of this thing.
And a burger. Maybe lots of them.
It arrives with little ceremony. With the bun, the pickles and the onions, the burger is mostly bun, pickles and onions. But, hey, in a week it’ll be free. Not that we know that yet.
The burger goes pretty quickly. An older gentleman, meantime, has taken an interest in the younger woman beside me. He buys her coffee. He works his magic. She smiles kindly.
“I can’t believe I’m being finessed by an 80-year-old,” she says, amused.
When he’s walked out the front door and she is still shaking her head I look at her and say, “It ain’t that bad.” And she agrees. She laughs.
A moment later, the gentleman is back.
“I forgot my cane,” he says.
Everyone enjoys that.
“It’s a miracle!” she says.
From behind the counter, a deep laugh. Could be a busy week. Not that we know that yet.
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