I'll Take Those Memories to Go

05/24/2011 11:14 am ET | Updated Jul 24, 2011

I walk into the joint and I'm shocked to see that it's turned into one of those coffee shops heavy on the raw wood, where pale unshaven guys who look as if they've just given blood tap away on their laptops for hours at a time.

There are loads of coffees to choose from on the blackboard, most of them ending in "cino." A quiet place, a place for whisperers. The silence is excruciating.

I can't believe this has happened here, after nearly two years of construction and whitewashed windows. The guy behind the counter jolts me from my thoughts by asking me what I want.

"Actually," I reply, "I want this place to be the diner it used to be."

The guy nods. "Yeah, I heard there was a diner here before."

Oh my goodness, was there ever a diner here.

"You are standing on sacred ground," I assure him. "Sacred, sacred ground."

And anybody who ever had a meal at Joe Junior's on Sixth Avenue in the Village will back me up.

My friend Charles Lachman is the least nostalgic person I've ever known, and even he gets misty when the subject is Joe Junior's.

"Greatest pancakes ever," he says wistfully.

I never had the pancakes, but looking back honestly on the cuisine I can tell you that the burgers and salads were amazing, the vegetables and the spaghetti were usually overcooked and the gravy was sometimes a little too thick.

But the humor was always delicious.

As with any passionate enterprise, the making of money seemed to be a by-product at Joe Junior's. To the naked eye, that bunch of Greeks -- cousins, brothers, whatever -- appeared to be running the place for their own amusement.

Joe Junior's put the village in Greenwich Village: a bunch of formica-topped tables, leather booths with the splits covered by electrical tape and a counter with creaky swivel stools. You felt like you were in a small town, even though people like Sarah Jessica Parker and Gilbert Gottfried were likely to be in the next booth.

You didn't feel as if you'd walked into a restaurant. You felt as if you'd sneaked into somebody's kitchen, where continuous arguments were in progress.

The arguments were a kind of theater. Nobody really got mad at anybody. They just enjoyed being loud, the way roosters like to crow.

I knew them by their first names. I don't think they ever knew my name at all. It didn't matter. They knew me. A nod from one of those Greeks was worth a hug from anybody else.

Big-hearted people. On cold winter nights, the staff gave meals away to beggars.

"We got a rule here," I was told by one of the waiters. "Never give 'em money, but always give 'em food." He shrugged. "Ayy, what the hell, we'd be throwin' it out anyway."

Full of food, I could sit back in a booth at JJ's with a cup of coffee and forget just about everything that was keeping me up nights.

I took my son there for the first time when he was five years old. He ordered a black and white malted (a "Michael Jackson," as they called it at JJ's) and he was hooked. I'm pretty sure JJ's is where he learned that people can yell at each other and still like each other.

We kept going, at least once a week. Joe Junior's was the continuous thread through his adolescence, his high school years, his parents' divorce.

It looked as if it would go on forever, but the thread snapped suddenly two years ago when the place closed down over a dispute with the landlord.

That was it. Joe Junior's was gone, after more than three delightful decades.

I'm not one of those hand-wringers who moans and groans over The Way Things Used To Be.

I hate mementos and trophies, and if every school I ever attended suddenly sank into the ocean you would not catch me crying.

But this is different. As I walked out of that brand-new coffee shop that now stands where Joe Junior's stood, it hit me that it's not really the diner I'm missing at all. It's not the burgers, or the fries, or the black and whites.

It's the laughter. Man oh man, do I miss the laughter.

Charlie Carillo's latest novel is One Hit Wonder. His website is He's a producer for the TV show Inside Edition.