Grob: Discussing life over lunch with Atticus Finch

By James Grob,

I found myself staring at the wall at the Bluebird Diner in Iowa City on Tuesday.

If you’ve never been, you must.

My late lunch was the basic cheeseburger with fries, and you’ve got to love a place that garnishes a cheeseburger with a green olive.

The food and service were good, and I found it especially charming when my waitress said to me, “We don’t know yet what the lunch specials are today. If the cook tells us, I’ll let you know.”

James Grob
James Grob

It’s the theme that makes the local, “mom-and-pop” place memorable. It’s just an old-fashioned style diner, but they’ve really gone wild with the whole “Bluebird” thing — there are references to birds everywhere.

Even my check, instead of something like “Thank you for your business,” said, “May all your fowl days turn pheasant.”

There were nine photos hanging on the wall at which I found myself staring, all famous people, characters or items that had the namesake of a kind of bird.

For instance, there was a photo of basketball star Larry “Bird,” a photo of NFL star Lynn “Swann,” literary characters such as Atticus “Finch” from To Kill A Mockingbird and “Robin” from Batman.

There was a picture of the musical group “The Eagles” and even a photo of the Millennium “Falcon,” the fastest and coolest spaceship in the Star Wars universe, or any universe, as far as I’m concerned.

And there I sat, savoring my burger in Iowa City, fascinated by both the genius and the simplicity involved with putting a bunch of bird-related photos on a wall. I loved it. At that moment, whoever decided to decorate that restaurant wall like that was one of my favorite people in the world.

I’ve taken many trips to Iowa City in my life, and it’s hard to find a restaurant there that isn’t good. I’ve dined at most of them. I have Iowa Hawkeye black-and-gold blood. I’m an Iowa alum, as is my sister and her husband, and both of my adult daughters. My wife went to Iowa State, so we’re in a mixed marriage, but that’s a whole other column.

So most of my trips to Iowa City have been for positive reasons. Moving the kids, buying them dinner, graduations, going to a Hawkeye game, visiting old friends who still live there, etc.

A couple of years ago, those trips to Iowa City became very negative ones.

That’s when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, and those trips to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics became awful, and far too frequent.

As I stared at the wall with those photos of the people with bird names on Tuesday, I thought about that. I thought about how much I hated Iowa City, just a few months ago. Iowa City was the place where I was once told, by a very talented surgeon, that it was worse than she thought.

It didn’t look good, she said. There’s a guy who might be able to fix this, so there’s a chance, but the next few months of my life were going to be hell.

So going to Iowa City was like going to hell. And it was my wife who usually drove me to that hell, and sat by my side, and I was ashamed.

This was not what we had signed up for when we were married, I thought. I felt like it was my fault that she had to go through this hell with me.

On Tuesday, I was nine months removed from that hell. After the most aggressive surgery, a long and painful recovery, and several months of aggressive chemotherapy, I was found to be free of cancer last July. Thanks to the good Lord above and a handful of brilliant doctors and amazing nurses, this part of the hell was over.

Tuesday was the quarterly check-up, and I’m happy to say, all was clear. There will be more checking in three months. They call it “surveillance.”

So a private celebration, all alone at the Bluebird Diner, was in order. I wasn’t completely by myself, of course. Atticus Finch, Meadowlark Lemon, and Ladybird Johnson, among others, were all there with me.

I took a lot of pleasure, looking at those bird-named people on the wall. I took a lot of joy, munching on that green olive they had stuck on top of my cheeseburger.

I laughed when the waitress told me she didn’t know what the special was.

All of it, I thought. All of it is special to me.