Before It’s Too Late
On the cover of a book of poetry in my possession is the photo of a White Castle restaurant somewhere in New Jersey. The crenelated edifice of the restaurant glows eerily against the night. It looks like a house trying to haunt itself. The image fills me with unfathomable longing, as do a number of the poems in the volume. Maybe this is a simple case of nostalgia, which, as an old teacher of mine used to say, is just “amnesia turned inside out.” I spent the first eighteen years of my life trying to escape the suburbs of North Jersey, but as the decades go by it becomes easier for me to forget that. In any case, this photo revived a couple memories.
First, of teenagers in the mid-seventies on any given Saturday night, cruising the ordinary streets of Essex County, desperately seeking something, anything, to do. Little did they realize they were already doing it. Inevitably they wound up at the local White Castle, ordering sacks upon sacks of “rat burgers”. These were the original hamburger sliders—square slabs of “meat” about a third the size of a real burger and cooked using an esoteric process known as “steam-grilling”. The rat burgers were consumed in the car on the way home. Finally the unspeakably greasy papers they came wrapped in—dozens and dozens of them—were strewn like grody posies on the lawns of unsuspecting homeowners. It was a teenage ritual known as “ratting somebody’s yard.” No property was immune from these lardaceous antics—not the mayor’s house, not the police station, not any place of worship. Even the local funeral home suffered the occasional ratting.
The second memory, less innocent, concerns the same White Castle restaurant ten years later. One autumn night after a big football game, a monstrous brawl broke out involving hundreds of fans from rival high schools. They rampaged for hours across four towns. As described the next day by the New York Times: “Baseball bats, barbeque skewers, pellet guns, starting pistols and chains were among the weapons confiscated by the outnumbered police officers trying to quell the fighting. ‘One of our men saw a kid swinging a chain with a ball on the end of it,’ reported the police captain. ‘Pretty medieval stuff.’” The night of violence came to a bloody close at the very foot of the White Castle’s battlements when a nineteen-year-old man acting as a Good Samaritan received a blow across the head with a golf club and collapsed onto the parking lot. He died in the hospital a few days later. A seventeen-year-old from the next town over was charged with the homicide and stood trial as an adult.
After that, the White Castle continued serving rat burgers for a few more years, but eventually it closed for good and was torn down. A quick look at Google Street View reveals the site today is occupied by a tire store. No trace remains of the White Castle or anything that happened there. All of that has withdrawn. Somebody ought to write a poem about it before it’s too late.