Knight’s Steak Hostility

Something odd happened when I entered Knight’s Steak House today, for lunch, hoping to be able to define the je ne sais quoi of the place. All those pasty-faced, overweight, middle-aged patrons slugging down drinks at the bar and puffing on their après-steak-sandwich cigarettes, all that smug conventionalism and complacency, made me want to yell, “Fire!”

Not true: it made me want to yell, “The University of Michigan sucks!”

Not true: I wanted one of my companions to yell it.

Knight’s must be Ann Arbor’s ultimate townie restaurant. As a former friend put it, “It’s where all the alcoholics go because they serve the biggest drinks.”

“Smoking or nonsmoking?” the hostess asked.

“Fuming,” I said.

She smirked.

The décor is Rat Pack Chintz, and in the dummy wing, a.k.a. nonsmoking, where we were seated, the walls are wood-paneled with moldings that scrupulously matched. The windows afforded a view of Mr. Knight’s house on the adjacent property. Above our table on the wall, there was a picture of him in a red blazer, circa 1972. (Not a bad-looking guy in his early 50s.) Just as we were gaping at that, I glimpsed through the glass of the fire exit door a much older version of the same face sticking out of a furry coat in a golf cart that was just then passing into the parking lot.

We asked the impish waitress. “That’s Ray Knight. He comes in and smokes and gets pickled every day. A customer built a bridge from his house to the parking lot; it was dangerous for him to drive the golf cart out in the street.” She wrote our order on the last remnants of a long, thin notebook that she said she got from K-Mart: this was the one with dogs on the borders, but she had the two cat notebooks before that. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Our sandwiches came in a jiffy, and they were perfect, or nearly so. The waitress kept refilling our pop from a pitcher. My beef dip made me recall the first time I’d ever had one, with Teri Spires, in about 1974 when she took me to a place in Omaha’s Westgate Plaza, across Pacific Street from her old high school, and was astonished that it was indeed my first beef dip sandwich. It was many more years before I learned the term “au jus.”

We lingered a long while at our table and speculated as to what Knight’s Black Day & Night Pie could possibly be but not daring to order it. When it was time to leave, we found Ray Knight at a four-top near the bar, putting the moves on a couple of blue-hairs who were pushing eighty. As if to block the sun, he wore a black fedora with a red feather. For someone who drives a golf cart, he has a preternaturally smooth face.

One in our group remarked about the picture and exchanged some banter with him. As soon as we moved on, I expressed my desire to pull his hat down over his ears.

Not true: I wanted one of my companions to do it.

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