Cheeseburgers and Brotherly Love

A favorite Worcester icon is captured in an unusual gift for Bill Juska '66

 

by Sarah Saffian

It was Christmas evening 2008, and the extended family of Bill Juska ’66 was gathered at his sister Paula’s house in Owego, N.Y. With most of the gifts opened, it was nearly time for dessert. “Twenty people ready for their sugar fix,” Bill recalls, “and my brother Phil says, ‘Wait, here’s one more.’”

In the living room sat a large box for Bill and his wife, Maryann. “It’s a little fragile,” Phil warned coyly. Bill carefully lifted the top off the box. Inside he found a homemade miniature replica of the Miss Worcester diner on Southbridge Street—a beloved refuge for Bill and countless other Holy Cross students since its establishment in 1948 as Car No. 812 of that ne plus ultra of New England diner manufacturers, the Worcester Lunch Car Company. The diner was just as Bill remembered it, only smaller (1:24 scale, to be exact): The blue, Old English lettering on the outside. The Red Sox poster on the refrigerator. The red counter stools. Even a diminutive Bill and Maryann sitting cozily in a booth, with their regular orders—a cheeseburger and a cup of tea, respectively—laid out before them.

“I was stunned,” says Bill, a maritime lawyer, in the kitchen of his Brooklyn brownstone, where Maryann, a clinical psychologist, their children and he have lived since 1976. “It’s hard not to say it’s the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received. It touched not just on the Miss Worcester, which has been a consistent part of my life, but on our growing up. We’ve always been diner guys.”

The Juska brothers’ love affair with diners started long ago—started, in fact, with a love affair. Thanks to Phil, it was at the Miramar Grill and Restaurant in Asbury Park, N.J., that 18-year-old Bill, then a Holy Cross second-year student, and 15-year-old Maryann first met. Bill, home for Christmas break, had agreed to take Phil’s dishwashing shift so that the younger brother could attend the high school basketball game. “I walked in, and there she was, waiting tables,” Bill says now, gazing at his wife of 43 years. “That was it. Last girl I ever looked at. Lucky day.”

Their courtship continued, fittingly, at the Miss Woo, during Maryann’s frequent visits to Holy Cross. No matter the occasion—homecoming, winter weekend, junior prom—they’d always end up at the diner at two in the morning. “Holy Cross was like going to college in a snowglobe: all men, only seniors could have cars, room check-in at 10:30, daily Mass, jackets and ties to class,” Bill explains about the strict, insulated atmosphere on The Hill. “You’d go out drinking at the Black Orchid and stop at the Miss Worcester for something to settle your stomach, a cup of coffee.”

There was Russell, a behind-the-counter character who, when asked what pie they had that day, “would invariably answer, instead of apple, cherry, lemon meringue, just ‘Table Talk.’” There was the night when a customer suffered a heart attack, fell from his stool and got whisked away in an ambulance; after the incident, when Charlie the cook asked Bill’s roommate, “So, what do you want, Joe?” Joe answered, “Not what that guy had!” There was the time when a classmate asked Maryann—in front of Bill—to run away with him to Mexico (she didn’t). A half-mile walk from campus, the Miss Worcester offered, along with its 75-cent bowl of beef stew and its Number 2 Special (two eggs over easy, homefries, bacon, toast), contact with “the real world”—truck drivers, cops, midnight watchmen.

Phil’s model faithfully features a midnight watchman, chatting up a rotund waitress, in tribute to the Harry Chapin song “A Better Place to Be.” Artist Ralph Goings’ photorealistic diner paintings were another inspiration. Though Bill says that Phil, an amateur artist, is known in the family for his “unique and thoughtful” gifts—including cartoons and needlework—the Miss Worcester is by far his most ambitious. He created it from scratch in three months of nights and weekends, working with a floorplan and photographs found online, Richard Gutman’s 2004 book The Worcester Lunch Car Company: Images of America, a few calls to the Miss Woo’s owner to check details and his own 30-year-old memories of having been there just once. “Because this was my first model”—he has since made two others, Phil’s Diner in North Hollywood and White Haven Family Diner in Scranton, Pa.—“there was a lot of trial and error.” His first attempt, out of balsawood, curled up when he tried to paint it, so he started over, with sturdier basswood. He created the appliances from styrene, a pliable plastic, and the figures from a hobby clay called Sculpey. The stools are made of washers, spacers and wooden buttons, and for each sugar dispenser lid, he used a single silver sequin. To achieve the “tiled” look of the floor, he first painted it all brown and then painstakingly scraped away the tiny white squares with a crafts knife. “Yeah,” he allows, “that took a few weekends.”

At the end of March, Phil and his big brother went on a reconnaissance mission to his next challenge, Gilley’s in Portsmouth, N.H., and, of course, they had to stop at the Miss Worcester on the way to show Phil’s model to Kim Kniskern, the diner’s owner since 2006, and to have breakfast. (Click here to see snapshots from their visit.) Bill hadn’t been to the diner since his 30th reunion 14 years earlier, when, inevitably, he ended up there at two a.m. with two classmates “doing the same thing as during college—eating eggs, bacon and homefries, and talking about life.”

Much remained unchanged since his last visit. “As we rolled up to 300 Southbridge St.,” Bill says, “everything—the railroad trestle, the big brick building behind the diner, the diner itself—looked exactly the same.” Sitting at the counter, he overheard the diner slang pinging between the waitress and the short-order cook, reminiscent of Russell and Charlie’s rat-a-tat exchanges years earlier. The wooden booths have been replaced by plastic benches and fancier items, like cranberry walnut pancakes, have been added to the menu, but many aspects—the enamel refrigerator, the chunky homefries and the “formidable” steak-and-eggs—are just as in the ’60s. And though it’s no longer open round the clock, the diner still counts Holy Cross students among its regulars.

The Miss Woo is now known beyond its circle of local loyalists: It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, served as a location for a recent independent movie shoot and was named the Number One diner in the nation by The Learning Channel series “Best Food Ever.” And yet, the reliable charm of this “unself-conscious place with no airs,” as Maryann remembers it, remains intact.

“It’s comfortable,” Bill explains simply about the object of his steadfast affection. “You feel like you fit there.”

Sarah Saffian is a journalist, teacher and author of the critically acclaimed memoir Ithaka. She conducts writing workshops through The Vertical Pronoun (saffian.com).