No, I had never been to this place before. I had never been to this restaurant that shares my age, but which has seen far more history unfold before its plate glass windows than my eyes will ever see in a lifetime.
My kids have each been there dozens of times, frequenting the place throughout high school, usually before or after a show in a nearby club. But I didn’t know that until recently.
No, I had never been there before to see the unchanged countertops and booths and stools and the sign that reads, “Tipping Permitted…” for the kind of service from times gone by. I had never tasted the homemade food it’s owners, and now the owners’ kids, have been dishing up for so long.
Of course I always knew about this place. I have seen it on the news quite regularly when a quintessential city backdrop is needed, or when politicians need to connect with the city’s residents, or when celebrities need to experience something authentic, or whenever a man/woman-on-the-street opinion needs to be counted.
No, I had never been to this place. Because when this restaurant and I were both youngsters, our paths were never destined to cross. This was the “other” side of town, the separate side from my side. And yet, I know our respective sides mirrored each other’s in many ways: family gatherings on weekends; technicolor movies watched one weekend and watched again the next in cavernous, art-deco-style theaters; church services gone to with parents and Sunday school sometimes skipped; school sports played and won and lost.
All that separated us back then was color–the shades and tones of our skin–and a centuries-long history.
This place I had never been to has survived every kind of upheaval that would have leveled 99.9 percent of other restaurants. As the neighborhood declined and other businesses boarded up and called it quits, this place persevered. As city improvements and massive infrastructure projects blocked its doors, it kept going. As a new generation found the charm of its neighborhood streets and row houses and character, it flourished once again.
But I have often wondered about this place I had never been to, this bastion located in the midst of what is described as an “emerging” corridor of the city. How does this truly independent business–one that can’t help but feel the proximity of newly opened corporate coffee shops and chain ice cream parlors–maintain its character, keep its reality?
How does it, how can it, retain its soul?
I was on a long, long walk through the city on the first brilliant, warm spring day since winter roared back with a vengeance a month ago. I was starving for breakfast, and this place I had never been to was still serving it. I was right there, in the neighborhood, standing outside this place I’d heard so much about, but never been to. So I went in.
Unformed sausage patties hissed on the griddle. Orders for grits and pancakes and eggs every which way were plated and served to the mishmash of patrons. A couple of cops were in the back room, finishing their coffee. Two dread-locked teenagers, clearly at the end of their evening on this bright morning, hunkered down in a front booth. Regulars, and the sons and daughters and grandsons and grandaughters of all the regulars who had come and gone before them, perched on stools or at tables.
I cringed when a couple sporting Burberry jackets strolled in with their designer-togged infant. That’s it, I figured. I knew it! I was too late–probably by five years–to get to know this place, how it really is. Was.
And when the baby began to wail inconsolably, one of the servers simply cranked up the music on the jukebox. Even a hungry newborn has respect for Motown crooners of an era gone by, and she soon settled down, settled in. Everyone did. And I realized that although the faces and backgrounds and personal pasts of all of the patrons here on this morning were vastly different, we didn’t make this place any different from what it has always been.
At least I don’t think so. I don’t really know, for sure. I had never been here before.
I couldn’t finish my plate of eggs-over-medium, house-made roast beef hash, and cream-laden grits. I couldn’t even finish half of it. I tried, because it was all so good.
As I sipped my coffee, my favorite Earth, Wind, and Fire song came on the jukebox. A grandfather mouthed the words to his granddaughter, who giggled back at him. Almost everyone else moved their shoulders and nodded their heads to keep time with the beat:
And we will live together,
until the twelfth of never
our voices will ring forever,
Maybe nothing had changed here. Maybe everything has.