In 2008, my wife and I left an apartment in the West Salem hills for an old house in the north part of town near the fairgrounds. People gave us those courteous “Oh, how interesting” looks when we told them where we were moving, as if the north end of town was the hinterland and someone had fenced out everything interesting. We knew people there, though, and we were charmed by this little blue house built in 1923. It seemed incidental that we didn’t know much about what was beyond it.
Not long after we moved in, it snowed a foot. “Arctic blast,” the newscasters had warned us, like they do whenever the WillametteValley gets a whiff of winter. By the time the white blob on the weather satellite image had left Salem behind and moved toward the mountains, we were all chilled. The cable line that brought us the internet sagged under a drippy clear-coat of ice; tree branches, still holding their leaves and laden with snow, hung low enough that they rested on the rooftop. It was silent outside, too, as if all the sounds got vacuumed away along with the last of the fall’s mugginess; the silence that comes when people unaccustomed to such a scene drop what they’re doing and stare out windows together.
So I sat with my wife, watching the late morning foot traffic outside. Some folks threw snow with their kids in the intersections while the last of the flakes came down from the gray sky. Others, alone, just scurried past, looking cold. Neither of us had been outside since the afternoon before, when I’d run into the street to celebrate the earliest flurries, so we finished our hot drinks and bundled up for our own walk.
We locked the drafty front door and crunched northward toward Highland Elementary School, away from downtown and the parts of Salem we’d become familiar with in our previous years living there. We were vaguely hopeful that we might find a restaurant open somewhere, though we didn’t have any idea whether this was the right direction to go. I walked down the middle of the road, just a couple of packed tire tracks to follow, and my work boots, still muddy from the fall’s leaf-raking, stained the new snow brown. I had pulled on some waterproof golf pants over old sweats so I could frolic and stay dry, and my wife, the Denver transplant, made fun of my waddle while marching along as if it were any old day and any old storm. After a block, I chucked a snowball in her direction and accidentally hit her in the back of the head. She rightfully stuffed one down the front of my pants.
We passed through the empty school playground, right next to the small city park and tennis courts on North Broadway. In the fall, when we had moved into the area, our neighbors had brought blankets and Cokes and lawn chairs to weekly concerts at that park. Now the site’s unbroken white stood out against the charcoal-colored muck on the road, probably one of the few main arteries in town that had seen morning traffic. As we left the school grounds, we moved onto the sidewalk and played with the frozen leaves of people’s hedges while we walked. We didn’t say much.
Within a couple blocks, a paved lot opened up in front of us, and we saw the green street sign that read Pine. Out in the open it felt colder, but something close by smelled like bacon. To our right was an unspectacular building labeled “Josey’s,” and it was pumping out the best possible advertisement for hot American breakfasts. The neon in the window glowed “open,” so we followed our noses to the door.
When people call a place like this a dive, they sometimes mean it endearingly. Josey’s isn’t quite a dive, but it’s got some of the same charm. The building is sanitary enough, but still barely on the good side of disrepair; inside, the warm scent of syrup seems to have permeated even the floorboards and the walls; the regulars, bantering in short bursts on their bar stools, turn and notice newcomers who walk in.
We stomped through the ancient aluminum-frame door, trying to shake off all our dampness, and took seats in a two-person booth along a drafty window. A hurried woman gave us menus and said we were just in time because they were closing early. Outside, a local tree-trimming company tried to move a fallen evergreen, and one of the few customers near us told his female companion that that’s what happens when so much heavy snow falls on trees rooted in Western Oregon’s saturated earth.
Quickly I noticed what seemed like the place’s owner, a man of 40 with a see-through moustache, barking at his prep cooks with no apparent concern about whether his customers were listening. We could see him come and go through the stainless steel pass-through to the kitchen. Clearly someone over there wasn’t measuring up (it sounded like a case of badly done eggs), and for just a second I remembered working at the hardware store in high school and how the threat of screwing up always seemed to loom so close when protocol and productivity mattered above all else.
We scanned our menus. They were thin Office Depot presentation folders holding ink-jet printed pages, and we found all the requisite egg dishes, pancakes, giant breakfast burritos and combos. I could tell which dishes were the house specialties because they cost $10 or more. The chicken fried steak, apparently the signature dish, stood out at $12.99. When our waitress came by again — calling us “hon” as she asked what we wanted — I ordered it. My wife chose a basic $5 plate with the assurance that I’d share some of mine. We settled into our coffees, which, intriguingly, came in other businesses’ mugs.
Our food arrived through that stainless steel window. Silverware in hand, I looked down at a slab of breaded meat the size of my own footprint, fried and salt-and-peppered and weighed down with sausage gravy so white and thick that someone might have used it as caulking. I sliced off a healthy corner of it for my wife without feeling the pang of sacrifice I normally do when we share meals out. My two fried egg yolks were housed neatly in one cohesive region of white, and the hash browns were the prototype for a braised pad of shredded potatoes: browned and buttery with a crunchy outside and a soft, hot inside. There was no parsley garnish, which always seems so trivial anyway. My wife’s plate contained the generic American pile that people compare restaurants by: hash browns, toast, two eggs, two bacon.
We ate quickly, pausing periodically to digest and muse about how nice a discovery the place was, and paid the bill before putting our gloves back on. Josey’s was closing up. The tree guys were done. The snowstorm had ended.
When the spring came, after we had returned to Josey’s for a second and third time (and I had ordered the chicken fried steak again and again), we began bringing out-of-town friends there to show it off. Their reviews were positive, but not glowing. I considered what made breakfast there seem so enchanting to me and my wife in the first place.
I could tell that the place’s charm came in part from the conditions under which we had found it. When most of Salem had seemed content to stay hidden under its snow, Josey’s had been our window onto new surroundings. We’d occupied ourselves with the only things that needed doing at the time, stripped of any particular schedule or expectation: eating and warming ourselves, playing around, watching a guy wield a chainsaw. And in a part of town that gets overlooked because it doesn’t have the money or the stores or the new construction, such satisfaction mattered to us. Josey’s came to seem like “ours” somehow, and that made each egg taste a little better.
We don’t go as often now, but the familiar tug remains. After all, we couldn’t have foreseen that this simple find on a long, chilly weekend, when we might just as well have stayed in and rested on our preconceptions, would actually help us discover the square mile or so beyond our walls that really counts as home.
Erik Schmidt is a Salem-based editor and writer. He is currently working on a book about the World War II pilot Erich Hartmann.