Monday, March 23, 2009

Jack's Grillside Tales: An Interview with John M., Owner of Jack's Diner

Walk into Jack's Diner at 547 Central Avenue, and you're plunged into another time. Its fifties-style construction and d├ęcor jives well with clatter of cups and plates and sizzle of the counter-side grill.

I sit down at a booth, coffee in hand, to speak with John M., owner of Jack’s for 46 years. An active 77, he’s constantly running from kitchen to grill to customers, making everyone welcome with a smile and a joke. Over the course of forty minutes, we cover everything from family to the comical results of losing taste buds.--Dan Henderson

How long have you lived in Albany?
77 years—in the Capital District, that is.

What do you think the most rewarding part of owning the diner is?
Enjoying the job. The people. The money; it isn’t so important.

Just one of those nice things to have on the side?
I just enjoy the business. I talk to a lot of people—my son doesn’t enjoy it, but I do. You know, you meet the characters from A to Z in a diner. You have the governor sitting over there, and the worst bum on the streets there.

Has anyone famous ever stopped in or become a regular?
We had a couple actors, but I didn’t know who the heck they were at the time. The governor—Governor Wilson and the Mayor have been in here, but otherwise nobody that I know of. The biggest writer we had in here was Bill Kennedy.

Ever read any of his books?
Well, I’m not a reader. The last book I read was “See Jack run, see Jane run.” I mean, sometimes I’ll read the paper, you know.

You never read any books?
In high school I used to. We had comic books back then; they were famous books, like Moby Dick. I brought in Moby Dick for a book report and my teacher said “M––, who are you kidding?” He knew I wouldn’t have read it. They were good though, those books. I should’ve picked something different to do my report on. Moby Dick was huge!

Would you consider writing a book or contributing to a newspaper article to talk about your experiences working here and hearing customers’ stories?
We’ve been in US News & World Report and some diner magazines have written about us. But you could do a book just on the characters that have been in here.

Have you made plans for retirement anytime soon?
Not at this moment, no. God has been good to me and I’m healthy. I can have three beers a night and I feel good. I’ll be 78 in July.

You’re a lucky man.
Yeah, I broke my kneecap and I lost my taste for beer for a year and a half. I went to my doctor and he asked me how I was doing. So I told him I broke my kneecap and I lost my taste for beer for a year and he said, Oh my God, why didn’t you tell me sooner, I could’ve given you a shot!

So do you have it back now?
Oh yeah, I started drinking wine, but I just couldn’t do it. My father died an alcoholic, my father-in-law died an alcoholic, and my wife still thinks I’m an alcoholic. [winks and chuckles]

You must still be proud of your children, though.
Oh yeah, but I don’t know, I never taught any of them how to drive. Their mother did that. I put in more hours. We went on vacation, we would go places, and we had a nice boat. The kids were good.

I’ve got a question: Are you Catholic?

Nope, I was raised Episcopalian.
Well, I have been all my life. I go to mass at Saint Mary’s, and one day the priest told us that everyone who bears a cross can get to Heaven. And I sat there in the pew thinking about it, and thought, “Everybody I know is going to Heaven, because everybody I know bears some kind of cross.”

Everybody has problems. It’s just life.

That’s for sure.
I lost thirty-five pounds last year using an ancient method. My father died and my mother put a pound on that first month. She was worried, so she went to the doctor, who was Jewish, and in his office he had pictures of people in the concentration camps on his wall. He told her, if you want to lose weight, just do what they did, don’t eat! And that’s what I did. I stopped eating. I just cut down. You don’t need your special diets, you just eat less.

Of course I don’t have taste buds, so everything I eat tastes about the same. I could practically get away with drinking sour milk. You could open kerosene in here and I wouldn’t smell a thing. I could probably get away with not taking a bath for six weeks.

I don’t know if I’ll quote you on that.
In Korea, I went without a shower for about that long, we were being pushed back and nobody had the time to do anything. But when you’re eighteen or nineteen, it’s no big deal.