Breakfast Over Easy at Rudy's

SOME five miles south of Portland, Maine, on Route 77, stands a low, weatherbeaten building known as Rudy's, "Rudy's of the Cape." Meaning Cape Elizabeth. Rudy's calls itself a market, but don't be fooled. Hiding behind shelves of, among other things, soda crackers, packaged bologna, cans of tuna fish, popcorn, bread, tomato soup, and Shreaded Wheat is a pea-green breakfast counter. Today's a weekday, 7:30 a.m., midsummer.

Most of the dozen stools at the counter are occupied by single-minded men putting down plates of food (French toast and sausages seems the order of the day) and drinking coffee. Two women, one with gray hair and a noticeable limp, run the place, systems down pat. "How's the leg?" a few of the regular customers ask her, or, "I see you're still on your feet." To which she replies, forbearingly, "I'll be goin' home, soon's I'm done."

The other woman, a bit younger, is bent over a sink, doing dishes by hand, an uncommon sight inside an eatery, all things considered, in this techno-computer age and from a big-city standpoint. I take a good look around and wonder - it's my affliction - how a place like Rudy's, with its mixture of the newfangled and the just plain old, has managed to survive, its character intact. There's a pizza oven at Rudy's (a cheese pizza costs $1.50), a soda machine in place of syrup pumps, and a decrepit microwave

spotted with grease. An old stove, sagging in the middle, spews steam out of aluminum pots. Bacon, cooked hours (days?) before, is refrigerated between sheets of paper towels. The bacon is well done.

The eating men are not fishermen ("Gotta get there early for them," I've been told), merely landlubbers stopping by on their various ways to work, in pickup trucks and delivery vans, who advertise the names of their businesses on their backs: D&H Plumbing, Portland Construction Corporation, Ryder. They wear baseball caps and jeans, battered-looking shoes and short-sleeve shirts. Their faces are white, their hands and fingers not gnarled enough to be fishermen, but maybe I'm wrong. After all, what does a city slicker know?

"What'll it be?" the younger of the two women asks me.

"Eggs over easy, home fries, some of that bacon. Coffee, please." I'm about to ask for cream when I notice it's already on the counter, a small metal pitcher that gets passed around. Sugar does too. The older woman with the gray hair, who's standing before the grill with her back to the rest of us, overhears my order. "No home fries," she calls out and cracks an egg.

The menu overhead is an advertisement for cheap eats with a decidedly local flavor, one which, in part, excludes an outsider. Grilled cheese sandwiches cost 75 cents, a price unheard of where I come from. Anyone with courage and an appetite can get a "loaded" pizza, whatever that may be, for $3, a "monster" sub, a "Humdinger," or a "Steverino," no explanations offered. Meat adds 90 cents to the cost of eggs. Ask for coffee or tea and get it in a hefty mug that has been through the wars.

Talk if you want to at Rudy's (some do), read the newspaper, mind your own business, eat, drink, do whatever reasonably suits you. As is common with most of us who go back a way, I have a Rudy's in my own history, a drugstore-soda fountain type of place, name of Hazzard's. You know the kind. Sidewalk orators taking in the sun out front, newspaper rack, soda jerk, counter, booths, clean metallic smell, egg creams, and malteds. Gossip and greasy fries. Hazzard's. Gone now, or rather irreparably changed (wh en did all this happen?), like so many of its kind.

Not so Rudy's. The evidence is everywhere: old stove, single-stem milkshake mixer, eggbeater, wooden cooking utensils, backwoods (or is it shoreline?) humor, dusty floor, and easy style. The place's insularity. Its intransigence. And yet, common sense and a bit more tell me that even Rudy's is running against the tide, that an electric dishwasher and neon lights, or some change more wholesale, a new owner, say, with different ideas, is only a matter of time.

Time. It's not long before the pickup truck crowd leaves, no doubt on to more important matters, their places taken by others, summer people like myself, by the look of them, women and men more well-to-do: bouffant hairdos and alligator shirts, city accents, smiles, and tans. People with an hour or two to spare. I leave a tip on the counter, take a last bite of toast, and, thinking hard about the diminishing chances of a place such as Rudy's in my own children's lives (but perhaps "change" per se isn't e ntirely bad), head for the door.

"What'd you have?" a skinny teenage boy, come to help out, asks me. The two of us are standing on opposite sides of a cash register, a noisy machine - ding, ding, DING! - more old than new.

I tell him.

"$2.10," the boy says.

But the gray-haired woman disagrees. "$2.31," she says with her back to us, same as before. The boy looks at me and shrugs.

I take two dollar bills and three dimes, the change left over from the tip, out of my pocket, and put it on top of the register. "I can give you that," I say, being friendly (Rudy's is a great find), "or, if you'd rather break a five... ."

This, if nothing else, perks the older woman's interest. She turns around at once and gives me - an outsider - the eye, sees the money before her, the $5 bill in my hand.

"Take that," she says to the boy, motioning toward the register, but the look on her face says, "No small favor, this penny. I don't know you," the perfect end - more small-town childhood memories astir ("Hey, kid! Gotta 'nough cash to pay for the soda pop?") - to the morning.

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