When I learned last June that Snuffy’s on Cleveland Avenue in St. Paul would be closing that July, my heart sank. The news was too bad to be true, believed, and above all accepted.
For my wife and me, Snuffy’s had become more than just another burger and malt shop. We adopted it as “our place,” and among serving staff and managers, we’d become known as “that couple.”
My wife and I met at Snuffy’s and, for the past three decades, every Sunday prior to Valentine’s Day, we would visit to celebrate.
It all started on February 11, 1991—a sunny winter morning—walking on Cleveland, when on the spur of the moment I decided to visit Russian Village Deli and its owner, a Ukrainian émigré named Larik. As I entered the deli (which two years later would become part of Snuffy's), I had no idea that visit would change my life forever, and that the place itself would take on such significance in my life for the next 30 years.
Just as Larik and I were immersed in a deep conversation about Central European politics, the door swung open and a tall, dark-haired woman walked in. I rolled my eyes in a gesture of enthusiastic appreciation of her beauty and much to my surprise, Larik proceeded to introduce us: “Peter, this is Tatiana. She is Russian and she has lived here since 1989. Tatiana, this is Peter. He is Polish. He came to Minnesota in 1980. Talk to each other.”
Once Larik broke the ice, our conversation unfolded smoothly. We found ourselves covering topics ranging from Russian versus Belgian ballet and working in academia, to somewhat more predictable subjects like Polish-Russian relations and, equally predictable, how new immigrants cope with Minnesota’s weather.
Suddenly the world stood still and it felt like there was nobody else in the world but just the two of us… so much so that, after an hour of this, Larik suggested we sit down and served us sandwiches with chai. After the second hour of conversation, Tatiana and I exchanged phone numbers.
The rest is proverbial history.
When Russian Village closed down at the end of 1993, Snuffy’s expanded into the former deli’s space, which meant that “our table” was saved and we could keep coming back. Every Sunday before Valentine’s, we’ve returned to Snuffy’s to celebrate the day of our meeting—rather than the Hallmark holiday itself—with onion rings, BLTs, fries, and more. Indeed, we have done so for 28 years now!
On one occasion a few years ago, a young Snuffy’s server talked to us and upon learning that we had been coming to Snuffy's (at that point) for 25 years, he cried out: “My God, this is longer than my entire life because I am 19!”
There was, however, one secret related to Russian Village/Snuffy’s that’d I never shared with my wife… until about six years ago.
When Russian Village Deli went out of business, I concluded the place was so important in our life that I needed to get the store’s sign for us. At the time, I did not have a clue as to what exactly we would do with it (putting it in the living room was not even remotely a possibility), but none of that mattered. As a romantic Polish guy, I had to have it. I had to get it for us. I had to save the memory of our first, miraculous encounter.
Then, just as I figured out how to go about this daunting task, the sign disappeared.
I was crushed and, needless to say, I kept to myself my futile effort to get the sign. However, around 2013, I unintentionally mentioned something to Tatiana about my failure to acquire the sign, at which point she cried out: “I also tried to get that sign behind your back.”
It turned out that Tatiana was thinking along the same lines as I did but she elected to follow a much more, uhm, “direct” approach. To be precise, she made one call: She contacted a Russian friend and asked him to bring tools and a ladder, and the two proceeded to try to unscrew the sign.
Alas, the screws were so rusty that they wouldn’t budge.
Like a true Russian romantic, Tatiana never told me about her attempts to acquire the sign for us.
In 1997, unable to get our respective local priests to marry us in an ecumenical ceremony, Tatiana and I were married at a Russian Orthodox church in Paris, on Bastille Day. This meant that that night we watched spectacular Parisian fireworks—which we agreed were orchestrated in our honor. Who else can say that?
Two years ago, on our 20th wedding anniversary, we went back to Paris and obviously headed to the church where we got married and where they keep a meticulous record of our wedding ceremony. Upon seeing us for the first time in 20 years, the priest who had married us remarked with genuine surprise: “How come you are still together?”
Indeed, over the past 28 years, we have had our share of wonderful ups as well as pretty deep downs, but we stayed married and two places have remained special for us: Paris and … Snuffy’s.
Last June, I was lecturing in Poland when I heard that Snuffy’s would be closing. Website after website confirmed the sad news. I immediately Skyped my wife and both of us grew nostalgic and sad, realizing that when we went to Snuffy’s last February 10, we did so for the very last time.
As in an attempt to contradict cruel reality, Tatiana and I went back to Snuffy’s one last time—on July 14, 2019. This time, we did not celebrate our first meeting but our 22nd wedding anniversary.
Christina, one of the friendly servers, greeted us with a big smile. She had been worried that perhaps we did not hear about the imminent closing and feared that we might come to Snuffy's next February only to find it closed. Not surprisingly, she was both very happy and relieved to see us one more time.
As always, we had our onion rings, fries, and fish while Christina took souvenir photos of us. After that, my wife got me a Snuffy’s T-shirt and we took our time to say our goodbyes to Snuffy’s as well as to the servers.
But the best was yet to come.
I wanted Tatiana to remember that very last visit at Snuffy’s not with sadness but with joy comparable to that she experienced during our first encounter. Moreover, I knew very well what to do because only one thing was missing in the Polish-Russian jigsaw puzzle called our marriage: an engagement ring.
For a variety of reasons (a subject for another story), back in 1997, Tatiana did not get the diamond ring from me when I popped the question. She was hoping to get it but didn’t and she pointed it out many times after we got married. On July 14, her dream would finally come true: I gave her the ring. She was overjoyed, as was I watching her display the well overdue ring.
Today, Tatiana and I keep our fingers crossed that whatever replaces Snuffy’s will choose to keep our table, even if they were to use it for shoe repair. Should they do that, they can count on having two visitors every mid-February for decades to come. We’ll bring our own food.
Today, Tatiana and Peter will participate in a group marriage ceremony at the Government Building in downtown Minneapolis. This time the state of Minnesota will certify their 29-year commitment.