Pearl turns 90 and the gift is ours to enjoy
Work, a craft, a job that you can do until the last dog dies is a gift. Vladimir Horowitz, the great pianist, was playing up until the end, and I bet Picasso was mixing paint, at least mentally, on his death bed. Retirement isn’t all it is cracked up to be in my opinion.
John Pearl turned 90 recently, and he got another chance to ply his craft and do what he always did best: Work a long table full of good food and serve it to people who want it. In this case, it was his own birthday cake, but no matter. He looked the same as he did more than 35 years ago when the Ideal Cafeteria was in operation along Chestnut Street in downtown Corydon. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, that cherry cobbler was my favorite. It has been my golden ring on the merry-go-round. I keep reaching for it but so far I can’t make a cobbler even close to theirs with ice cream on the side.
Mr. and Mrs. Pearl were mysterious to me growing up. Their daughter, Kathy, was my age and lived with her parents above the Ideal in a long apartment that, in my young mind, went on forever. The windows in the front facing Chestnut Street were the only ones, so the apartment was dark and I have always liked dark. I remember it as cozy but also a very exotic way to live when the rest of us had yards and swings.
John and Ann (I would never have called them that in those days) occasionally popped up from below to check on us and then disappeared just as quickly. At that time, the Ideal was a restaurant with a soda fountain and booths operating slightly west of its second location which came later. Of course, I know now that the work they did is the hardest imaginable, and they could only be gone for a short while. Running a restaurant is that boulder being pushed up the mountain; you can’t let go because it can all roll back so easily. It’s shoulder to rock, pushing all the time.
I always imagined Kathy’s life to be very much like Eloise at the Plaza. We would be doing our thing like all little girls do. We’d dance and do cheers down the length of the living room. A massive mirror above the sofa shook with every jump. Pretty soon the phone would ring and it would be nice if we didn’t do that anymore as the customers were looking up at the ceiling. And then Kathy might say, ‘Are you hungry?’ Of course and always. ‘Want to order something?’ Then she would casually pick up the phone and dial something and order hamburgers, cokes and french fries. I felt like lolling on a chaise lounge with a long cigarette holder and wondering how life got any better.
Meals at my house could sometimes be interruptions of the art process and involved stopping, cooking and cleaning up when you didn’t want to. In other words, an ordeal. At Kathy’s, it was like living in the penthouse of privilege to have your food brought up and taken down with so little emotional complication. It was a relief to me.
After the years of the Beatles, ball games and sleepovers ended, the Ideal remodeled and moved east one building slot to become a cafeteria. In those days, Corydon’s claim to fame was as often the Ideal Cafeteria as it was the First State Capital. People drove quite a way to eat out (alas, those days are gone) and they loved coming to Corydon and eating at the Ideal. Whether you drove from New Albany or walked across the square like I did, the food was dependable and the atmosphere relaxing. Mr. and Mrs. Pearl and then their son, Curtis, were always there moving around behind the buffet, smiling, but working hard all the same.
I think that is why I got such a surge of d’j’ vu when watching Mr. Pearl moving the length of his own 90th birthday buffet. He truly did look the same. Maybe a little more hunched over, but that same calm questioning look of which flavor do you want: chocolate, white or strawberry?
The party, the guests, the decorations and all the cards were meant to be gifts of honor for John Pearl and his life but, honestly, the best gift of all was this opportunity for him to come out of retirement and perform his craft again in his quiet and intent way behind a long table of comfort and tradition. It ended up being an even better gift for all of us.