Originally Published in March 5, 1979 Issue of Sports Illustrated
The sign in front of the narrow, decrepit restaurant with the dirty windows and the eight wobbly stools at the counter says AL’S LUNCH. But Al is dead. Everyone calls it Helen’s. Helen Charo, 60, will never die; legends don’t. Her place hard by the railroad tracks in Bethlehem, Pa. is a classic greasy spoon, so classic, critics say, that it’s the kind of joint that gives greasy spoons a bad reputation. Nonsense. Helen’s is one of the world’s alltime great eateries. The menu on the wall offers sandwiches called Rat, Gigaroni, Audrey and Weber. Nobody knows what they are. Doesn’t matter. You simply order what you want, and Helen fixes what she wants you to have.
A BLT on rye, please, Helen.
“Here’s a hamburger on a bun.”
An ice cream, please, Helen.
“Naw, here’s what you get.” She slaps down a piece of stale chocolate candy.
Helen’s is a hangout for cops, garagemen, folks who need a rest on their way to the next street corner and Lehigh University athletes past and present. At the moment, it’s especially home for Lehigh senior Mark Lieberman, the best college wrestler in the country.
“I love Helen,” says Lieberman, who will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in 2020.
“Mark’s a good little boy,” says Helen. Over Lieberman’s shoulder, in a sea of wrestling pictures on the wall, is a sign: IT’S 11 P.M. DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW YOU’RE HERE?
To understand Lieberman, it’s helpful to understand his affection for Helen and her restaurant. After all, the 23-year-old Lieberman was born to talent and brains and good looks and country clubs and prep school. Helen was born to, well, hardscrabble living and a lot of faith in mankind. The athletes get no checks for meals in Helen’s, and she disregards the prices posted on the wall. You pay what you want. “This is a home,” says Helen. “You don’t charge in a home. Mark and all the others do plenty for me just by coming here and making me happy.”
Yet, for all their differences, you scratch Mark or Helen and underneath is hard-core work ethic and a thorough understanding of adversity. Says Mark of his wrestling, “If it were easy, I wouldn’t consider it worth doing.” Both work very hard—Helen’s is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week and for 7½ hours on Sunday. Both trust people—there’s always money lying on Helen’s counter for telephone calls. Both know what’s important in life—she closes for all Lehigh athletic events. Ergo, it’s no surprise that Helen and Mark are simpatico. In the final analysis, Helen represents a lot of what Lieberman admires most, and aspires to.