About once a week, I get an urge for a cheeseburger. It usually comes in the middle of the day after some stressful meeting or situation. I sit at my desk and over my head is this thought balloon with a cheeseburger in it. It’s not any cheeseburger. It is the BEST cheeseburger in the Hamptons. It follows me around during the latter part of my day. If I take a nap in the afternoon, which I sometimes do, I get up and there, over my head, still there is my cheeseburger.
Where this cheeseburger comes from I do not know. I suspect it comes from something a long time ago. A girl turned me down. I’d get a cheeseburger. I’d forget I had a test to go to. I’d get a cheeseburger. Cheeseburgers relieved stress.
Today, in my adulthood, I sometimes let the thought balloon stay up there for days. I’m married now, after all. My wife loves to cook and when I get home there’s baked striped bass or chicken and vegetable stir fry. Food that is good for you. I don’t even have a prayer that a cheeseburger is going to be on the menu. Halfway through the meal I get full. And then, the cheeseburger balloon fades.
This past Sunday, soon after a stressful time, the cheeseburger balloon popped up again. As it happened, my wife was in the city this particular weekend, so there would be no wonderful hot meal at home. I would be bacheloring it that evening.
I remained busy for the rest of the afternoon. The sun set around 4:30 p.m., the ghastly hour it chooses to set in the late autumn, but the thought balloon remained. It also happened I remained busy, engrossed in some work for several more hours, and by the time I began thinking about dinner it was near to 8 p.m.
Now the BEST cheeseburger in the Hamptons is the subject of dispute in this community, but we did hold a contest about it during the summer, and the name of one place, a place familiar to me, would pop up in almost every entry we had—Bay Burger in Sag Harbor.
I’d been to Bay Burger before, of course, although as it happened this year just once before, in June. I concentrated hard on my thought balloon, still throbbing away up there. There was little doubt this was a Bay Burger cheeseburger. It comes in a little plastic basket with a napkin under it. You can get it a whole variety of ways, with or without a pickle, coleslaw, fries, ketchup, lettuce, sliced onion. And you can get it with a choice of cheeses—American, cheddar, Swiss. I called Bay Burger to make sure they were open. In the wintertime, many places close.
“Yes, we’re open.”
I looked at my watch. It was now 8 p.m. “How late?”
“We close at nine.”
I finished what I was doing, packed up, and then went out the door into that Sunday night to begin the drive over there. It’s a 30-minute drive. I’d get there in time.
Bay Burger shines like a beacon in the dark on the Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Turnpike. It’s a wooden building with large glass windows on two sides, originally built in about 1970 as a fast food place, though not one of the chains. It was a retail bakery for a while, but in recent years it is back to basics. It’s a world of ice cream sundaes, burgers prepared on a grille anyway you want it, Coca-Cola, French fries and iced tea. You eat at wooden picnic tables in a large room with the counter at one end and the grille and refrigerator behind. When it’s crowded, you take a number and you can wander off and come back. But that was not how it was on this night. At 8:50 p.m., just 10 minutes to closing time, I was all alone in there. Behind the waitress, a man in a white apron turned on the grille.
She read back to me what she had written down.
“Cheeseburger medium rare, American cheese, pickle, coleslaw, sliced onion on it, then on the side lettuce and tomatoes.”
“Ketchup is right over there.”
She pointed to a counter where there the ketchup dispenser was. There were small cups you could hold underneath while you pressed the button.
I walked around awhile. There’s a side room, partially separate from the main dining room, where there is a TV on. On some tables there were copies of Newsday. There were leaflets thumbtacked on some of the walls. I got a Coca-Cola from the refrigerator case.
As I was returning to the counter, I saw a man with a broom come out from behind the counter to begin sweeping the floor. A woman in a white apron went into the side room and shut off the TV. I got my cheeseburger. It was in its basket, just perfect, just as I ordered.
And so I turned to take it to a seat at one of the wooden tables to begin to enjoy my meal when I thought of something.
“You open every day now?” I asked the woman who had served me.
“Oh no. Just weekends,” she said. “And this is our last one.”
“But we’ll be open again in April.”
Behind her, the cook was once again turning off the grille. It was 10 o’clock, closing time. In a back room a light turned off.
“Okay if I eat this here?” I asked.
“Oh sure,” she said. “It will take us about a half hour to get closed up. Take your time.”
“I will,” I said. “You have the BEST burgers in the Hamptons.”
And so, I sat, and I ate, savoring the meal. I squeezed the cup of ketchup inside the bun on top of the burger. Using the plastic fork, I had a bite of the coleslaw. This was heaven. I took a bite of the pickle. Aaaah.
I pondered life on earth, here in the Hamptons, in late autumn, where the sun sets in the afternoon and we grope around in the darkness until we get home.
I was sitting here in Bay Burger, the best place for a cheeseburger in the Hamptons, just at closing time on the final Sunday of the last weekend they are open until next April, eating their last cheeseburger. They had probably served 10,000 cheeseburgers this year.
I took my first bite. It was so good. The onion slice crackled, the ketchup gave it that tang, the ground beef inside, nestled between the buns, was crunchy on the outside, slightly red in the middle. This was one damn good cheeseburger. I took a bite of the pickle. I took another plastic forkful of the coleslaw.
This is a milestone, I thought. And an honor. It’s an honor to be eating the last Bay Burger cheeseburger of the year. Now the Bay Burger people will close up, and the place will be dark, and there will be no more cheeseburgers for a long, cold time.
Why does the Earth wobble on its axis the way it does, so that it gets dark in the wintertime in the middle of the afternoon? I stared at the cheeseburger but it gave me no answers. So I ate it.
And then, I thanked everybody, all the people wiping down the tables, cleaning up, putting things away, for their cheeseburger they had prepared for me. And then, sadly, I left.
Maybe we should take a trip to the Caribbean in January.