This is how you go home again l Chuck's World
Last updated 7/31/2019 at Noon
It’s an unremarkable place, even by the standards of nondescript architecture.
A low-slung building with what appears to be a tin roof, a tourist stop just an hour away from the Grand Canyon, Black Bart’s Steakhouse sits just off Interstate 40 on the east side of Flagstaff, Arizona. There’s an antique store and an RV park, a break for people making their way through the beauty of the American Southwest.
After buying the property in the mid-1970s, transforming a recreational building into a restaurant and appropriating the nickname of a famous 19th-century stagecoach bandit, the new owners hired music students from nearby Northern Arizona University to serve as singing waiters, slinging steaks and taking occasional breaks to croon.
An adjacent theater was built a few years later, when they decided to put on a summer stage show. This is where I came in, as I went to college at NAU, and I worked for a couple of years at Black Bart’s nearly 40 years ago.
If you’re visiting the area, particularly if you have a rig to park for the night, it’s a convenient spot to get excellent food and surprisingly good entertainment. The theater still stands, serving as overflow seating for the restaurant.
I stuck my head in the door the last time I was in town, just for the sake of nostalgia. The place still looks the same, homey and slightly kitschy. College students still wait on tables and take turns singing, mostly songs from musicals.
The summer show was stopped in 1991, opting for choreographed chorus numbers interspersed with solos and spectacular steaks.
I noted that the tables are set up in approximately the same places as they were back in 1982. I looked for a particular one, where I was sitting on a Saturday morning that spring, waiting for a rehearsal to begin.
From that angle, I could see the front door, and as it opened I glanced up.
I thought I knew her, at first. There was something very familiar about something, maybe her gait or her hair, but as she came into the room, I realized I was mistaken. I didn’t know her. I just never shook that feeling that I was supposed to.
And I was, it turned out. I married her 36 years ago this week, overlooking the red rocks of Sedona, the other cast members making up our wedding party. I would share both a stage and a life with her, with all of them.
Maybe you have a place like this in your past. A job or a school, someplace your young life landed for a brief moment, its importance elevated by your awareness of what would come next. A way station on the journey to the rest of your life, maybe.
And maybe you found a family there, for a brief time. You worked and played with the same intensity, sharing a time and place that would be gone in an instant, really, leaving you with only dusty memories and questions about what ever happened to everyone else.
And then you enter the 21st century, and all of your questions are answered.
By the time I visited Black Bart’s last year, most of the cast members from those two summers were already in touch on Facebook. We rounded up the stragglers and planned a reunion, and this past weekend we saw each other for the first time in over 30 years.
There were 20 of us, including spouses and some offspring. Time and gravity have done to us what they do, a few pounds here, some missing hair there, and I would have known them anywhere. We rented a house and met on Friday night, by now familiar with many details but eager to catch up on the rest.
And on Saturday, we returned to the scene of the crime. We sat at a big table and ordered everything, our waiters younger than most of our kids. They approached us warily at first, not quite grasping that they were going to have one of the best nights of their short careers.
We appreciated everything, we tipped outrageously, and when the chorus numbers began we joined in four-part harmony. We laughed, sang, and touched each other again, remembering the bonds formed when most of our lives were still to come.
I was reminded of my daughter when she was about 3 years old and introduced to the story of Peter Pan. She quickly bumped up against reality, jerked out of her suspension of disbelief.
“No one can lose their shadow,” she said, sort of disdainfully.
But we can. We move and grow, our lives become busy, and one day we glance over our shoulders and notice something missing, something that used to be there. It’s hard to identify and it doesn’t matter; we’re doing just fine without it. But we know it’s gone.
And now I know where it went. My shadow resides with these people, whom I love with an intensity that surprises me now. They are the holders of the 20-something I used to be. They are the keepers of my shadow, and I of theirs.
They sing and dance, these shadows. They remind me to laugh, and to love fiercely. They teach me about community, about family, about relationships.
And they were there at the beginning, when I glanced up and thought I knew someone, when it turns out I was right.