Staring at the Cherries

an Eau Claire eatery’s mundanely meaningful decor

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

Always, I’d find myself staring at it. A repeating pattern of dots, quietly crawling down the wall. As wallpaper from the 1980s goes, it was subtle. Each dot on the wall, each link in the pattern was actually a small picture of fruit, drawn in the style of an 1800’s botanical field guide. It wasn’t ornate, but it was vintagey.

I liked the cherries the best.

Every so often there’d be a pair of cherries, their stems sticking up, just barely touching each other. And they were all I cared about. Was it their color, or their texture?  Was it the plump curve of the fruit or the delicate flex of the stems?

Nope. If you squinted your eyes, it looked just like a kickass jeep or a dune buggy or something. One of those awesome, open-topped, huge-tired all terrain vehicles you’d see a character from CHiPs driving on their day off. It was like a super cool Tonka truck on a shelf at Shopko. I couldn’t look away.

But remember, this pair of cherries I re-imagined into a manly, gas-guzzling truck was only about a half-inch wide. Just one dot in a repeating pattern of dots that were actually different kinds of fruit, sprawling across some tacky old wallpaper.

I was a pre-adolescent boy. If I’d tried harder, I’m sure the pineapple would’ve turned into a hand grenade and the apricot would’ve transformed into the mighty dinosaur-shaped Transformer, Grimlock.

This was the wallpaper you found in the front dining room of a west side Eau Claire eatery called The Brass Gavel. Later on, it was called The Breadbox. There were other names after that (and before and maybe in between) but I can’t remember them. It was basically a diner, but not a shiny, 1950s retro diner with a blazing chrome jukebox, bulging red vinyl seats, and waitresses on roller skates. Just a diner with consistent, no-nonsense food and a total lack of zany decor. It was un-intimidating. My parents took us out to dinner there back in the mid- to late-80s.

That particular space has also been home to a laundromat and a hair salon, and probably some other businesses, but I doubt it’ll ever be a restaurant again. I think my parents liked it because the place was never too crowded, and maybe they had an OK fish fry for a while. Whatever the reason, we ate there often enough for me to get familiar with the wallpaper.

Was it fun? Well, I was young and at a restaurant that did not sell chicken nuggets accompanied by a plastic Matchbox car knockoff driven by the Hamburglar, so no, I kind of hated it. I just remember the wallpaper. And over 25 years later, I still remember how much I really liked it.

I can barely recall the rest of the fruit pattern, so I guess it didn’t trigger anything for me. But jeez, I was a pre-adolescent boy. If I’d only tried a little harder, I’m sure the pineapple would’ve turned into a hand grenade and the apricot would’ve transformed into the mighty dinosaur-shaped Transformer, Grimlock.*

I’m betting a lot of commercial interior design is geared around getting people’s minds to stop doing that. I’m sure places like Chili’s contract a whole team of dining experience professionals who’ve developed multiple style guides aimed at preventing your imagination from doing much of anything on its own. And there’s got to be a chapter titled “Cultivating Visual Fuzz.” With so many wacky tchotchkes bolted to the walls, your mind can wonder a bit, but never linger, never forming its own excitement. 

So as boring as our trips to The Brass Gavel may have been (no offense, Mom and Dad, and thanks for the free food), I suppose I should feel lucky. As plenty of child psychologists who have done actual research will tell you, “boredom” is basically a lost art for countless American kids. They’re too busy. They don’t have enough free time to let their minds just be and take in the world on their own terms.

You have to make room for that stuff. But it’s not just kids – I think adults should do it, too. At home, outside, or even at a restaurant. Just look around a bit. You might turn cherries into monster trucks. You might conjure up some joy from almost nothing at all.


* Did you catch that? A picture of an apricot transforming into a toy robot that in turn transforms into a viscous, metal Tyrannosaurus Rex. How has your mind not imploded?

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