Chipped Beef on Toast
© Copyright 2020 by Hannah Huber
Some of the most important people in my life I’ve met at the most unexpected places. These people, although some of them have since passed away, have taught me that choosing a less conventional way of living leads to freedom.
It was the first day of my summer job between junior and senior year of college, working behind the front desk of the Gettysburg Hotel. I was given a maroon red Civil War style dress to wear over my t-shirt and jeans so that I looked like I just stepped out of 1863 to the guests checking in. The hotel lobby looked out over the square of Gettysburg, which was a crossroads for all traffic passing through the town of 8,000 people. Gettysburg welcomed one million tourists each year so there were plenty of summer jobs available for college kids like me, the hotel being ideal as I lived just behind it so the commute was a 30 second walk up the alley. You could see the hotel parking garage from my backyard.
The Gettysburg Hotel always had a prominent place in the town and in my heart. Some of my favorite childhood memories stem from visiting the lobby where there was a player piano and Serendipity Ice Cream shop where they put a gumball at the bottom of your cone. My dad would treat me to a cone after visiting the Square Record shop in the basement where store owner Ginny would give me wooden nickels. Next door to the hotel lobby was a small cafe called Faber’s, where I would sit on my grandfather Charlie’s lap as he had breakfast with friends. I would have picnics on the upper level of the parking garage with my friend Mary growing up – it was our hangout. Behind the hotel is the train station where President Abraham Lincoln arrived to give his famous Gettysburg Address after the Civil War. The hotel burned down in 1983 after which it underwent a big renovation and was transformed to the style it had when I worked there in 2001. The decor consisted of paisley print on upholstery and the walls were covered with a cream-colored satin-like wallpaper. There were large pieces of dark brown Colonial style furniture throughout the lobby and coffee tables next to lounge chairs. The soundtrack to Killer Angels, a movie about the Civil War that came out in 1993 with Martin Sheen and Jeff Daniels, would play endlessly as background music.
The first day on the job I noticed an old man sitting by the large window of the lobby in one of the paisley chairs reading the local newspaper. At one point he came up to the front desk to chat with me and my front desk colleague Rebecca. He would stand off to the side as we checked in guests which I found strange. When he went back to his chair I asked Rebecca who it was and she told me, “That’s Mr. McCarthy. He lives in the hotel. He rents a room for $75 per night.” A brilliant idea I thought! I had never met anyone before who chose to live in a hotel. I didn’t think it was an option.
Mr. McCarthy was an enigma. During the next few weeks I had the opportunity to observe his daily routine. He would arrive down in the lobby around 9:30am wearing the same outfit each day, a light blue button up shirt with a beige canvas safari type vest, dark blue navy tweed pants, and black Merrell walking shoes. Mr. McCarthy was not very tall, but he wasn’t short either, just in between. He was mostly bald on the top of his head and had white hair, at least what was left of it. He was in his early seventies at the time. He wore glasses that were a bit shaded. He was never clean shaven but had a bit of scruff and he was missing a tooth which made his smile look like a mischievous boy about to use his slingshot.
The first thing he did when he came down in the morning was to help himself to a big paper cup of coffee from the dispenser in the lobby. After greeting us and standing by the front desk to check out the action while sipping his coffee he would head out to breakfast in the town. He would alternate eating breakfast either at the Lincoln Diner or at Ernie’s Texas Lunch, both exactly one block down from the hotel. Nine times out of ten he would order the chipped beef gravy over toast with a side of homefries. After spending a good hour or more at one of these local eateries he would come back to the hotel lobby to talk to us about what he ate. He would then read the local newspaper in his chair. In the afternoon he usually took a long walk through town, down Steinwehr Avenue where a lot of the tourist shops were or to Kennie’s supermarket to pick up his Stouffers microwave meal for the evening which he would heat up in the staff kitchen. He loved making himself useful by going to get us a milkshake at the malt shop around the corner.
Mr. McCarthy was a permanent fixture of the Gettysburg Hotel. Over the weeks I had more down time to get to know him. He didn’t share much about his past except for travel stories from Africa, the Middle East and Europe which he took through organized Tauck tours. He was a huge fan and would show me the Tauck catalogs he received. At one point he even lived in Saudi Arabia.
I once had to deliver something to his room and remember peering into a rather dark space with two double beds, one in which he slept and the other piled with boxes. The TV was on and there were more boxes in the corners of the room.
Mr. McCarthy never mentioned family. He never mentioned being married to anyone nor having any children. He did speak frequently about the Doyles, a family that checked in with him from time to time from Philadelphia. Mr. McCarthy was born in Gettysburg but moved to the Philadelphia area when he was 10. He met a man named Martin Doyle in the Army who became like a brother to him and ever since The Doyles were the only family he had. I never met them, nor did I ever see them come to visit him at the hotel, but they were the only people in this life that he mentioned.
Mr. McCarthy worked various jobs throughout his life including the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and RCA in New York City. He told me about how he took the Amtrak train each day from Philadelphia to work in Manhattan. I remember thinking what a long commute that must have been, an hour and a half to two hours each way.
We became friends that summer. I considered him to be my adopted grandfather in a sense. I would visit Mr. McCarthy each time I was back in town from college. I would sit across from him in the lobby in the paisley chairs - always unannounced because I knew I could always find him there and if he wasn’t there he was at the Lincoln Diner. At one point I even tried to match him with my 85 year old grandmother. I was surprised that she was actually into the idea. I had her come into the lobby to meet him one day. She sat with him for a while and they had friendly banter but it didn’t go much further than that. He did ask about her each time afterwards which I would relay to her and she would laugh.
Over the next couple of years we kept in touch with the occasional letter or card. One Christmas Day I had the sudden urge to go visit him together with my mom thinking how lonely that must be to be in the hotel on Christmas day with no family. We sat with him in the lobby and chatted. He was so touched he walked down the alley to our home to deliver chocolates the next day.
After college I moved to DC and two years later to Amsterdam so my visits to Mr. McCarthy were less frequent. In December of 2010, almost one year after giving birth to my first child, my mom sent me Mr. McCarthy’s obituary in the Gettysburg Times which read, “Ed never committed to living in a home, for there was always somewhere to visit or adventure to seek. Instead, he preferred to live at various hotels and inns, most notably the Hopkinson House in Philadelphia, the Pine Crest Inn in Tryon, N.C., and the Gettysburg Hotel. He will be missed by the extended Doyle family in Philadelphia, and all of the friends he made in his travels and life — especially those in Gettysburg.” I’m grateful to have known him and to him for teaching me that you don’t need to commit to living in a home to be at home in the world. There’s nothing wrong with moving around, seeking adventure - you can still build in your own routine while safeguarding your freedom.