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A Story: It Didn’t Seem Possible That I Would Fall In Love Again…

by Paul Semendinger

July 13, 2021

***

I like to write fiction. I’m told that my novel Scattering the Ashes is pretty good.

Today, I decided to get creative and tell a fable, if you will, about the 2021 Yankees.

(This story had a vastly different ending prior to the ninth inning on Sunday).

***

I’d always go to the same small café. It was nice and comfortable. I knew everyone there. And they knew me. Sometimes there are places where we think we need to be. Or where we absolutely need to be.

There are places in our lives that become part of us. One in the same.

This was one of those places.

I’d been going there for a long long time. The café had a rich history, but recently hadn’t been of quite the same quality. There was a newer owner that seemed to cut back on some important things while spending big on others. His priorities seemed a little off. HIs father had owned the place and spared no expense for all the luxuries. The father had even remodeled the original building and then built a brand new café right across the street from the original one.

The new owner, as I said, just didn’t seem to have the same vision. He’s spend big on some things and then provide cruddy paper towels in the rest rooms. The utensils weren’t of the same quality. So much of the place had a cheap feeling about it – like they were cutting corners.

But then they spent on some items that didn’t make much sense. The new chandelier was sensational, but it wasn’t really needed and, for whatever reason, didn’t always work. Last year, as I recall, for most of the year it wasn’t even turned on. Various electricians would come in to look at it, but no one could make it work correctly. Someone told me that it had once been the centerpiece of a fancy place in Florida and that they just couldn’t resist adding it to this place. It was nice. But it didn’t fit and, most often, it didn’t work.

They also had a very expensive grill. Man, could that thing cook food. The problem was that the other aspects of the kitchen were wanting. You’d never quite know what you’d get. They experimented with trying to fix-up formerly broken down equipment from other establishments while at the same time trying untested newer models. This all resulted in a situation where the burger itself might be good, but with the roll and the fries having a lot of be desired.

Sometimes it all worked.

Other times not.

The food, the atmosphere, all of it, wasn’t always great. But I loved it there. This was my place. I visited virtually every day from spring to the fall when the season ended and they closed shop until the next year.

Oh, how I loved spring. That was the time when it seemed that everything with the place would be great again. This year, though, I had doubts and I quickly grew especially frustrated with the whole place. The new waiters and waitresses got orders wrong, they delivered the wrong food to the wrong tables, and they didn’t seem to care. Where once, there was a sense of quick and efficient service, this year, it seemed slow and tedious. You got what you got. They didn’t seem to care.

The manager of the place, I couldn’t figure him out. He was always reading books about how to run a good business. He seemed, also, to have a ton of advisers. But, he often seemed to make bad choices, if he made a choice at all. Other times, I’d just see him staring off into the distance blowing bubbles with his gum. It was strange. When I’d ask him about the poor service, he’d make excuses and say that the good days were coming. “Got to give them credit,” he’d say. “They are trying.”

I wanted to stop going there, but, for whatever reason, whenever they’d open the doors, I’d find myself back at my same seat asking for the same things and hoping, just hoping, that this time it would be better.

I told my friends how this was the top place in the late 1990s and that in the late 1970s it was a sensation. It won all sorts of awards. They told me, “It was different back then.” They’d also say, “That was a long time ago… even the 90s.”

Many times, when my meal was so unsatisfactory that I got up I left, I swore that I wouldn’t be back. “I’m done with this place, “ I would utter as I’d leave.

But the next day I’d be back.

I always came back.

And then something happened, just last weekend, that changed a lot of my thinking about that old café. It started, just started, mind you, to remind me of the place I fell in love with all those decades ago. And it happened quite suddenly.

Recently, the night chef, the guy who closes the establishment after the afternoon guy leaves, has been a disaster. Things have been over-cooked, under-cooked, soggy, sometimes not even cooked at all. It’s been gross. Last Saturday night, in an unprecedented and expected move, the bubble gum blowing manager allowed the afternoon guy to stay through until closing. The items served that evening were the best I’ve had in a long time – probably years. It was a late night sensation. The afternoon guy stayed until closing and shut the place down with a spectacular flourish.

“See,” a friend said, “closing time doesn’t have to be a question. It doesn’t have to be bad.”

This reminded me of the old times. The better times.

I replied that I just loved it that the manager was running the place in a way that made more sense. If that old griller doesn’t have it right now, they shouldn’t use him. No one wants to feel sick after eating here and staying up that late.

I began to believe that the manager really cared about this place.

I saw fewer bubblegum bubbles as well.

They also had a waiter, a good guy, larger than life in many ways, whom everyone loved. For the last few years though, he’d be out more often than he’d be in. People began to wonder. The answers we got were always the same, “He just needed some time. He’ll be back soon.” He had been carrying the team, for years, and the manager said he needed to manage the load better. (I’d never heard that before.) But soon, the “sometimes” turned into weeks – and even months that he’d be out In some recent years, we hardly even saw the guy.

And that just wasn’t good. It’s a better place when he’s there.

This year, he has mostly been there. And also, on Saturday night, I saw a different level of enthusiasm from him. Not only has he been waiting tables in the ways he used to, but he also started to show some fire and energy and exuberance.

A few years ago, our waiter, the great one, lost the Most Valuable Waiter Award to a guy at a rival establishment on the other side of the city. That guy was beloved by all the eateries for a while, but he seemed sneaky and dishonest for whatever reason. Once, when he should have been standing proud, he cowered and held his shirt tightly closed after delivering a table full of onion rings, craft beers, fries, sliders, hot dogs, mozzarella sticks, and more – all without glancing at his notepad. How he kept all of that in his head, how he got the entire order correctly served to each person- no one knew, but some suspected an intricate system of banging utensils. Others said he wore a small microphone in his ear – or something like that. He used to always walk around with his shirt open, but that night he securely held it closed as if he didn’t want anyone to see the wire (if there even was one). It sure was suspicious.

On Saturday night, our waiter delivered an amazing order of his own and as he closed it out, in a mocking gesture, he too held his shirt closed – as if to send a message to the little guy. When asked about it, our waiter smiled. It was a knowing smile. He said, “It just gets a little chilly in here sometimes.”

We knew what he was doing and we loved him for it.

It seems as if the place is ready to see better days again. There’s a different spirit in the air. I hear that some new help might also be coming. Good people, I am told.

The manager seems to be in charge, finally. The whole crew, they seem to be coming together. All seems well.

Make no mistake, I’ll still come, even if they serve up slop. I just can’t not go there.

But it feels different.

For the first time in a long time I will be showing up expecting some great food, great service, and a lot of happy times. I am, once again, falling in love with this place.

It didn’t seem possible that I could fall so in love with this café again. The new times are starting to feel like the old times. The spirit is coming back.

It’s the best!

***

Postscript –

Maybe not. That little waiter, the guy from the other part of town. He showed up on Sunday and he was on fire. The late night chef wasn’t there, nor the afternoon guy who had done such a great job on Saturday. Instead, the manager seemed to be trying others in that critical spot – one guy who had never worked the night shift, and then a guy who was over tired because they’d asked him to cook again and again and again. We all saw what would happen, we knew it would, but we kept saying, “No, no, it can’t.”

Sometimes in a crisis, we lie to ourselves.

Well, the little guy came in. He tore the place apart. He basically punched our great waiter in the nose. He took the orders, delivered them with style and in a different way, but with a style that wowed all who were there.

Even me, I guy who had no use for that little guy was impressed (in spite of myself). I didn’t think he could do this again.

But he did.

And then he took off his shirt and walked proudly out the front door as we sat in shocked disbelief and awe as the despair and sadness that were sure to follow settled over us all.

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