I might have said here, what my best memories of Ricky’s were. Spoken of commiserating over some grade-school melodrama or failed test with a slice of pie at the front counter, or of reading The Bridgton Newsthere on lunch break as an adult, or better still of the host of high school and college dates on which many a pleasant hour’s conversation was had right there in the five red booths on the right-hand wall. But, my memories are my own, and their worth here, if shared to lend appropriate impact to the sad news of the diner’s closure, would not I feel convey so great a weight, or so keen a sense of loss, then do the personal memories of each of you who are reading this now. You, I am certain, have memories of your own of Ricky’s, of breakfasts and lunches and birthdays and holidays, so if I may, I would ask that you please stop a moment here and think on them, for now is the time. There will be no more to be made.
Say what you will about why, and there’s surely a host of reasons; whether from the financial stresses imposed by Covid lockdowns, the mounting costs of doing business, the lack of workers willing or able to put in the time, the sub-standard tourist season we’re seeing from these high gas prices, take your pick. Perhaps, it’s rightly a combination of all of these, for I do know that Brigitte and Gilles are looking forward to their well-earned retirement, have been considering this for some time. Honestly, I should say that every year we have had there this past decade has been a gift, for I do recall times in my old Academy days when it seemed the end was not far off. And I, knowing this, have tried my best to be a regular patron there, and to see each meal I got at Ricky’s since then as the treat that it was; each omelet and steak sandwich another moment to enjoy a rare pleasure, which I knew someday would not come again. But even knowing this, I was still quite unprepared for the feelings which came when the news finally broke.
I got to thinking, how many hundred omelets have I, just I, personally eaten there? Then, I came to realize that that I did not know, and for some reason this made me sad. Last Sunday morning, when I walked in, I did not know at the start that it was to be my last meal there, and as Jackie carried plates of hash browns and pancakes by our table, and Brigitte topped off cups of coffee on every table, I felt a feeling I always feel when I eat there. A contentment came over me, at the hustle and bustle of the happy patrons, the smell of the food and the shine of mid-century chrome and glass, and it seemed to me in that moment that everything was just as it should have been. Even the old Wurlitzer was in rare form, piping out its music in surprisingly clear and loud tones like it used to do in that heydays its songs were written for. In recent years, it had developed a loose wire in the amp, and anymore it seemed there was about a 50-50 chance it’d play loud enough to be heard when the diner was full. (Though a discrete knock on the lower left-hand panel typically upped those odds, I’d found.) I always loved that old jukebox and its generous three-songs-for-a-quarter policy, and without fail I’d always pump at least two quarters in every time I sat down to eat. I can still remember my favorite selections, still hear the click of the numbers and the whir of the dick selector activating when the coin finally dropped. B4, B5, C5 gave you Hawaii 50, Sherry, and Hello Mary Lou, while E7, E8, H7 treated you to California Girls, Good Vibrations, and Jailhouse Rock. Those were my old standbys, which never failed to get folks up and going with a smile here, a toe-tap there, and I can attest they worked their routine magic Sunday morning also. While yes occasionally, the “5” key would get stuck down and you’d have to double press it, or sometimes it’d eat your quarter and send you fishing for another in your pocket. I never minded. It was all part of the experience. It was a good machine, and it added much to the classic spirit of Ricky’s, which seemed always a place a little adrift in time, longing backwards for those glorious 50s when the world was smaller and not so complicated. While perhaps that era which Ricky’s tried so hard to evoke had long since passed, it certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.
How many million strips of bacon have sizzled away back on that old grill; how deep an ocean’s worth of coffee, served up one mug at a time, to wash down uncounted scores of eggs these past decades? 18 years in its current home on the corner of Depot Street, and more before that in the early days when it used to be just across Main Street beside Wales and Hamblen. Did you know it made the move to its current home in one night? Its former owners preparing both properties in advance, behind the scenes, only to close down one day, cart everything across the street in the middle of the night, and open up the next morning with none hereabouts any wiser to how they’d managed it? Like that fabled house of Aladdin, put up while the neighbors happened to be looking the other way, what a shock our local regulars had the next day to find their diner had seemingly picked itself up and walked clean across the road. That was Jackie’s first day, she tells me, and these 18 years since I’d reckon she’s served enough platters of sausage and beans to feed the entire expeditionary force of these United States a dozen times over.
I was fortunate enough to find, many years ago, a special coffee mug from Ricky’s which must have been produced sometime in the early 2000s, for it features an artistic rendering of the inside of the diner as it has always looked in my memory, with all its vintage signs on the walls, its special boards pinned up, and every available space hopping with caricatures of customers and busy servers juggling plates of food and wolfing down scrambled eggs and pie. (Please pardon the hodge-podge nature of the image I sent along with this column; it was fiendishly difficult to photograph the scene on the curved mug, which I did in segments, and my skills at digitally knitting the separate pieces of photograph together are clearly lacking. I would be glad to show this mug in person to any who may call on me to see it.) It is a treasure to me, and is something I shall never part with; more so now because that wonderful scene it preserves, which I enjoyed in person near every weekend morning after golf, is one which lives no longer in our world, but abides now only in memories which I hope will be slow in fading. Part of that is why I am writing this today, why I’m making the closure of Ricky’s the subject of this week’s historical column. Because it is the end of an era locally, the end of a cherished piece of local history, an institution to rival many others which do not nearly deserve the name, and so today I wish to document Ricky’s while a clear impression of it can still be made. Brigitte allowed me to take away some materials for the vault at the Historical Society, but more than these I want stories of Ricky’s to survive as well, and to that end I would ask our readers to write in with reminisces of their own, and send your well-wishes to Brigitte and Gilles, and Jackie and Maria and all the long-time regulars, each of whom shall meet there no more.
On the face of it, looking at our news cycle and the course of current events and each day’s new dilemma in health, religion or politics, perhaps the closure of a simple diner in small town America is not that notable of a thing to the wider world. Perhaps it will not attract much notice outside of Bridgton even. But I would have it otherwise, for it is not some idle, unimportant event; and if I had it my way and the right sort of things mattered in the world, this closure would be news, and it would be mourned deeply as the loss of another good thing, a bright facet in the life of a small town which is already starting to feel less small, in a time when the world in its breakneck rush towards modernity is progressing all too swiftly for the comfort of many. A meal at Ricky’s was a chance to step back, take a breather, and relish in the simply joys of bacon, eggs, coffee and hot cocoa, and watch the rush of 302’s busy traffic speed by from the safe remove of the finest little slice of traditional Americana to be found anywhere this side of Route 66.
I don’t know what in the grand scale of things this will mean to the outside world, but for my part I’ve never been overly concerned with that. Bridgton is my home, and it is enough for me, and in this small town the ripples of Ricky’s Diner have spread widely and be long in passing. For my family, for my neighbors, for my town, I feel we have suffered a loss which has touched us deeply, but that is the truest way to know the worth of something. Ricky’s was worth so much to so many of us. History is sad like that, sometimes. I wish nothing but the best to Brigitte and her family, who gave so selflessly these many years of their lives all that our community might have a place to meet, to laugh, and to make merry as we might have done before our own time, in a better, smaller world. They will be missed.
Till next time!