Michael Karlesky

A cabinet of wonders. Minus the cabinet. And possibly the wonders.

Surprise. Wonder. Ground Beef. Joy.

Wait. WAIT! Hold on! As much as you can help it, don't look at these photos until I tell you to. Just cool your photographic jets for a minute.

It's a few days before Christmas. So this post is like a Christmas gift to all five of my readers. Remember when you were a kid, and Christmas presents were THE BEST THING EVER? The mystery. The waiting. The anticipation. Ripping off the paper and opening your gifts with a mixture of breathless expectation and unbridled ecstasy? Waking up early because you just couldn't stand it a single second more?

I'm going to share with you in exquisite detail one of my very favorite places in all of New York City. And I intend to craft the wrapping paper of my words to give you the experience of opening this gift as much like you were a kid on Christmas morning as I am capable. I first encountered this place several years ago and had a very similar experience to the one I'm about to unfold for you now. Back then I had no camera with me and had no idea just what it was I was about to experience. This time I came prepared. I suppose I should mention that I was here with a group of volunteers following some time messing around with a bunch of middle school kids. If I keep up volunteering with this organization, I'll write more about that later.

But for now, back to unwrapping your Christmas gift. First the mystery and anticipation. Here we go.

Go ahead. Look at that first photo. Really look at it.

Imagine you're in Manhattan. And you duck into a fancy hotel off the street. Le Parker Meridien Hotel to be exact. It's a French name — that's the level of fancy we're talking about here. Marble floors, high ceilings, wood paneling, large pieces of artwork. The staff is dressed smartly. High powered business people and well dressed theater goers are strolling about. You probably feel quite a bit under dressed. Maybe even self conscious. Just why did I drag you in here? You know I'm not to be trusted.

Second photo.

Then you notice there's a line formed. It stretches around a corner in one direction and ducks into a dark hallway beyond the front desk in the other. To the immediate right of all those in line are floor-to-ceiling red curtains. To their left are the same sort of retractable waist-high “barriers” you might see at a bank or at airport security. Odd. You notice the people standing in line. There's probably a couple men in business suits and a lady or two in a nice dress or pants suit of some sort. The rest are in jeans. There's a flannel shirt or three in line. What in the world.

So I push you to the end of the line. I explain that in New York they would say we're waiting on line whereas in the Midwest we say we're waiting in line. You agree that this is peculiar. No. I have no idea why it's this way. Yes. I realize I'm the guy who usually knows these things.

You start asking questions. You're shaking the box to listen for telltale signs of what's inside. I smile coyly, playing dumb. We strike up conversation with the people who just joined the end of the line. I immediately tell these people not to ruin the surprise for you. They oblige. Our new friends behind us distract you by asking about your time in New York. The inevitable subjects of the subway and how fast everyone walks come up.

We wrap around the corner of the line. We're quite close to the staff behind the front desk. They're busy. They pay no attention to us at all. You started off uncomfortable and disoriented, but now there's an odd coziness to standing in this line anonymously, amidst all the opulence.

Over the heads of the people in front of us you make out a neon glow.

Third photo.

A burger. At the end of a dark hallway. Actually, it's almost more like a dark alley. Ten feet behind you are marble floors and polished brass doors on the elevators. Ten feet in front of you is a dark, dusty service way.

We inch a bit closer while still talking with the couple behind us. They lived in the city for years but recently moved to Connecticut. They're back visiting friends for the weekend. There's a din of indistinguishable voices and music off ahead of us. Every so often a few people filter out. And then a few others at the front of the line duck into a doorway. Nobody is in much of a hurry — mostly because it's such tight quarters. We've been standing in line maybe twenty five minutes. Possibly longer.

You remember that you're actually antsy to see what's going on ahead of us — where exactly in Wonderland Alice is taking us on the other side of her looking glass. You turn around, looking forward again. We're right at that doorway. You go just a bit slackjawed as your eyes tear the paper off the present.

Okay fine. You can look at the rest of the photos now.

Welcome to The Burger Joint. Dim light. Rough plank flooring. Movie posters. Flames flicking up behind the counter in the back. People packed like sardines in a can. The divine smell of beef and potato grease hangs in the air. We are now about six feet from the counter. I point up to the cardboard sign explaining how to order. Step 1: Hamburger or cheeseburger. Step 2: Pick how you want it cooked. Step 3. Pick your toppings. There's also a warning that if you aren't ready to order you get sent to the back of the line. I get your order and send you off to scope out some seats. You may even have to ask for dibs on a table as people are finishing. Don't worry. This is normal for The Burger Joint. It's how this place rolls.

While I'm in line you finally grab a couple seats and sit down. There's marker all over the walls. Even on the lamp shade that's lighting our table. I come on back with two paper sacks speckled with the grease that is yearning to be free of those bags and flowing through our arteries instead. Cheeseburgers. Mine is medium with the works. I spread the fries out on the bag and sprinkle more salt on them than I should. And then you bite into yours. The full on gift.

You realize you're entirely conflicted. Which is better? Biting into a juicy, darn near perfect burger with a side of fries? Or stepping into an alternate universe where grill flames light this new found paradise? Tough call. Merry Christmas.