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Last Of The Night Owls

July 2024
1min read

In the 1880’s small horse-drawn diners began to appear in American cities. Between dusk and dawn they trundled around the gaslit streets of every fairsized town dispensing hot and cold food. They were called night owls or dog wagons. Competition boomed in 1897, when the transit companies of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia abandoned horse-drawn streetcars for electric trolleys. Entrepreneurs bought the discarded cars, threw in a stove, and went into business. But soon railroad-car companies began producing ever grander diners; flossy and unwieldy, they were set up in permanent locations. They were bright and big, and eventually they crowded out all but one of the dog wagons.

That one was Kennedy’s Lunch Cart, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which appeared in Market Square most every night. It was small and hot, seated eleven patrons at its short counter, and, with its surprising leaded stained-glass windows, recalled an era when everything, however humble, had to have pretensions to elegance. The present writer has an indelible memory of entering it one windy September night a decade ago. All eleven stools were occupied, and people were standing two deep behind them waiting for their orders. “Gilly” Gilbert, the chef, was preparing all the orders on a gas range no larger than a square of linoleum. The veins stood out on his forehead, and his arms were windmilling like a Cape Cod whirligig. A friend of his called up from the tiny entrance, “How’s it going, Gilly?”

“Aw,” he replied, turning four hamburgers with a smooth, unconscious motion of his right hand and setting up two plates of franks and beans with his left, “It’s kinda quiet tonight.”

Now that final, persistent night owl is gone. Last September Gilly, who stood the long night shift alone for more than thirty years, stepped down forever. His wagon, forbidden by unsentimental local ordinances, has followed him into retirement. But, to Portsmouth’s credit, the town did it up right. Last August 28 was designated Gilly’s Day by the city fathers—there was a parade with bands, floats, and local and national politicians, including Eugene McCarthy. Gilly and his wife received, among the plaudits, tickets for a Caribbean cruise. More than two thousand people turned out to bid farewell to a seedy but splendid anachronism.

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