Where kids eat, roam, and grow free

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By Ken Trainor

On Monday night, kids eat free at Erik's Deli, and lately I've been eating there on Mondays, too, before going back to the office to write an article for the next day's deadline.

The free food, of course, draws families, but this place has always drawn families because of its friendly informality.

Like many Oak Park families, we came here frequently during the 1990s as my son was growing up. We almost always met other families we knew?#34;or memory has revised the past to seem so. Meeting someone was a good bet at any rate.

Things haven't changed much. Tables are merged or traded. Nuclear family boundaries blur, and before long, all the kids might be at one table while all the adults are at the next. Kids migrate from one table to another. Dining decorum is fluid to say the least. Family membranes are permeable. There is freedom to move?#34;with the kind of unself-conscious comfort usually reserved for living rooms.

Erik's is short on formality, long on familiarity. The decor simulates an outdoor patio. Four of the tables sprout large red Coca Cola umbrellas, the place to be should the sprinkler system ever get activated. This is as outside as inside gets.

The conversation is animated, almost musical?#34;a cacophony of high and low tones. Kids sit sideways in their chairs or lean forward, butts in the air, while they munch and mingle. Some forsake chairs altogether and stand as they eat.

Parents swap stories, kids schmooze, families plan, catch up on the events of the day, discuss homework, extend advice, coordinate, assess.

One girl follows her dad to the ice cream counter chanting, "Where is Argentina on the map? Where is Argentina on the map?"

Watching a family settle in at their table is like watching military maneuvers?#34;the logistics, the teamwork--as puffy, pastel coats are shed and slung across the backs of chairs. It is immensely reassuring to see family members laughing together or engaged in lively conversation, face to face, only inches at times separating noses. Adult arms drape casually across young shoulders or chair backs. If you want to see what happy families look like, this would be the place.

Once upon a time, I was part of this scene. I remember the 1990s, not so long ago, as a bright, hopeful time. We anxiously watched our respective children ripen (and their appetites grow). Coming here is like walking back in time. At first it took me by surprise as I realized my position in the community had shifted. The child-rearing stage of my life has passed.

Grey-haired and solitary, I now look slightly out of place at Erik's on a Monday evening. But I don't mind. Like a doting grandfather, I enjoy seeing younger parents traveling the same path I did (and, like a grandfather, enjoying as well the fact that I don't have to go home with them).

Time marches on, and we march right along, with nary a backward glance at the skins we shed, until a scene like this catches our attention.

This past Monday, while kids ate free at Erik's and parents took a break from the kitchen, my son turned 21, his childhood officially over. We were lucky. So was he. Oak Park in the 1990s was a good place to grow up.

We're still active parents, and always will be. But it's his show now. We're mostly rooting for him. We're his rooters.

We're his roots.

I miss those days, but I'm glad we're moving on. I don't feel any need to tell these parents to savor what they have right now.

They're savoring it.

They just don't know it yet.

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