Al Johnson. Door County.

Wait! Not yet! I yelled into the mythical phone line running between Chicago and the white snow heavens of Door County deep in a frozen January sun. Can’t we just have just one more breakfast?

Remembering the great Door County/Chicago writer Norbert Blei’s story of Al Johnson shouting back through the phone trying to find out why he didn’t get his Chicago Tribune delivered. “Yes!” He bellows with a smile into the phone line. “That’s me. I’m the one. I’m Al Johnson. I’m the guy who put the goats on the roof of my restaurant! Now what can you do about getting that newspaper delivered?”

The news of his passing came just as the summer season started to gear up. In these hard times when a trip to the county, to the other end of that phone line, wasn’t possible, solely for the reason that the money wasn’t there anymore; I was thrown back hard to the County in any given January. Memories of all those years when a trip was possible. And I screamed through that phone line. “Just one more breakfast.”

One like this.

It’s blessedly early. You dip down Highway 42 from Ephraim, from Fish Creek, into the glory of the winter sunrise, a world that Al and his wife Ingert fashioned from a beauty so crystalline clear in the white winds whipping all that sunshine off the icy rhythm of Sister Bay that it made you sure that there really is going to be a brand new day.

A beauty so sharply defined that it almost makes your shoulders ache as you glide to a stop in front of Al’s Place. You leave the car, and then baptized for just a moment by that winter wind, you pull open the big wooden door. Walking right in, greeted by a nod and a smile and a good morning . . .because isn’t that all it really takes, your heart springs awake because there is a table by the front window.

As you walk to the prized window table, you silently pay your respects to the men at the back counter. The regulars. You’ve never spoken. You would never even think of it. You don’t know their names and they don’t know yours and that doesn’t matter in the least. Because it’s with them you get the gift of sharing this place, this winter morning wonder. Door County when it’s empty of all but those who live there all year round. You have been silently admitted into a family larger than any you could even imagine. As the regulars tell stories; your food arrives. And here’s the thing about the food: it’s always good. The Swedish pancakes, the lingonberries, the sausage, the eggs and the coffee. All through the years. Even in the dead of winter, that morning when you own the prized view out the front windows of the restaurant—the food is always good. And somehow seems to arrive before you’ve even said what you wanted.

And then Al. Even when he stops, he is always moving. His eyes forever scanning the room. That hard scrabble tough young man from the west side of Chicago. Finding his way to a winter paradise. Creating a family, one that went so very far beyond people who were also named Johnson. Seeing the simple and glorious beauty of Sister Bay and then stopping. Right there. To put the goats on the roof.
And building something that will last.

I put down the phone. Tired and sad that I’m not on the other end. In the County. Looking out at Sister Bay. Sitting quietly at the memorial. Just to be there. Determined now more than ever to find some way to get back. To get back in the autumn. But to be there most of all in the winter. To sit at one of the tables in the window. Still sad because Al is gone. But then . . .

Looking down at the table. As Al Johnson’s place holds us all and keeps us warm. Noticing my coffee cup has been refilled.

Without me even knowing how or when.

3 Responses to “Al Johnson. Door County.”

  1. Tom Simeone Says:

    A beautiful paean to an obviously deserving man. Simply touching, CG.

  2. Nikki Says:

    what a gorgeous tribute

  3. Dale Says:

    Sweet. Hope you get back–but it doesn’t matter, because you are a tribute to him, as to all those who shaped you.

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