Jewish World Review April 11, 2002 / 30 Nisan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

They found him | I heard the first, disturbing word on a Monday evening. Gus Artemakis, 68, who was Mister Gus to a lot of us in downtown Little Rock, was missing. And missed. Because whatever diner he was running at the time -- the latest was the D&D on Main Street -- he was a fixture and assurance.

Gus was as much a part of downtown as the grimy facades of the old buildings. Like them, he had character. And the sight of him offered the same hope of renewal. Gus always seemed to be around, coming back whenever downtown did. He never gave up.

Cigarette drooping out of the corner of his mouth, apron slung across his slim frame, he could have stepped out from behind the counter of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks." He'd run a number of different diners, but they were all the same. The kind of place meant for hungry newspapermen and other disreputables, footsore walkers, cops on a break and the occasional young stockbroker who had got lost and found himself wandering past empty storefronts. In short, those of us who haunt the part of downtown Little Rock that doesn't yet know it's being redeveloped.

For all of us, Gus' spacious, well-lighted place, a former store with big glass show windows, was an honest refuge -- somewhere that both a bum and the board of health could dine with assurance most of the time.

You might wander into an occasional shouting match between Gus and the help, but those Gus liked, he really liked. And helped.

With a sidelong glance from back in the galley, Mister Gus would take you in, size you up and, with a rustle of pots and pans, fill you up. He may not have always known what you were going to order, but he knew what you should order. He seemed even older and wiser than his 68 years, maybe because he'd spent it in so many places.

For the cognoscenti, there was more at D&D than the usual blue-plate special made for local tastes, and the chili dogs with cheese -- and more chili and cheese.

Mister Gus could also whip you up a monster red-green-white Greek salad that slopped over the edges of a big plate and made you think you were back in Salonika. (For the knowledgeable, the feta cheese was always crumbled, of course, rather than sliced. The very thought of the latter abomination, like that of a martini shaken rather than stirred, jarred.)

A Greek sailor home from the sea, Mister Gus had made port in Little Rock for years. When he went missing, he took our appetite with him. Missing, too, was his 1994 Chevrolet Cavalier, license plate 870 FDP. They found it abandoned in North Little Rock. The body was in the trunk. Oh, God, no. Not Gus. But it was. He'd been stabbed to death. When the cops jimmied open the lock, the knife was still in his back.

That does it. I've been thinking about getting a nice, well-oiled .45, the kind we had in the Army that fits in your hand, squarish but comfortable and solid, complete with ammo, permit, familiarization-and-instruction, gun lock and the whole legal works. I've put it off too long. The Second Amendment never seemed so relevant.

All of us downtown were hoping against hope that this grizzled old wanderer, who divided his time between here and Chicago, had just decided over the weekend to take off somewhere, maybe on I-40 to Albuquerque or points unknown. It would have been just like him, with spring coming.

But even so, we feared the worst. And so did his neighbors, relatives and the cops. Mister Gus had never failed to open the cafe on time when he was in town, and he didn't show that Monday morning. It was a bad sign. The reality turned out to be worse.

The cops now have arrested a suspect, a dishwasher Gus had hired who'd left town the day after the murder. There will be a trial, but none of it will matter so much as Gus' death. And the way he died. And the now empty storefront on Main, with the flowers outside and the cards posted to the window.

I'll try to hold on to the feeling of hungry anticipation the D&D always stirred when you walked into it. You knew you'd be taken care of, left alone, not rushed, and filled up. But it won't be easy to keep the good thought. Gus has been killed; the rest of us have been assaulted.

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