Words by Chase Ferren; illustrations by Maria Posato
I was born a Greek Duchess.
I came into the world at 9:35 a.m. on September 24, 1993. At 10:35 a.m., my dad called George at The Duchess to announce my arrival.
George had established The Duchess, a family diner in Penfield, two years earlier.
From the time of my mother’s amniocentesis in April ’93 until The Duchess’s abrupt closing in 2011, I was the mascot.
The pungent smell of burgers, haddock fish fry and cleaning solution floods my nostrils. I run up to the owner of The Duchess with my tiny legs, corkscrew curls bouncing, and yell “Geoge!” (I can’t quite pronounce the “R” in George.)
He picks me up and carries me on his shoulder to Diane, the hostess who looks like a round, craggy Elizabeth Taylor. (Years later, when I’m 18, she tells us she has terminal stomach cancer and I cry, offering condolences.) Diane brings me down from George’s shoulder and into her short arms. Her hair smells like AquaNet and her skin is oozing perfume. She dances with me into the kitchen to talk to the cooks. I am above health regulations at this establishment.
George is an old Greek man with a pot belly and a thick accent, but the diner he owns is only Greek insofar as he is Greek. The wonderfully mediocre cuisine he serves is pure American and tastes like home.
The floors are salmon, like the color of our first family house on South Lincoln, and have a perpetual layer of grease on each tile. When the waitresses wipe down the vinyl booths, my jaw clenches and my stomach turns. Even the thought of that sound makes my body hunch over involuntarily.
George calls me “The Duchess” and makes me pizza whenever I want, even though it’s not listed on the menu. I am best friends with each of the waitresses and their boyfriends who come in to visit them. My parents love to tease about about how I want to marry Tim. He’s a tall, pale waiter with black hair and round glasses. When he takes my order for Chicken French, he crouches down to my eye level. He later goes on to marry a girl who isn’t me and they have twins. The Chicken French I order has cellophane under the outer crust.
I’m sitting in a booth with my parents. We always get a booth so my dad can stretch out, and my mom and I sit across from him. My mom says it’s so my dad can “gaze at us.” Every visit to The Duchess, my dad points up at the ceiling he has decorated with the frilly toothpicks that come in his club sandwiches. Ignoring my mom’s pleas to stop shooting the toothpicks through the straw from his Coca Cola, he adds another colorful, frilly toothpick to the mineral fiber ceiling tiles. The ceiling is starting to look like a Pollock.
Our petite waitress Lori has forgotten my side of gravy with my French fries. I stand up on the booth, head just barely reaching the top of the divider and yell in my strangely deep and raspy voice, “Hey, uh uh, low girl!” My dad starts laughing and my mom looks at me with a mortified face. She halfheartedly scolds me, “Chase Alexandra!” She’s still smiling though and I feel a sense of pride for making my parents laugh like they do with my aunt and uncle.
We are not the only regulars at The Duchess. A group of three middle-aged men are a permanent installation here, like the woven basket of lollipops at the cashier counter. Always in a booth, Guy, Don and Les greet us with smiles over small mugs of coffee and questions about how I’m liking preschool, kindergarten, first grade. Les’s arm shakes every time he tries for a spoonful of soup and I’m still too small to know this is a sign of Parkinson’s disease. At another booth, reading a book by himself, is a man my dad refers to only as “The Professor.” The Professor is a mystery to me and I don’t know if it is occupation, reading habits, or appearance that started the nickname. In my memory, he shares a face with James Cromwell.
I’m a little older now and I start to have “grown up” conversations with my parents. In attempt to be as adult as my parents believe me to be, I talk about politics at nine and religion at 11. I tell my parents my theory on what god is and where to find meaningfulness in life. Much of my intellectual and spiritual development occurs over French dip and sweet dinner rolls covered in butter.