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. "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.
It's no surprise, either, that the academically gifted Lieberman feels very much at home at academically respected Lehigh, where his double major is international relations and accounting. "Drugs were never in here and fraternities were never out," he says of his school. "It has always been an old-fashioned booze-and-broads kind of school and always will." For Lieberman, a good Catholic boy, that qualifies as a grossly randy comment. In truth, he seldom can be seen at a college spot like Your Mother's Bloomers, which is only a block from the two-family house that he owns. "I've got those entrepreneurial instincts," he says of his house, "and with a little capital base, you can open new doors." But on those rare occasions when he does go to the saloon, he's uncomfortable. "It's guilt," he says. "I get there and spend all my time wondering if any of the guys I have to wrestle are out having a few beers." He always leaves early. "I know that if I'm not studying, I should be wrestling, and if I'm not wrestling, I should be studying. What's hard about that?"
It's an attitude that seems to be working. Lieberman has not lost a college wrestling match since March 1977, when he was whipped in the finals of the NCAA tournament by Oklahoma's Rod Kilgore. He has won 42 in a row since then, including last year's 177-pound NCAA championship. He is favored to retain his title later this month in Ames, Iowa, even though he is substantially better at the more wide-open Olympic freestyle wrestling than at the collegiate brand. Of Lieberman's six collegiate losses—vs. 80 career wins—four came when he was a freshman. After winning the 1978 NCAA, AAU and U.S. Wrestling Federation championships, he was named the No. 1 amateur wrestler in the country.