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Reading Auden. Who Is Introducing Kierkegaard. To Me. Over Fries and a Chocolate Malt. At Big Al’s.


“Well, what can a poor boy do / Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band?”

Big Al’s workers are hip to their menu and full-belly promise. With their award-winning for the last-50-years-straight chocolate malted they give you a long spoon so you can spoon out gobs of malted before they melt into the slurp for the straw. But the malteds are the least of Big Al’s All-American Menu.

Le menu du Big Al’s

Big Al’s flattop grills have been frying burgers for fifty years and are just beginning to be broken in. Every year brings a slightly more tasty burger than the year before.

Big Al’s burgers are always trending. They are tasty but a far cry from the patty-made-of-dry-aged-porterhouse-trim sliders from the Fifth Street Steak House. Nothing as Happy Hour as that. Big Al’s burgers are always at hand ready to make a five-o’clock working man feel fed and a late-night drunk feel sober. 

Big Al’s started accepting debit cards grudgingly about two years ago. Before that, it was a cash-only business through the years and multiple owners. Late one night, after the last burger call, I saw an owner pull in to check his cash receipts. He was in a brand new Lexus. His wife was in a formal satin evening gown. Big Al’s has two registers. The IRS and the State of California probably think Big Al’s has only one. The owner carried his personal cash register out of the restaurant, placed it in his trunk, and drove off. Nobody working or eating at Big Als never saw nothin’ no how. 

I’ve been coming to Big Al’s for burgers, shakes, and its air-conditioned student’s and working man’s reading room since my family moved to Chico in 1963. Big Al’s reading room is big and never crowded. Today it’s empty. As always in the last 59 years, I order the chocolate malted, the basic burger, and the large order of fries piping hot and nicely salted fresh from the deep fryer. Too much fat. Too much salt. Too many carbohydrates. Too much dairy. Too much sugar. It’s not really a good diet for an old man, is it?

Now it is just me and my latest book all alone in Big Al’s reading room.

That book would be,  The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard with an introduction by W. H. Auden

As I read these “Living Thoughts” it comes to me,

Who, just who, do I think I am? Really?

Then I read from the introduction by W. H. Auden for a moment and then I just stop. I think,

“Who reads such arcane stuff in this day and age? Damned few and never in Big Al’s.”

Then I just stop and think to think again, as so many at a similar phase of life do,

“What? Just what am I doing with the dwindling years given and now left to me? Just what do I think I am doing with these last works of my days.”

It was a strange and sobering moment and the irony of being at Big Al’s was not lost on me.

On the other hand, the questions of

“Who do I think I am?”


What I am doing with the days?”

are the sort of questions that now recur dependably in any and all locales. It’s the kind of thing that tasks me as I expect it tasks all of us in our time — if we are in fact given enough time for such questions to form in our souls; if indeed we take the time to develop a soul. At all.

And then, as always, came the tick-tock echo inside my soul:

There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
— Eliot

Yes, Eliot. That astringent and persnickety old man. The poet I kept returning to through all those decades lived outside the Spirit. The poet that kept me tethered to Him through his Quartets; a thin tether but — like the long web strand spun by a spider — not ever quite breaking until I returned to where the Spirit had remained.

And upon arrival I found the bitter wine of Eliot’s own revelation filling my cup.

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.

In my end is my beginning.

 A beginning? Here in the side room of a ramshackle burger and fries joint in a small town far off Interstate 5? A beginning? Eating a burger, dunking french fries into a small pot of catsup, and drinking thickened milk reading, at random, I read one of The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard:

The cause of his suffering is that he always wants to be religious and always goes the wrong way about it and remains a poet: consequently he is unhappily in love with God.

“Unhappily in love with God.” That thought expands in my mind like a Chinese paper flower blooms in a glass of cool clear water.

Then I return to my humble burger with fries and my chocolate malted. And I read on thinking about poetry, malteds, and last meals since, at this point, all your meals might be the last one. A doleful thought but, by now, expected and dismissed so one can get back to thinking.

Thinking about Kierkegaard’s living thoughts. Thinking about Auden’s thoughts about Kierkegaard’s thoughts. Thinking while tasting the bread. Thinking while the fries lie cooling in their blood-red pool of catsup. Thinking that because I was alone I neglected to say Grace. Which is when I realize that there is no “irony” involved at this moment, only a meal of the most common food of the working man of my day. If the state permitted it there would be wine at Big Als. That and prayer would make it a holy meal, wouldn’t it?

After all, there was this working man, this carpenter, who the night before He was hung up and killed by men, ate only bread and wine.

Perhaps that is the best diet for this old man after all.

Gerard Van der Leun // 1692 Mangrove Ave Apt: 379
Chico, CA 95926

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John Venlet August 24, 2022, 12:39 PM

    Ah, Kierkegaard, who followed on the heels of Hegel, is the man who it could be said brought us both secular existentialism and religious existentialism due to his despair, one could say, of failing to find any unified field of knowledge. I think it would be interesting to read Auden’s thoughts on him. I’d say though you were alone, you were keeping heady company imbibing their thoughts and words, while imbibing more substantial fare required to keep the body sated. Enjoyed this essay very much, Gerard.

  • Vanderleun August 24, 2022, 12:48 PM

    Auden’s Introduction can be read here

    Auden – The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard – [PDF Document]

    • John Venlet August 24, 2022, 1:26 PM

      Thanks, Gerard. Am attempting to digest now.

  • PA Cat August 24, 2022, 1:08 PM

    Kierkegaard is the only writer on Gerard’s list in this essay who is not known to have had a pet cat. T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats has been a favorite of cat people since it was first published in 1939. As for Auden, it was his translation of the 9th-century Irish poem “Pangur Bán” that Samuel Barber set to music in his Hermit Songs in 1952. Auden’s words:
    Pangur, white Pangur,
    How happy we are
    Alone together, Scholar and cat.
    Each has his own work to do daily;
    For you it is hunting, for me, study.
    Your shining eye watches the wall;
    My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
    You rejoice when your claws entrap a mouse;
    I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
    Pleased with his own art
    Neither hinders the other;
    Thus we live ever
    Without tedium and envy.
    Pangur, white Pangur,
    How happy we are,
    Alone together, Scholar and cat.

    Barber’s song, performed by Leontyne Price:

    As for Gerard, we all know that Olive is his Muse as well as his Editor.

    As for Big Al’s– where, oh where on that menu is that Phillies ballpark favorite, the Philly Cheese Steak? But I expect the Steak Sandwich with Fries and Bar B Q Sauce would taste almost as good.

    As for the Grace of Heaven, I have no doubt that St. Peter still goes fishing in order to feed the kitties who show up at his gate.

    • ThisIsNotNutella August 24, 2022, 4:13 PM

      inside every olive
      lurks a mehitabel

  • Bunny August 24, 2022, 1:36 PM

    Hey, don’t overthink it. Enjoy your burger.

  • tired dog August 24, 2022, 1:43 PM

    A burger joint with reading room…outstanding.

  • The Hairy Ape August 24, 2022, 3:00 PM

    Big Al’s is a construct of the white male patriarchy! (sarc)
    Ze bugs pod burger won’t be so tasty.
    Forward! Yes we can.

  • ghostsniper August 24, 2022, 3:16 PM

    Again, (sigh) I am unusual.
    When reading a book I can’t be distracted by anything, especially something as engaging as eating, especially worthwhile grub. I only read a real, solid book, maybe once or twice a year but when I do it is all consuming and it gets 100% of my attention.

    Even bodily functions take a back seat. I’ve waited so long to drain the lizard, while reading, that there have been times I’ve had to finally go but under severe duress of an extremely over maximized bladder. I always swear I’ll never wait that long again but I always do. My wife says I’m going to injure myself, but so far I have not.

    I’ve “felt” hummingbirds hover in real close, close enough I can feel their wings blowing on my hair, and not looked up to check em out.

    I choose books carefully and attack them vigorously. Last one, earlier this year, was “Airframe” by Michael Crichton. 352 pages of entertainment and learning. Highly recommend.

    So, if I’m reading a book and you park one of Al’s specials in front of me we’re gonna fight.
    Then we will dine.
    Then we will read.

    • Tom Hyland August 24, 2022, 9:45 PM

      Best thing I’ve read the past year or two was “Blood and Thunder” by Hampton Sides. Local Santa Fe writer. A biography, mostly, of Kit Carson, but the whole enchilada of what happened when Prez. Knox declared “Take America All the Way to the West Coast.” Mayhem ensued. It’s still ongoing. Fascinating read.

  • ThisIsNotNutella August 24, 2022, 4:21 PM

    Standard advice of any jobbing accountant up and down the Eastern Australian Seaboard is to do lots of due diligence and think very hard when buying a cash business like a burger joint or fish and chip chop in a busy location — all too often it’s a money-laundering operation and without the connections you’re not going to do nearly as well as the present owner. Or you’re going to find yourself in partnership with the Hell’s Angels, like it or no. So two sets of books should be taken as read.

    In East Asia it’s three sets of books at minimum. One for the state, one for the wife, one for yourself and your mistresses.

    • Hyland August 24, 2022, 9:40 PM

      Sounds like the Fillippines Formula. I really miss that place. Is it still there?

  • AbigailAdams August 26, 2022, 3:35 AM

    Hello Little Brother. And speaking of paper flowers in water, hmm? It’s time. Maybe not by your schedule, but it’s time. Stop procrastinating.

  • Gary Foster August 26, 2022, 9:04 AM

    Kierkegaard Made faith in God possible for me. His guidance has lasted thru Seminary and post ministry and too many years of doubt and personal turmoil. His book, “Purity of Heart is to will one thing” proved to be the spiritual medicine I needed. Linking Hegel to SK is like “Oh Look! A squirrel!” I’ve been a fundamentalist, and now a hybrid liberal. All the same, because of the work SK did I remain Christian in a much more profound sense than before. He helped me cut to the core minus the surrounding dross that had weighed me down. Drink deeply.

    • Vanderleun August 26, 2022, 10:21 AM

      Thank you for that affirmation, Gary.

  • Foo August 26, 2022, 1:31 PM

    Say grace and forgive

  • Up Yours August 28, 2022, 10:15 AM

    When you open the door & the Rottweiler hits that shield, it’s all easy head shots from there.