STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF LOVE: Teen Burger welcomes visitors to the Shirley May's restaurant six miles east of Albany.
An Ode to Teen Burger And Shirley MAy's
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
Seems I’ve seen him most of my life, and I’ve been around a while now.
Back in the ’80s, when I was a kid, we’d creep into Lebanon down Highway 20. My grandparents lived there, in a thick old house on Milton. We have one of those familiar family names — Frye — though most people get our lineage all wrong. We’re not of those Fryes, dig, but a stalwart German stock from Southern California that didn’t land in the mid-valley until after The Dukes of Hazzard premiered on television. I know this for a fact, because I remember the move. The most prominent members of our family are gone now: my great-uncle Lowell, an Albany cop, whose name looms largest on the local marquee; and my grandpa Lawrence “Bud,” a laundry-truck driver with gabbing partners at every stop. No Clydes, no Pats — just us.
Anyway, every time we’d head to Lebanon, we’d pass a Teen Burger statue outside a building between Albany and the Cottonwoods Ballroom, a night spot from the days they’d tuck 'em into nowhere, a sudden blast of electricity in an otherwise rustic landscape. Over much of the 20th century, the Cottonwoods was a dance hall, a hangout, a disco, a rotting nuisance, and then not a goddamn thing. The statue, however, persevered, even when he "hallo'd" from outside a vacant shell. Teen Burger was just that dedicated, offering a hamburger and root beer you couldn’t have under a smile you knew was a lie. Even in hibernation, he did his job.
He's always fascinated me, at first because of his in-no-way-reminiscent resemblance to another icon of my distant past: Bob’s Big Boy, that portly huckster of fatty Americana from my ancestral home. I’d never seen a Teen Burger; his status as an A&W ambassador preceded me by nearly a decade. Where I came from, there were no Teen Burgers or Mama, Papa, and Baby Burgers; I think the mascot by then was some big old bear in an orange sweater, and the only A&W restaurant I knew was in Albany. (That building still exists, if you’re curious, its drive-through structure purely a roof now, as a Los Tequilas on Santiam.) So Teen Burger had wandered far off track, a gift-bearing hitchhiker who never caught a ride.
Despite his stature and status as a landmark, he always seemed to sneak up on you, like he’d leapt suddenly into place to catch your eye. When the restaurant behind him was open — whether as Rick’s Café or under its longtime and best-known name, Shirley May’s — I dreamed of wandering inside. Even as a kid I suspected Teen Burger, in his buzzcut and college sweater, was an anachronism; I knew no one who looked like him, not even older adults (well, Bud, kinda, but yeah). My generation wore Scorpions Blackout tees under denim jackets and limpid-cool peach fuzz. This guy was a window into a bygone era. Maybe behind those doors I could enjoy the same hamburgers, fries, and shakes my parents snarfed as children of the Atomic Age.
A couple weeks ago, Shirley May’s became the center of regional Facebook dialogue. Because I had a background in news and a recent lunch date with the publisher of the Sweet Home New Era and Lebanon Local, I pitched him the story. Sic yer correspondents on this, I said, exuberant from my watchdog deed. In a game of one-upmanship, he thundered back: Hey, you were one of them churnalist chumps, right? Why don’t you write it for us? ("A Good Day at Shirley May's")
Well, OK. Bluff blown, I found myself where I’d always wanted to stand: in the shadow of the boy I’ve loved, taking his picture, in his immediate presence for the very first time. The battle-scarred figure stayed stoic during our interview — quiet humility’s his best feature — but I think he knows what he’s meant to the mid-valley. I think he knows what he’s meant to me. I hope he gets to hang forever, a beacon-link to our better selves. Such places need to live.