Resilient Reinvention from the New York Times

Classic cars remind Donna Dove of better days in Elyria, Ohio.

October 17, 2012

With a New Menu and a Makeover, a Promise to Keep Going

ELYRIA, Ohio

A 1957 Buick Special, burgundy and white, its chrome strips reflecting like fun-house mirrors. A 1955 Pontiac Star Chief, bronze and cream, with a translucent hood ornament that glows in the dark. A 1963 Ford Thunderbird, the color of a vanilla shake, just waiting to be floored to some dreamlike drive-in.

These American-made wonders preen at the edge of Ely Square Park, some with tail fins audacious enough for spaceflight, others with open hoods boasting of the muscular engines beneath. Their proud owners watch from folding chairs like protective parents, ready to pounce at any violation of the code to look but not touch.

It is a midsummer Sunday in Elyria, and Donna Dove, the harried owner of Donna’s Diner, right here on Middle Avenue, has somehow managed to stage another classic car show. She arranges the event every year because she wants to enliven the bustle-free downtown, and because old American cars remind her of better days in a city that once helped to build them.

Better days behind us, she says, and better days to come.

Once the ideological tug-of-war of this presidential campaign comes to its final pull, the decisions made by the winner will become real in places like Elyria, affecting everything from city services to health care. If soldiers are again needed, some will come from here, where the names of those who served are engraved on park brick, near the soaring Civil War monument.

But if there were film in the oversize mock camera above the Loomis Camera store on Broad Street — the one that has been trained on the park for decades — it would capture the constant that transcends presidential politics: the shared determination to make it through this day and into the next.

It would record the fits of earnest energy along Middle Avenue, which faces the park: the hard-up workers, leaving the Minute Man temp agency before dawn for day jobs at a greenhouse in Oberlin, or a nursing home in Lorain; the civic-minded volunteers of Main Street Elyria, gathering to discuss how to revive downtown; the no-nonsense city laborers, polishing the city gem that is Ely Square.

Like characters out of a Thornton Wilder play — or maybe a short story by Sherwood Anderson, who once lived here — the denizens of Middle Avenue play out their roles under the watchful eye of that looming Loomis camera. The customers of Lorain National Bank, checking on savings, seeking loans. The clients of the divorce lawyer John Haynes, dividing assets, nursing wounds. And, at the end of the block, the owner of Donna’s Diner, taking orders, cooking food, trying to stay open.

Up Against the Wall

Donna opened her diner a dozen years ago, and did all right for a while, if all right means working six days a week and spending the seventh day shopping for supplies. But the recession, set against the steady decline of Elyria’s downtown, finally caught up with her this year. She’s all in — 401(k) gone, health insurance nonexistent — and very nearly out. Just paying the electric bill has become a monthly cliffhanger.

She is torn about what to do. Some days she tends to agree with a loyal customer known as the Judge: James M. Burge, the administrative judge of the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas. Over his daily routine of grilled chicken and cottage cheese, he has suggested that Donna close the diner and run the courthouse cafeteria for a captive clientele, no pun intended.

Other days, though, she resolves to remain open for her family of regulars, including the mostly older customers called the Breakfast Club. Where would Speedy Amos, the former Marine who fought in both World War II and the Korean War, get his morning coffee? And Bill Balena, the bankruptcy lawyer? And Jack Baird, the councilman? And Janice Haywood, from Brandau Jewelers, now closed, like so much else in downtown?

Donna, 57, is flirting with a third option that she is keeping to herself. But first she has to get through her car show.

This Sunday morning begins for Donna at 5:45, with the cooking of the bacon for breakfast and the ribs for lunch. Soon, she and various family members are hustling to serve eggs and coffee to the car owners who have already parked their precious commodities along the edge of Ely Square. But ratcheting up the morning tension is Donna herself.

The rule of the house is: When Donna’s unhappy, watch out. And she is unhappy.

The Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria barely mentioned the car show, so the turnout of car owners and visitors will be low. The city promised help, but didn’t deliver much. Donna spent $1,000 of her own money on trophies and door prizes and printed fliers, and will wind up being out $300.

One of her helpers has boiled eight dozen eggs — eight dozen! — instead of the three dozen requested. Another electric bill has arrived, with another late charge. Donna’s 21-year-old granddaughter, Bridgette Harvan, a college student who works as a waitress at the diner, is announcing to customers that she is pregnant — a boy, it turns out. Donna, who got pregnant at 16, has received this news with mixed emotions.

And the meal orders just keep coming.

“It’s like this force holding me down,” Donna says. “ ‘Let’s see if you can get past this one. ...’ ”

But then, from the park’s gazebo, a band called Johnny Aces and the Wingmen launches into a version of “Cara Mia” that rings through the city square, and Donna’s mood brightens. More classic cars are pulling into downtown, people are stopping to admire this Buick and that Studebaker, and a moribund stretch of Elyria comes alive.

“The thing is, I did it myself,” she says.

Tail Fins and Chrome

A 1966 Ford Galaxie, sky blue. A 1956 Chevy Bel Air, blue and white. That 1957 Buick Special, with its requisite touches: fuzzy dice dangling from the rearview mirror and an American flag at full-staff on the antenna. Their gleaming chrome can blind.

Cars matter to Elyria, especially cars like these. Beyond their evocation of open-road possibility, they have the aerodynamic brawn to carry one’s expectations through any wall, into the future. They remind the city of when thousands worked at the General Motors plant here; when automobile subcontractors peppered the city; when, a century ago, the Elyrian industrialist Arthur Lovett Garford produced a horseless carriage called, simply, the Garford.

Take the Breakfast Club, for example. Speedy Amos announces his Marine fealty on the license-plate frame of his Chrysler Concorde. Dale Price, retired from the telephone company, has a flapping American flag painted on the hood of his black Volkswagen Jetta. And Jim Dall, who ran the local Ford dealership for decades (a Ford banner for Distinguished Achievement, 1961, hangs in his garage), incorporates great pomp in the annual summertime unveiling of his 2002 turquoise Thunderbird convertible.

But Donna outpaces them all. On a shelf behind her cash register are displayed 27 miniature car models, including a 1957 Ford Thunderbird and a 1959 Chevy Impala. In her driveway, she parks a 1975 black-and-white Chevy Camaro that, when she guns it, makes her feel 40 years younger.

And in her subconscious, the search continues for the car of her childhood: her mother’s 1963 Chevy Impala convertible, a buffed-red thing of beauty that — when its top was down — could blow away the daily woes of a troubled household.

But this magical convertible vanished one day to become Donna’s enduring symbol of the almost. Her mother says that Donna’s hard-drinking father got drunk in Cleveland one night and forgot where he had parked it, but Donna has always assumed that it was repossessed.

“We lost the car, we lost the house,” Donna says.

So, as if to reclaim that car, as if to resurrect the way things used to be — if only for a day — Donna arranges for this classic car show, an event whose defiant undercurrent is expressed by the revving-engine arrival of six more cars, including a 1955 Ford pickup and a souped-up 1971 Chevy Nova. Even Johnny Aces and his Wingmen cannot compete.

The automobile afternoon continues. The sprays of the park fountain cut shimmering arcs in the air, the passing freight trains sing of their burdens, and the characters of Elyria strut across the stage just outside Donna’s Diner.

Here, admiring the classic Fords and Buicks, is Pete Aldrich, 52, a Donna’s regular who, only a few months ago, was out of work and living a little rough, spending the occasional night in his car. Nearly every morning he’d hustle out of the diner for another job interview, no matter that his eyeglasses were missing an arm.

But his life has improved since then. He has a job as a sales representative for a restaurant-service company, an apartment a few blocks from Donna’s — and a pair of eyeglasses with both arms intact.

Here, lingering in front of Donna’s is Ike Maxwell, 59, once an all-everything football hero for Elyria, class of ’72, and now a downtown denizen with a brain injury from a baseball-bat attack three decades ago. Wearing shorts, white socks and sandals, he is shouting again, in his never-ending conversation with all of Elyria.

Donna makes a deal with him. Stop yelling and I’ll feed you. Soon Ike is sitting at a picnic table in the park, eating a roast beef sub from a plastic foam container, while someone nearby nods in his direction and says, “He could have been great, man.”

Here, eating a chili dog, is Holly Brinda, 54, the mayor of Elyria, her hometown. No matter where she looks, she sees an issue needing attention. If she gazes out her office window, she sees a homeless couple sleeping outside the First Congregational Church. If she walks through the city’s core, she sees vacancies.

But Ms. Brinda, in only her first year of office, also sees hope, in the global industries based in her city, in the local think tank that is Lorain County Community College, even in the clean-slate possibilities of this profoundly challenged downtown. When someone asks her what’s going on, she answers with unmistakable cheer. “All of it,” she says.

Finding a Way Forward

And here is Donna Dove herself: a small–business woman in northeastern Ohio who feels as though the faster she runs, the more she falls behind. Her diner, the business she always dreamed of, is a few bad lunch crowds from closing down for good.

Though she hasn’t made it public, she now knows what she is going to do. No, she will not shut down for good. Nor will she take the advice of a customer, the Judge, to move her business to the courthouse cafeteria. Instead, she’ll close the diner for a week or so, redecorate it, change its menu — add a macaroni-and-cheese bar, for example — and reopen. New and improved.

In a few weeks, she will be hobnobbing in the back of her diner with Mark Ondrejech of US Foods, her wholesale food supplier and unofficial business adviser. She will lay out her vision of a new menu, a new look, a new — Donna’s.

“Just so that it’s ...,” she will say, trailing off in search of the key word.

“Different,” Mark will volunteer.

“Different,” she will agree.

And then, one Sunday afternoon in late September, Donna will go to Office Depot to buy rolls of shipping paper, some tape, and two pieces of poster board. She will cover the plate-glass windows of her diner with brown paper, and write out the words for two signs, her black marker squeaking with each stroke:

CLOSED

Coming Soon

NEW Donna’s Diner

Re-opening

Monday Oct 1 7am

This small, modest diner, in a 19th-century brick building on the corner of Middle Avenue and Second Street, is not merely a business for Donna Dove. “That diner is me,” she says.

“I’m just going forward,” Donna adds. “I’m not looking back.”

This resolve of hers — this determination to reinvent herself — can sometimes seem particularly Elyrian. It is seen, for example, in Tianna Madison, an Elyria track star who would win an Olympic gold medal a couple of weeks after the car show. It is seen, too, in Howard Foxman, the owner of Loomis Camera, who will soon close his store after 62 years — that oversize mock camera will come down — but who, at 91, will continue his business, on eBay.

For now, Donna is keeping her plans to herself, as she supervises the final moments of a car show that has temporarily perked up the downtown of her city.

Soon the lead singer of Johnny Aces and the Wingmen is calling out the day’s trophy winners, and then summoning Donna to the bandstand to take a bow. She tends to loom large in her diner, but here, in the park’s gazebo, she seems smaller somehow. She is also not wearing her ever-present apron.

“One more time for Donna,” the bandleader says. “She works very, very hard.” Then, chuckling, he says, “Now get off the stage.”

The band closes with some Roy Orbison. A fleet of American-made beauties start their engines. And Donna Dove steps down from the stage to melt back into Elyria.

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Created 23 October 2012