Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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On a family trip to Oregon with our four-year-old, we got to see the world through her eyes. It was her first view of a mountain, of a large city, of the Pacific Ocean.
It was also her first time eating at restaurants. Being of limited means, we usually ate from a cooler in the backseat on car trips. On this journey, however, we were celebrating, and we dined in cozy family restaurants along the way.
After our third or fourth meal out, our daughter couldn’t contain herself. “Everywhere we go, they bring us food!” she exclaimed. “They are so nice to us.”
In our daughter’s eyes, restaurant workers were the kindest people in the world, waiting to serve any stranger who came in.
Ithaca, New York
I wish I had never erased it, but I did. The voice-mail recording captured my dad at his best: happy, exuberant, and wanting to share his latest find. He spoke with delight about the oranges: how big and bright and juicy they were, the best he had ever tasted. He didn’t want me to miss out on them, and they were on sale, so I should hurry. I smiled at his almost childlike bliss over an ordinary fruit.
My dad was always sharing where to get the “best” of something to eat. He loved food and had often received criticism about his weight, but the carping had done nothing to stop him from overeating. I eventually joined in the chorus of people encouraging him to diet.
I loved my dad dearly, and I was challenged by him. He was a recovering alcoholic with bipolar disorder, his exuberance for life periodically giving way to depression. Growing up, I hadn’t known what he was going through, but now I was beginning to understand.
Even after being diagnosed with diabetes, my dad continued to eat the rich entrees and desserts at his favorite places. When I voiced my concerns, he said it was OK; his doctor kept upping his insulin. Then my dad suffered a stroke, and I realized that I needed to quit trying to fix him and just enjoy having him around.
The summer before he died, he came to see me in Newport, Oregon, a beautiful coastal town where I was doing fieldwork, and we ate out at many different cafes and restaurants, discovering the best seafood cioppino, the best bread pudding.
One afternoon I was waiting for my dad to arrive, and he was late, as usual. I was annoyed, but his excitement once we were together made me forget my irritation. He said he’d been delayed because he’d stopped for lunch in the coastal town of Yachats, where he’d had the most amazing dessert. He could not stop talking about it. He wanted us to go back there for dinner. When I told him I couldn’t — I had to work that night — I could see the disappointment in his face. He really wanted me to experience this dessert with him. It was the best he’d ever had.
So the next day we drove twenty miles to Yachats and found the restaurant. I remember how anxious my dad was for me to taste this dessert. He interrupted the waiter to ask if they still had it. They did. I can’t remember what the dish was called, only how delicious it was and how happy my dad was to be sharing it with me.
Connie W. Holloway
I moved to New York City in the 1980s and landed a job waiting tables right across the street from Lincoln Center, at a cavernous restaurant that could seat almost two hundred diners at once. The dreaded D section seemed a quarter mile from the kitchen.
I was great at the organizational side of waitressing but never very personable. I did not introduce myself to customers beyond a quick hello. I resented making small talk because I was not really a waitress. I was doing this only until I could get my artistic career off the ground. I longed to make my mark at Lincoln Center.
The restaurant’s menu was large and daunting. Because most of the customers were going to performances across the street later, there was no time for me to linger while people decided. I prodded orders out of diners by making firm suggestions. If the customers at a table could not make up their minds, I punished them by disappearing to take care of other, more decisive, patrons. I discovered that the more assertive my manner, the bigger the tip.
I did become a successful artist and finally had a play presented at Lincoln Center in 2011. I am now the perfect restaurant customer, ordering promptly and never leaving less than a 20 percent tip. But sometimes I miss waiting tables. As a waitress I was in charge. I commanded the sort of attention I can only dream of as an artist.
New York, New York
Every few years I visit Hofheim, the town in Germany where my mother grew up. German was my first language, and when I’m there, I feel at home. I walk through the old quarter, with its winding, uneven streets; its medieval houses leaning toward each other; its lace curtains in small windows. I go to the farmers’ market, the baker, the bookshop, the shoe store. I hear and speak the guttural language of my childhood. And I eat the food I love.
One of my favorite restaurants in town, Zum Türmchen, is located in a three-story, shingled tower that dates back to the fourteenth century. It serves delicious pfannkuchen, a hybrid of an omelet and a pancake. In warm weather families sit outside drinking beer, talking, and laughing while their children play in the creek that flows through the square.
If you read the plaque outside the restaurant, you’ll discover that the building served as a synagogue and social hall for Hofheim’s Jewish community from 1788 to 1938.
Seventy Jews lived in Hofheim in 1925 — 1 percent of the population. By 1933, when Hitler’s National Socialist Party rose to power, only thirty-four remained. The synagogue was ransacked in November 1938 on Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” when Nazi sympathizers burned and looted Jewish homes, businesses, and houses of worship. The remainder of the town’s Jewish population disappeared during the National Socialist period. Some were able to flee Germany. The rest perished in the Holocaust.
My husband is Jewish. As I sit in the early-summer sunshine with my glass of hefeweizen beer, I imagine what life would have been like for us here more than seventy-five years ago. The Nazi leadership debated what to do with “half-Jews” like our son and with the spouses of Jews. Both were often passed over for extermination, for fear of causing unrest in the general population. Decisions were made on a case-by-case basis, however, and some were deported to the east, where they were murdered.
There is no way for me to reconcile the two Hofheims: the one that existed under the Nazis, and the one I visit today. On the one hand, I think of my gentle, open-minded grandparents and the German relatives I love. On the other hand, the bleak statistics and photographs document for all time the atrocities that occurred right here where I enjoy my pfannkuchen. This restaurant is a symbol of human behavior at its best and its worst, a reminder that we are capable of love and acceptance and also cruelty and violence. Today my son orders an enormous ice-cream sundae for dessert. In the past he might have been pushed to the ground by his schoolmates and beaten.
In a corner of the town the National Socialists planted a linden tree in honor of Hitler. I wonder whether it still stands.
Anya K. Silver
When I was ten, my family’s favorite restaurant was Denny’s — not for the food, but because it was open twenty-four hours a day. We spent the night in our 1974 Chevrolet Blazer parked in the lot. The manager seemed not to notice, even when my sister and I would come in with our toothbrushes at bedtime and head straight for the restroom. During the afternoon my mother would sit with us at a booth in the back, order a bottomless mug of coffee, and help us with our homework.
Our other favorite dining spot was Stagnaro’s on the Santa Cruz fishing pier. My sister and I would get one Boston clam chowder to go while our father fished and set crab nets, the elephant seals barking below. The pier had sinks where we could wash dishes and get water for our dog. Sometimes we’d park there for the night, the restaurant’s red sign bright enough for my sister and me to read by. Around 2 AM, though, the police would shine flashlights on us, and we would be on our way, looking for another twenty-four-hour business.
On special occasions we ate at Eric’s, a small delicatessen where, for exactly five dollars, we could get four bagels with tomatoes, onions, cream cheese, pickles, and alfalfa sprouts, and a single coffee. Eric’s was warm and wood paneled and cheerful. Eating our bagels, we looked like all the other customers — no toothbrushes, no homework, just a family going out to eat.
It’s my first week in New York City, and I’ve just started my culinary-school internship at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. The chef, whom we call simply Chef, starts me off at the bottom, shadowing the prep team.
The prep workers — three Mexicans and a Dominican — are the backbone of the restaurant. I work alongside them for the first few weeks, and they tentatively accept me, a white woman, into their circle, inviting me to eat with them around the steel prep table. They converse rapidly in Spanish, and I smile and nod as if I understand.
Alfonso, from Mexico, is the designated pasta maker. He is quiet and barely acknowledges my presence. I see his fingers swiftly crafting the dough into various shapes, and I want to learn. When I ask if I can watch him make pasta, he looks slightly confused, then shrugs and says, “OK.” That is the extent of our first conversation.
With Chef’s approval, I spend a week learning to make cappelletti, cavatelli, gnocchetti, ravioli, and fettuccine. Alfonso and I start each day making dough from eggs, flour, water, and salt. It should be moist but not sticky; elastic but not tough. “Mas agua,” Alfonso says — more water — as he pinches the dough. He hands it to me to feel, and I try to commit the texture to memory.
Alfonso deftly transforms flat, circular pieces of dough into cappelletti — “little hats” in Italian. Within minutes he has made dozens, while I am still fumbling to produce one that looks right. Alfonso glances at my misshapen hats, smiles, and shakes his head. He demonstrates again and motions for me to keep trying. We work side by side in silence.
After a month I’m offered a position as a line cook at the pasta station, where I blanch Alfonso’s pastas and toss them with rich, velvety sauces. Although I now work at the opposite end of the kitchen from the prep guys, they remain my kitchen family and often come over to check up on me. Alfonso will always take a few minutes to help me get the pastas from the freezer before the customers arrive. As he lifts the ravioli down from the shelf, he jokingly calls me his novia — girlfriend.
I laugh. “Alfonso, no! Solamente amiga.” Only friends.
“OK, mami,” he says, and he hands me the tray of ravioli.
One day I come into the kitchen to find that the small fridge where I store all my prep from the day before has blown a fuse during the night. Everything in it must be thrown out, leaving me with very little prepared for the lunch rush. I run around like mad to prep what I need, but there’s still a lot to be done when the order tickets start coming in at noon.
It turns out to be one of the busiest lunches I’ve ever worked. At one point Chef calls an order for gazpacho, and I’m completely out. I frantically throw tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, shallots, olive oil, and sherry vinegar into the Vitamix and hope Chef won’t notice.
Of course he does, and he yells at me. My station, usually clean and organized, has devolved into chaos. As Chef comments loudly on the disaster, the tickets continue to arrive in an endless stream.
By the time the rush is almost over, I’m exhausted. I’ve burned my arm, and it’s starting to really hurt. Feeling like I’m about to cry, I ask the sous-chef to watch my station, and I walk briskly through the kitchen, avoiding the eyes of the other cooks.
In the restroom I lean against a wall and let the tears come.
When I emerge, Alfonso asks, “OK, mi amor?”
I attempt a smile, and he hands me some eyedrops.
A little later Alfonso and I clock out and walk to the subway together.
“Mucho trabajo,” he says. A lot of work.
“Sí,” I reply. I’m not sure if I can do it all again tomorrow.
I want to ask Alfonso to grab a beer with me, but I stop. What would we talk about? My Spanish consists of a few simple phrases, and his English is the same. Not wanting to spend time with him in silence, I say goodbye.
Tomorrow we’ll be back at work. He’ll make the pasta, and I’ll cook it. For a brief time we’ll be speaking the same language.
Elyse A. Bekins
New York, New York
In the late 1960s I taught English to middle-school students in Hoi An, Vietnam. Nearly every morning I would leave my house and walk to a cafe a couple of blocks from the school. On my way I’d pass the compound of the MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam). It was surrounded by a high masonry wall with shards of broken glass on top and concertina wire filling the adjacent street. A crackling voice made news announcements over loudspeakers at street corners. Vendors called out their wares in singsong voices. Dust permeated the air if it was the dry season, and mud oozed underfoot in the rainy season.
At the cafe I was an anomaly; women never ate there alone. As soon as Anh, the waiter, saw me coming, he would deposit a small cup of bitter black coffee at my table, then trot off, flip-flops flapping, to fetch my usual: a sunny-side-up egg with a hunk of French bread. The locals all ate pho, a delicious soup, but I clung to my traditional Western breakfast. The perfectly cooked egg sizzled on a tin plate that arrived at my table directly from the fire. A splash of fish sauce on my egg, and I would dig into one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever eaten.
Anh always took time to practice his English with me and laugh at my pitiful attempts to mimic the complex tones of Vietnamese. We joked as much as we could with our limited vocabularies. Vietnamese soldiers seated nearby often joined in.
About a month after I returned to the U.S., one of my former co-workers wrote to tell me that Anh had thrown two grenades into the cafe in the middle of breakfast, killing many Vietnamese soldiers.
When Vietnam veterans say they couldn’t tell friend from foe, I recall Anh, the perfect eggs, and the friendly banter we shared.
Dorothy B. Hopkins
It is 1964, the middle of a sweltering Georgia summer. On break after my first year of college, I am wearing an itchy white uniform and thick-soled white shoes to wait tables at a small-town restaurant. After a month the boss trusts me to run the cash register. He instructs me to hand over customers’ change with a cheery “Y’all come back now, y’hear?”
I make friends with another waitress, Joan, and with the kitchen crew, a rowdy bunch of teenagers who are hired and fired and hired again. They give me my first cigarette and tell off-color jokes in front of me. Though I consider them my friends, they are not allowed in the dining room because they are black.
My mom, my sister, and I moved to Georgia from Minnesota two years ago to join my dad, who had been transferred to Robins Air Force Base. Before arriving I had heard rumors about the Jim Crow South, but I’d thought them too outrageous to be true. They weren’t.
In July my boss assembles the wait-staff and tells us that some people from the NAACP — he drawls the letters with venom — will be coming in, and we are to make them feel as unwelcome as possible. If they order soft drinks, we should give them warm bottles of soda and make them pay extra for a glass of ice. Legally we must serve them, he says, but we don’t have to be nice doing it.
That afternoon two young black men in shirts and ties and two young black women wearing dresses enter the restaurant. Pinned to their chests are big buttons that read NAACP. They slide into a booth far from the door. I serve them their warm Cokes and guiltily bill them extra for the ice. They drink their sodas quietly and leave.
Later another group of African Americans comes in and eats. After they’ve left, Ann, who served them, refuses to touch their “filthy” plates. Joan volunteers to clear the table, and I help, making my first tentative stand for racial equality. Joan spots the generous ten-dollar tip (equal to seventy-five dollars today) and waves the bill under Ann’s nose: “How about their money? Want to touch that?” Ann walks away in a huff, and Joan and I split the tip.
Next the off-duty kitchen crew comes in, including a worker who was fired yesterday. They flop noisily into a booth and light cigarettes, laughing and chatting. I wait on them while my boss fumes nearby. As I ring up their tab, I say, “Y’all come back now.”
An hour later the boss takes me aside and tells me to finish my shift, collect my pay, and get out: I’m fired. When I ask why, he gives me an evasive answer. Joan says it’s because I waited on the kitchen guys. Not only that, I invited them back.
Sandra J. Bean
When I was working the late-evening shift at a hospital and living by myself, I formed the habit of eating dinner alone at restaurants before work.
One night, at a popular Italian place, I saw the hostess seat an elderly couple. The woman was in a wheelchair and appeared to have some degree of cognitive impairment, possibly from a stroke or dementia. Her husband made sure she was comfortable, spoke lovingly to her, and assisted her with eating. I had the sense that this was a special occasion for them, perhaps a birthday or an anniversary. I wished I had a partner who would show such affection for me, even under such challenging circumstances.
After I finished eating, I asked the server to bring me the couple’s check, too, though they had barely begun their meal. “And please,” I said, “don’t tell them anything about it until I’m gone.” He said he’d be delighted to keep my secret, and I paid both bills and left.
I felt good about what I’d done. I imagined the man was pleasantly surprised by a stranger’s generosity. Of course, it’s possible he was offended at the offer of charity, or that he thought I pitied them or had invaded their privacy. But in fact I was grateful to them. It gave me hope to know that such love does exist. For that I would have paid a lot more than the price of their dinner.
Mary Jane Janowski
I spent most of my twenties working in a restaurant that had a “farmers’ table.” Each morning the local cotton farmers and ranchers gathered there to eat breakfast and banter before work, along with politicians, businessmen, and government workers.
Most of us did not look forward to waiting on the farmers’ table, because the men made rude comments and left paltry tips. The worst offender was a man who always wanted his one scrambled egg with dry wheat toast in front of him within two minutes of his arrival, or he would demand to see the manager and disparage the server’s competence.
One Monday morning the farmers’ table seemed more subdued than usual. We learned that our least-favorite customer had suffered a stroke. He was in a local nursing facility, and no one knew when he might return. He had lost the ability to speak. The cook made a remark about karma.
A few months later the rude man returned to the restaurant, and we rushed to get his order filled while his buddies gave him a rollicking welcome. A little later he asked for all the servers to come to the farmers’ table. Not knowing what to expect, we approached with trepidation. In halting speech the man apologized to us for his past behavior. Once he had gotten past the frustration of not being able to speak, he said, he’d begun to listen more. He realized he had never really listened to people, only barked orders or made hurtful wisecracks. He shook all our hands and told us that from then on at breakfast we would see a changed man.
It is after midnight at one of those twenty-four-hour diners that smell of bacon grease and burnt toast. My family and I are silent. We need to talk about Uncle Keith, but we are unsure how to begin.
Earlier today Keith attempted suicide. We have just come from the hospital. “I’ll still be here tomorrow,” he said to us. “Get some food.” So here we are at the restaurant, wondering what, if anything, we can do for him.
Picking at my eggs and hash browns, I want to ask, Do you think he’ll try again? but the time doesn’t seem right.
My aunt breaks the silence by accidentally knocking over her mug. Coffee spills over the silverware and packets of sugar, and we all offer napkins, thankful to know exactly how to help.
I helped pay my college tuition by waitressing. It was immediately apparent that the job was about power: I was there to help the customer feel in charge. And customers often made a point of demonstrating their authority over me. Women might make me run after spoons, napkins, or water, while some male customers leered and even pinched my backside.
The first time I was pinched, I thought a glare would bring the man in line, but it only made the game more fun for him. Other waitresses said I didn’t have much choice. “Suck it up,” they told me.
One summer I worked for a swanky restaurant in Connecticut. The tips were bigger, but the power games were worse. Men in suits pinched my bottom while sitting across from their dates. I tried not to react when they smiled sadistically at me. I told the manager, who said that if I didn’t like it, there were plenty of other women who wanted to work there. He also advised me to act sexy if I wanted even bigger tips.
Eventually I learned to tell when the pinch was coming and avoid it. I even devised methods of getting revenge on the men who pinched me: For example, at the end of the meal, if the man ordered decaf, I would pour him a big mug of regular coffee. I loved to picture him up all night, tossing and turning, wondering why he couldn’t sleep.
By senior year I got a job flipping burgers at the student grill. The money wasn’t as good, so I had to work twice as many hours, but nobody touched me unless I wanted them to.
Madeline S. Diehl
Ann Arbor, Michigan
My wife and I enjoy going to see plays at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and a couple we’ve known for fifty years often drive up from Long Island to join us. We’re all in our eighties except my friend’s wife, who is in her early seventies.
Following the matinee show, we have dinner out. In all the years we’ve been doing this, we’ve not been to the same restaurant more than twice. We’ve just never found the perfect place for everyone. At this point we are likely to spend the rest of our lives looking.
My friend and I once taught in the same school and saw each other every day. Now, between seasons at the theater, we may not see each other for a long time. In these absences it seems we age faster than we think. At eighty-four I have received therapy for prostate cancer and surgery for colon cancer. My friend has Parkinson’s, and it’s advancing.
We have been to the theater twice this season, and on both occasions we went afterward to the same restaurant downtown, a tapas place where the owner treated us like long-lost family members, perhaps because we were the only ones there. On our second visit the owner remembered our drink orders from the first. We took our time examining the menu and selected something new. The owner recommended a wine that would go well with our food.
We sipped our drinks and talked at a corner table by the window. The eyes of the women twinkled in the candlelight while my friend’s searched the empty dining room, looking anxious. Maybe, like me, he wonders how many more such nights out we will have.
Mr. R. was an arrogant customer who always called ahead while parking his vintage Jaguar to make certain his drink — a Grey Goose Le Citron in a frozen martini glass with lemon — would be waiting at his table upon his arrival. He also insisted that his wife’s Montrachet be opened but not poured when she was seated.
Mr. R. often spoke of the New York City restaurant La Grenouille as if it were the center of the culinary universe. He talked of its impeccable food and service and how each table had its own unique floral arrangement. When a server in our restaurant would drop a piece of silverware, he would tell us that in the New York restaurants where he’d eaten, the server would have been fired for that.
I hated Mr. R., but he was good for at least three hundred dollars every time he dined with us, so I fawned over him appropriately. One day I was reading Bon Appétit magazine and came across a review of a book about La Grenouille. I bought the book for Mr. R. and sent it to him with a personal note, saying it had made me think of him and his wonderful stories of that fabulous restaurant.
The next time Mr. R. came in, he asked how I had come across the book, and I told him about the magazine article. Rather than thanking me, he said that was the difference between him and me: I read magazines about La Grenouille, and he actually ate there.
Allan G. Churchmack
My mother was a drunk who managed to alienate everyone who loved her. Eventually the rest of the family left, and it was just her and me. When I was seven, we moved from our beautiful home to an apartment directly behind the Chinese restaurant where we’d once gone every week as a family.
My mother was incapable of cooking meals and spent much of her time at bars around town. She ran a tab at each of them. I figured that if she could just sign the check for her booze, maybe I could sign the check for food.
I walked over to the Chinese restaurant, where the staff all knew me as “Sloppy Jane.” (After my parents separated, I had to do my own laundry, and I didn’t know how — or how often — to wash clothes. The name might sound mean, but I considered it a term of endearment.) As I entered the back door, the staff looked up from making won tons and smiled. I told Jimmy, the manager, that my mom was sick and I needed something to eat. Could I just sign the check, and my mom would pay the bill at the end of the month? Without hesitation Jimmy asked what I wanted, and I said two egg rolls and spare ribs.
For the next seven years that restaurant became my home away from home. During the week, as soon as I got off the school bus, I went to the restaurant and stayed until dark. On the weekends I was there from the moment the doors opened until late in the evening. I shared many a meal with my surrogate family, who taught me how to make authentic Chinese cuisine. I also learned values like pride, honesty, and humility from them.
It would have been easy for Jimmy to have called the authorities and had me put in a foster home. It would have been easy for them all just to say no and turn away. Instead they showed me unconditional love.
As for my mother, she never said a word; she just paid the tab.
When I was twenty-six, I worked as the head waitress at a coffee shop in my hometown. My live-in boyfriend at the time, David (never “Dave”), was the owner and chef. We ran the entire place by ourselves, six days a week, from 4:30 AM to 3:30 PM. Locals enjoyed the above-average (for a hole in the wall) food and friendly service. My dad was one of our regulars, coming in every morning for coffee and hash browns (extra crispy) and maybe a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich.
The shop was packed beyond the fire-code limit from seven to nine. David would be cooking thirty tickets at once while I dashed around taking orders, running food, clearing tables, and making coffee. During these moments tensions between David and me would sometimes flare up. Patrons would hear our bickering and probably laugh about it later.
One particular Sunday morning, David and I were coming down from a cocaine binge and not functioning at 100 percent. My dad stopped by for his usual, blissfully unaware of our drug-fueled evening the night before, even though it had taken place in the apartment we rented from him, just above his own. (He knew about the weed, which he sometimes accepted in lieu of our rent payment, but not the cocaine.)
That morning David lost control and began throwing pans and spatulas. He was mad because I had given him the wrong order, and the customer had already waited thirty minutes — unacceptable.
“You stupid fucking whore!” he screamed, waving a grill press. “How could you fuck up such a simple order?”
The conversations at the tables abruptly halted. Mortified, I stood at the coffee station with tears in my eyes. I glanced around at my friends and neighbors until my gaze landed on my father, and I silently pleaded with him to do something. But my dad just sat there, staring blankly, then returned to his conversation as if his daughter had not been humiliated in front of half the town.
With excitement my mother told me she had gone to a German restaurant the night before. It had a bakery, too, with real rye and pumpernickel and good white bread. She held up a golden braided loaf. “I felt like I was in Berlin,” she said with a sigh.
The Lincoln Del became an important part of my family’s life in Minnesota. Whenever we were homesick for our native Germany, we went there and ordered kohlrouladen (cabbage rolls), kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), or chicken soup with matzo balls that tasted like griessklösschen (dumplings). The Del was not a German restaurant, of course, but a Jewish deli.
As a college student, when I needed to get a job, I chose the Lincoln Del because the place had brought me such comfort. The food was prepared in an open kitchen, and the cooks pounded a bell every time they put a heaping platter onto the counter for pickup. Silverware crashed, the grill sizzled, and steam rose from giant pots of cabbage borscht and chicken soup. Patrons greeted each other with hugs and slapped shoulders, squeezed into booths together, and exclaimed over stylish outfits and new babies. Conversations that had started somewhere else continued over dinner. Mazel tovs were shouted, compliments given, and opinions proclaimed. There was often a competition to grab the tab.
At the Del I discovered that “German” words I’d been using all my life — like meshugga (crazy) — were actually Yiddish. I learned about the Yom Kippur practice of asking forgiveness. During Passover customers would remind me to serve them matzo instead of bread — but some would add, sotto voce, “If a dinner roll happens to fall into the basket, make sure it’s pumpernickel.”
One Saturday evening when the restaurant was buzzing, I stopped slicing the banana-cream pie and gazed out over the packed booths and tables. Thirty years after the collapse of the Third Reich and far from Germany, I’d found the sort of convivial, boisterous atmosphere that must have pervaded the Jewish shops, cafes, and restaurants before Hitler had come to power. Those businesses had been raided and looted, their patrons and proprietors rounded up and murdered in concentration camps.
I felt the crushing weight of my nation’s history.
In the spring of 1989 I flew to Philadelphia for a family reunion, and my brother-in-law Tommy picked me up at the airport in his brand-new custom van, which was fully equipped to handle his physical handicap: wheelchair lift, special gas and brake pedals, and so on. I climbed in, and he announced that he wanted to take me to his favorite downtown restaurant for lunch.
As we approached our destination, it became obvious that parking was going to be difficult, if not impossible. The only handicap space was occupied by a large black Cadillac with a Sons of Italy sticker on the rear window — and no handicap tag.
Tommy pulled up beside it and told me to go into the restaurant, walk to the back-corner table, and ask the guy with the gray hair if he would please move his car so that Tommy D. could park in the handicap space.
“Are you out of your mind?” I said. That car’s owner was obviously in the mob. I wasn’t going to ask him to move his vehicle.
Tommy assured me that everything would be OK; he did it all the time. “Just keep your hands where they can see them, and be polite.”
I suddenly wasn’t all that hungry, but I reluctantly slid out of the van and went inside.
As I approached the table in the back, six pairs of eyes drilled holes through me. I stammered an apology and said, “Would you please move your car so that Tommy D. can have the handicap parking space?”
The gray-haired man gave an almost imperceptible nod, and one of his associates got up and walked out of the restaurant. I followed and watched him climb into the Cadillac, pull out, and double-park two car lengths away.
As soon as Tommy and I were seated, a couple of beers arrived, compliments of the men at the back table.
After we finished our meal, we asked for the check, and the waitress informed us that it had been taken care of — again, by our friends in the back.
When we left, the same man followed us out and returned the Cadillac to the handicap spot.
“Tommy,” I said, “do they always do that?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “That’s why it’s my favorite restaurant.”
San Diego, California
After brain surgery my husband entered a rehab facility, and I spent every day there with him. I would have spent nights, too, but I had to walk and feed our dogs. So, after a day with a spouse who no longer knew my name, I would stop at a restaurant near the edge of town to fill my belly before going home to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again the next day.
After a while the restaurant staff began seating me in my preferred spot and bringing my beverage before I requested it. I looked forward to ending my day in this place where people took care of me.
When my husband passed away, the grief was more overwhelming than I’d imagined. My appetite vanished, but I knew I had to eat. So I continued going to the restaurant near the edge of town for their homemade soups and salads. The waitress saw my tears dripping into my bowl and sat down to offer words of condolence. For weeks the staff were the only people who said my name. The restaurant provided the comforting noise and chatter I so badly needed after being by myself all day.
It’s been eighteen months, and I’m still coming back to that restaurant.
Mason K Brown
Forest Grove, Oregon