The Penguin, the little drive-in that once gave Plaza Midwood its soul, has filed for bankruptcy. A short scanning of its Chapter 11 filing reveals a lot of money owed, between $100,000 and $500,000, including $140,000 to the IRS, and more to individuals, lawyers, landlords and utility companies. The assets, the filing says, are less than $50,000. It's not clear yet, at least not from the filing, as to what will ultimately happen to the restaurant, or the logo, or the spinning sign, or the building.
I wrote a lengthy piece about the controversy in the April 2011 edition of this magazine. The short version is that the Ballentine family ran it since 1954, but in 2000, brought in Jimmy King and Brian Rowe to take it over. The Ballentines became landlords, and The Penguin became the star of Plaza Midwood, even attracting Guy Fieri and a Food Network TV crew. In 2010, there was talk about franchising. Accusations flew. King and Rowe were kicked out, and Lisa Ballentine, the daughter of the original owner, took over. Who's at fault for the rift depends on which side you talk to.
At the time the story came out in print, everybody had gone their separate ways. Jimmy King and Brian Rowe had moved up the street to The Diamond restaurant, which has since expanded and put more seating outside. The Penguin kept plodding along, but at a glance, the crowds just weren't what they were when King and Rowe ran the place. Martin Sprock, who wanted to franchise the place and became co-owner when Lisa Ballentine took over, has since left the restaurant.
I'll have more to come on this, but for now, here's a bit of the story that never made it into the magazine. I talked to a guy who had The Penguin logo tattooed on his foot. It was originally going to be the lead of the story, but for a number of reasons, I took it out. I'd put this in a blog before, but it's worth re-posting again today:
Somewhere out there, a guy is walking around with a tattoo of a penguin on his left foot.
To be specific, it’s not just a penguin, it’s The Penguin. The one from the drive-in. The one from the spinning sign at the corner of Commonwealth and Thomas. The Bird. Actually, “Da Bird.” It’s written right there, in ink, right next to the toes.
I find the foot and the guy it belongs to on Facebook. His name is Lee Causey, and he looks scruffy. “You got a tattoo of The Penguin?” I say in a message. “I’m fascinated by this.”
Within a half hour Lee writes back, saying yes, that‘s his foot and he loves the tattoo, and the guys from The Penguin saved his life when he had nowhere else to go, and that they might not know it and hey, wait, let me type up the whole story and send it to you right now.
He does. Immediately. He fires off two pages of sadness and angst and depression as if he’d been waiting for years for someone to come along and ask him to write about this logo that takes up the entirety of his left foot.
Lee went to the Penguin with his dad when he was a kid (“when it was a real shithole”) and went on a first date there when he got out of the Air Force. Then his life turned into a blur of break-ups and broken hearts and evictions by roommates and drinking and more drinking and thoughts of suicide and staring at pistols and the whole time, he hung out at The Penguin, hovering over tallboys of Bud and telling his story. And people listened. And Lee kept going back.
And one night, Lee was at The Penguin and got too drunk and said he shouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel but he didn’t give a fuck anymore anyway, and a cop pulled him over on The Plaza because his tags were expired. He blew a .09 into the breathalyzer, just barely over the legal limit, but the cop said he’d let him go if he got a ride. He called his parents first. He called The Penguin second.
After that, Lee sat back and thought about all of it and realized that the only people who were there for him when he was having such a shitty time were the people who had been listening to him at the Penguin. So he walked into Ace one night in January 2010 and got the tattoo.
Lee left for grad school in Indiana last August, just before the story of The Penguin erupted. The news stung. The people there were more than just servers and bartenders. They were his friends.
He’s still going through some shit. He just lost his woman. For good this time, he thinks. So what now? When things get rough, what do you cling to? What makes you feel better? Who do you want to talk to?
Lee doesn’t need to answer all that. Just look at his foot.