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The strange thing about Irv's Grill -- one of them, anyway -- is how it is not situated east-west or north-south at the busy intersection of Vandeventer and Shaw but, rather, sits at a diagonal, the big plate-glass windows facing southeast so that the morning sun warms the place up all nice and toasty. They're taking it off in there as daylight burns, so that in winter the coat rack fairly blooms with jackets and scarves and caps. Besides the coat rack, the grill has few amenities -- a pay phone, a stack of daily papers for sale, a cigarette machine and a jukebox that'll get you "Honky Tonk Attitude" by Joe Diffie or some Conway Twitty for two measly bits. The jukebox picks are Ernest's. Ernest Pruett. Call him Ernie. Ernie hails from Arkansas, and he likes his music country. He'd like you to like it too, at least while you're in his place sopping up the egg yolk with your toast.
Ernie must be one of the good guys, because he's dressed all in white -- white pants, white shirt, the white paper fountain cap with a blue stripe in it. That's the getup each and every day with Ernie, chief cook and bottle-washer of this old diner -- some would call it a greasy spoon -- coming in around 5, cooking for the breakfast crowd, chatting with the regulars, going home around 3, having filled the grumbling bellies of the hungry, the lonely, the busy, the bored.
There are 17 counter stools and six tables at Irv's. The surfaces of all available eating spots are polished by a million elbows. A sign up over the counter says, "Ice Water to Go -- 35 and 40 Cents." You wonder about the nickel difference. People have carved their initials in the wooden pie case, at this moment holding four slices of peach pie on plates wrapped in cellophane. A middle-aged, well-fed-looking couple walk in, sit themselves down. Roberta goes over to take their order. "Two over with toast," she calls to Ernie at the grill. "And two up with hash browns." Roberta Limbocker -- call her Bert -- has been a mainstay at Irv's for 28 years, a good long spell, true, though if you want to talk longevity, time spent behind the counter, Ernie's got 11 years on her. Bert and Ernie are a team, an egg-frying, coffee-pouring, hash-slinging, register-ringing team, and though they may not be as cute and lovable as the Sesame Street Muppets of the same names, they are indeed characters, as seasoned in their own way as the grill at Irv's.
A storm last year blew off the faded panel sign above the door that read, "Irv's Good Food," and now it's gone, giving the place an incomplete look, like a missing front tooth. Because of that sign, people still call the place Irv's Good Food, but in the phone book it's Irv's Grill. Irv was Irv Marchbanks, who opened the diner in 1949. Back then all these little food stands -- A&W, Steak 'n Shake, Courtesy Drive-In -- had curb service, and Irv's was no exception. Irv kept a gaggle of teenage girls employed until 1958, when he decided to cut his losses. Ernie came on in 1960 -- too late, to his regret, to partake in the curb-service era. "Irv," says Ernie, "told me he paid them a dollar a day, but he always said it was too much trouble taking care of them little girls. Look out the window and half of them'd be gone, he said. Got in a car and drove off with the customers."
Ernie started as a dishwasher at Irv's and gradually took on more responsibility until Irv, readying to retire, sold the place to Ernie in 1977. The business, not the property -- that's right, Irv's has leased its location all these years, and now the shoe is about to drop.
The lease is up at the end of February, never to be renewed. It's not a punitive thing -- Ernie's been a responsible tenant -- it's just the way life goes. See, the Missouri Botanical Garden just up the street plans to turn it into a parking lot. That's their prerogative; they bought the property in 1996. As many are aware, the Garden has been expanding its operations for several years now. Last year saw the Monsanto Center, a capacious state-of-the-art research facility, open its doors across the street from Irv's. And though the Garden is seen by some as a creeper vine, spreading its tendrils all over this portion of the Shaw neighborhood, sapping the life out of small businesses like Irv's, others try to see sunshine in the forecast. Willie James has a shoe-shine-and-repair shop on Castleman Avenue, catty-corner from Irv's Grill. "The Garden expansion kind of helped the neighborhood in a way," he says, buffing a black wingtip to a high shine. "They got these security guys riding around now."
Maybe it's for the better. After all, business had fallen off in the last decade or so. Back when Irv opened the place, the area was solidly working-class. Within three or four blocks you had R-F Spaghetti, Banner Iron, Carondelet Foundry, Westinghouse and Foster Bros., a maker of hospital beds. They've all since gone out of business or moved to other locations, taking Irv's customer base with them. All those appetites that once spent themselves at Irv's had to find another place to get their bacon and eggs, their hash browns and joe. But the place has always had the benefit of being near the interstate, I-44, and now there's that new exit ramp at Vandeventer -- why, you'd think business'd pick up a bit. Maybe it has, but what does it matter now?
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