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PHOTO: Chris Shields

The Food Palace at 4 AM

After last call in Saratoga Springs, many scenes converge on one early-morning grub joint

By Chet Hardin

Compton’s Restaurant opens its doors at 3 AM, and in we pour, squinting against the sobering fluorescent light, hungry after our night out in Saratoga Springs. We find booths in the crowded dining room. We are minutes away from bacon and eggs, French fries and burgers, and, most important, coffee. A man thumbs slowly through a newspaper with absurd seriousness. Others are laughing and flirting.

Earlier on a Friday night during track season in Saratoga Springs, Caroline Street is mobbed; I weave through the crowd with M. We push our way through Gaffney’s bar to the patio to find a table in the middle of a come-to-life Banana Republic ad on a bender. Girls pose with cigarettes. Boys feign authority. Shirt collars are flipped up. Baby-faced law students chomp on stubby cigars and trade quips about strippers and stocks. We are in the thrall of dull, white youth-culture, and I am in special need of a cigarette.

We drink fast. M is in flip-flops, and her feet are chilly. I tell her about Clancy’s, and how I have always wanted to check it out—how it lingers at the edge of the bar scene.

“It’s townie,” I tell her. “It looks rough. Sometimes motorcycles sit out front.”

Her eyes light up—it sounds to her like a little piece of Troy in the Spa City.

The jukebox is cycling through “Mean Mr. Mustard” on its way to the Band when we walk in and M cozies up to the bar. The crowd has the easiness of regulars, and there isn’t a polo shirt to be seen.

I try to get the attention of the bartender, a hyperactive manchild who is frantically covering the bar, slapping drinks down and grabbing tips, stuffing them into a pail. He stops in front of us, crosses himself, kissing his fingers and takes a shot. I order two Buds and he lifts up his shirt, rubbing his stomach. He plucks straws one at a time from their holder, tossing them over his shoulder, with glasses crooked, and smiles like the devil at M.

The spirit grabs him, and he launches into his impresario bartender moves, tossing glasses and spinning bottles, but falls short when he fails to catch a glass and it shatters at the feet of his coworker. She steps over the shards. Nonplussed, the bartender puckers his lips, closes his eyes, and sticks his face in front of hers. How can she resist? She kisses him, and he swoons like a cartoon character.

“What’s your name?” I ask him.

“You’re never going to believe it,” he says, leaning forward in dramatic fashion.

“Stephen King. And you know what’s even better? I work for Tom Clancy!” He laughs, slapping his hand on the bar and spins in a circle, crosses himself and kisses his fingers.

A group of young professionals file in and sit at the end of the bar. They are all tall, tan, and are from outside of Boston. Stephen King doesn’t look happy. He slaps two more beers down in front of M and I, on the house, he says, because we are “on his side.”

The tallest young professional, Ben, who breaks out into air-guitar on his leg to Led Zeppelin and “Fortunate Son,” sidles up next to M and asks us where we are from. He asks if we are honeymooning, and M. starts to laugh. The idea of honeymooning in Saratoga Springs is odd to her. No, she tells him, we aren’t honeymooning. Stephen King opens a beer for himself and sets it on the bar; one of Ben’s friends grabs it and empties it before King even notices.

“You are beautiful,” Ben tells M, and asks if she will buy him a drink. Which she does.

The ratio has shifted from regulars to vacationers, so we abandon King. Last I hear him, he is muttering, “I love my job, I love my job, I live my job.”

We hurry to Compton’s, grab a booth and order our food. This is the destination to curb those after- drinking hunger pangs. People I saw from Gaffney’s and Clancy’s, and all over Caroline Street, are cram med together in this friendly, loud, chaotic diner. They are packed in and salivating. The servers are dervishes, nearly running from the tables to the kitchen. There are no pleasantries, no conversation. The kitchen is ready for us; our food seems to come out in 20 seconds. Forget coffee refills—the door is filled with people who want your table.

“Turn ’em and burn ’em,” M says.

Later that morning, the pace will slow down, our waitress tells me. The hardcore crowd will fall away. Then, a little after sunrise, the Sunday-morning crowd, the churchgoers, and, she says, the lonely old people will fill the booths.

Outside, I see a guy with a flipped-up collar who had been drinking at Gaffney’s. I bum a cigarette from him and listen as he tells me all about his night.

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