(photo from sssdc1 via Flickr)
A lot of thoughtful people have written about how most of us need a “third place” — somewhere that’s not home and not work, somewhere where we feel comfortable, somewhere to gather with our friends and make sense of the day. Bars are a traditional third place. Starbucks can charge ridiculous prices for coffee because it’s got the couches and the laptop jacks and the music: a great third place. The best third place in my life has been a scruffy-looking hot-dog joint called Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon.
Willie’s has a Facebook group (and a Myspace page!), and a couple of days ago somebody posted on the Facebook page that Willie had died. It turns out the man we all knew as Willie was in fact named Arnell Chambers. Word on the message board is that his wife is not sure she wants to keep the place going. So this might be an obituary for Willie’s the place as well as Willie the man. Although I sure hope not.
Willie’s sits on Altama Avenue, the main drag in my hometown of Brunswick, Ga. The sign out front says “WE RELISH YOUR BUN.” It’s across the road from the community college and down the street from the bowling alley. If you ever want to find anybody in Brunswick, just wait in the parking lot at Willie’s. They’ll show up soon enough.
Calvin Trillin once wrote that anybody who didn’t think the best hamburger in the world is in his hometown is a sissy. So take this with whatever grains of salt you think necessary, preferably the salt from Willie’s, not those little snap-open packets you get everywhere, but elegant little tubes I’ve never seen anywhere else; at Willie’s even the salt is better.
I’ve had Chicago dogs recommended by locals, New York dogs from the street carts, dogs from the Varsity in Atlanta and Green’s in Charlotte and ballparks around the country. None of them touch the hot dogs from Willie’s.
Willie offers eight basic dogs, customizable to your tastes, and my tastes evolved over the years. In my younger days I went for the Bull Dog — a dog all the way — so crammed with toppings that the spillover made its own side dish. Later on I had an affair with the Willie Dog, dressed with mustard, relish, onions and tomato. Lately, with the discretion of middle age, I choose the simple slaw dog, sometimes with cheese, always with thick steak fries and dark icy sweet tea.
Willie’s has a sign offering $2,000 to anybody who could find a better pork chop sandwich in Glynn County. I suspect Willie might have been the final judge on that, so I doubt he ever paid, but if there ever was a better pork chop sandwich than Willie’s it might be worth $2,000 to find out.
All this comes from a building the size and shape of a single-wide trailer. It’s built on a little riser, so the cashier looks down on you as she takes your order, and you can’t really see what’s going on in the kitchen. That’s probably for the best. Willie’s scores high on the health inspections but the place always looks rundown, like it’s held together by half a pound of nails and 30 years of grease.
There’s a little screened-off area with a couple of tables, but people hardly ever eat there. At Willie’s you eat at the picnic tables under the awning, or you eat in the car with the windows rolled down so you can talk to your neighbor. It’s a small parking lot so everybody parks close together. You end up with lawyers in Sunday suits next to painters with Sherwin-Williams in their hair next to teenagers just back from the beach. They talk Georgia football and the state of the union and how the shrimp are running. It’s the democratic ideal with grilled onions.
At Willie’s my friends and I dreamed between bites. We dreamed of the bar we’d open one day, the lives we’d lead out on our own, the girls we wanted but seldom got. After I got older and moved away I came back to Willie’s to find old friends. I went there for a moment alone after my dad died. I went there to find something solid after we moved my mom to a new town. I went there with the woman who became my wife.
Years ago — at least 15 — I wrote a travel story for the Charlotte paper about Brunswick and the nearby islands. Somewhere deep in the story I mentioned Willie’s — I think I said that, if I were ever elected president, I’d have Willie’s hot dogs delivered to the White House every day. The next time I went home, I stopped by Willie’s and the story was pinned to a little bulletin board by the window. It stayed there for years. To this day I don’t know how they found out about it. But I do know this: For a newspaper guy, there isn’t much better than seeing a story of yours on the wall of one of your favorite places in the world.
I only saw Willie — Arnell — a few times. The story I always heard was that he was from New Jersey somewhere, came down to Brunswick on vacation and decided he had to stay. I remember two things about him. One, he always seemed to be driving a different car — I think the hot dog business was pretty good to him. Two, every time I saw him he was laughing. There are a lot worse things to do with your life than creating a third place for a whole town. So many of us, even good men and women, lead lives that fade into vapor the moment we’re gone. But no one where I’m from will ever forget Willie’s.