One of my favorite songs all-time is Murder by Death’s “I Came Around.” In it, the singer attends the wake of a man he’d long disliked. He thought he knew him, branded him a crook. He takes that point of view into a night of drinking with the man’s friends, only to get ambushed by stories about how good the guy really was. The singer discovers how wrong he’d been all this time … but it’s too late now, of course. The song ends with him weeping beside the man’s coffin.
Making up your mind and keeping it that way can be a dangerous game, indeed. Sometimes, you look back with no regrets whatsoever; other times, the regrets are grievous and irreconcilable. Somewhere in between, I’d guess right smack in the middle, are the 18 years I went between my first cheeseburger at Gordy’s Hi-Hat and my second.
Here’s how I came to that first fateful decision, and how I myself came around.
The Basics: The Gordy’s Hi-Hat of today is basically the same Gordy’s Hi-Hat that first opened its doors in 1960, there on Highway 33 just outside of Cloquet: black and white checkerboard floors, red shiny barstool seats, cartoon hamburger mascot, everything your mind assumes when you gaze into a grayscale burger joint photo. They only thing they haven’t got are the roller-skating windowside servers. I went on a Thursday, though. The skaters might have just had the night off.
Gordy’s, for their stature, makes a bigger deal than they need to about Guy Fieri having come by. If anyone needs to make a big deal about that, it’s Fieri.
RELATED: My main man John Garland wrote a wonderful piece about Gordy’s for The Growler two years ago that I rolled my eyes at when I first read it.
Let us now spin back to Spring, ’99. I either just had or was about to graduate from Wrenshall High School. I stood 6-foot-1, weighed 165 pounds, and the width of my head hadn’t quite caught up to its height. I was a nobody back then. I don’t mean I was unpopular (though I wouldn’t say I was popular, either), but I was largely a blank space. I spent much of my junior year taking classes independently, and my senior year earning on-the-job credits at the Cloquet Journal, so I barely saw my classmates. In our yearbook, I was voted “Most Likely to Leave Town and Never Come Back.” Of the 31 kids in my graduating class, I ranked 16th academically – neither above nor below average for my class.
I didn’t date. I didn’t attend my senior prom. My parents gave me a number of “talkin’ tos” about how I should hang out with friends more. Meh. I hadn’t yet had a drop of alcohol in my life, and obviously I was a virgin. I was nearly unbeatable in NHL 95, though, and had by that point written two book-length stories. They were about me, as a superhero, defending earth from nefarious lizard people.
I only tell you this because this was the person who decided a Gordy’s Hi-Hat cheeseburger wasn’t “all that,” and there was no point returning.
That judgement stayed with me as I became old and stubborn. I passed by it probably 100 more times, without the slightest inkling to go in again. I’d see the packed parking lot and wonder how, why, they were that popular. When I moved to the Twin Cities, I saw writers down here gush over Gordy’s. I blew it off. They’re just being front-runners. They obviously don’t know where the real good spots are up there. And Guy Fieri showed up, because f*cking of course he did.
I got older, more stubborn, older and even more stubborn. Don’t ask my wife to confirm this, but I’m not entirely stubborn – least not yet – and I let up at a rather fortuitous time.
April 13, 2017: I had just eaten a cheeseburger an hour ago, and was rushing up to meet friends in Virginia, so why the hell am I suddenly stopping at Gordy’s?
Because there was a parking spot open right in front of the door, that’s why. With a “F*ck it” and a jerk of the steering wheel, I was on my way in.
I crept in. Had you seen me, you’d swear they were closed and I was coming in for the cash register. I don’t know why, I just did. I stepped carefully down a short hallway, turned to my left, and was stunned by the radiance of the ordering window. It was so big, and bright! Look at that red and white awning! There wasn’t even a line! I could just walk up and order! I was less than 20 miles from where I grew up, yet I felt lost.
A warm, polite greeting whizzed at me like a bullet. My eyes rushed back and forth, and found a markerboard sign: DOUBLE CHEESEBURGER, $3.99. I’ll have one to go, please.
I spoke with a formidable man at the counter. I don’t know how his name is spelled, but it was pronounced “SEE-ver.” He complimented my Bauhaus Brew Labs hoodie, said he lived in Northeast until recently, and asked how I knew the Bauhaus people so well. I told him, and gave him a card. He seemed genuinely interested. His handshake was formidable, too. An exemplary gentleman, “SEE-ver.”
My order came out so quickly, I initially denied it was mine. They asked what I ordered, I told them, they confirmed, and I accepted the bag. I’d only been there four or five minutes, but I already had my order and I’d already met someone. The whole incident felt as if I’d been sitting for a long time and stood up too quickly, but in a very good way.
The plan was to save my cheeseburger for the next day, but the plan was also to be happy with my Hinckley Hardee’s ritual burger from an hour before and the plan was to be in Virginia ’round 9 p.m. I’m no better at planning than I was 18 years ago.
I needed at least one bite while it was still warm. One hand on the wheel, I fumbled the bag open, fumbled the Styrofoam container out of the bag, fumbled the top off the container, and was nearly put in the ditch by how gorgeous this cheeseburger was.
I had to photograph it. Now. I panicked about this. I had no surface. The sunset was going to make lighting a nightmare. The fact I was driving was going to make a good setup nearly impossible. I didn’t care. I’d figure it out. One hand on the wheel, I yanked the dog blanket up from the back seat, wiped the dust off my dashboard with it, positioned the cheeseburger bare-bun on my dashboard, re-positioned it until I had the best angle, and sped toward an acceptable backdrop.
Look at it. I swear there were eight slices of cheese. The beef patties showed a hint of pink and bit smoothly, like Cooper Pub’s Vincent Burger. The onion bits were locked in between the patties and glued down by cheese. Only two or three fell off, total. Pickles, ketchup and mustard was portioned properly and applied just so. Whoever is leading those cooks knows how a burger ought to be made. “Having one bite” became “having one.”
It was emotional, to the extent eating a cheeseburger while driving can be emotional. Did I mourn the 18 years I could’ve spent enjoying burgers like this one? A little. Did I bemoan the years I’d spent stopping at Hardee’s – Hardee’s! – for cheeseburgers over Gordy’s when driving up north? A little. Not that Hardee’s is bad, I like Hardee’s, but come on! And can you believe this cheeseburger was less expensive than the ones I usually got at Hardee’s?
Mostly, though, I was happy for whatever impulse got me into that parking spot to begin with. I might have never gone back. Thinking about that now frightens me some. What Garland said, it’s true. What they say about Gordy’s, it’s all true.
I didn’t come around too late, thank goodness. Gordy’s didn’t burn down. I didn’t die or move too far away. I can’t get those 18 years back, but I’ve got the rest of my life and you’d better believe I can eat an extra 18 years’ worth.
The void left by Gordy’s Hi-Hat all these years will be filled, as it should always have been, by Gordy’s Hi-Hat.