I went back in time yesterday. Just for a little while—long enough for breakfast.
The scene was a favorite hangout in my old neighborhood, a deli that used to be one of a type easily found all over town. You know the kind I mean: Speckled vinyl tabletops with chrome trim, shiny booths with a crack here and there in the deep upholstery, a full glass sugar shaker on every table, perched next to matching glass salt and pepper shakers. Not so many years ago these joints bustled all over any city or even small town, just pick a street corner. Now, in Nashville’s exploding metro area, you have to look hard and know where they remain, if at all. With the flush of migration toward the South enhanced in the post-COVID world, a population swelled by tourism accompanied by a tsunami of commercial investment, our community has been overrun by chain restaurant “concepts” (whatever that means) most of them based elsewhere. Expensive, gourmet selections only, menus on QR codes…la di dah, la di dah.
The local joints, the kind where you know the wait staff, where the favorites stay consistent and never disappoint, where someone actually acts happy you came—those are getting few and far between. I am lucky enough to know the best one in town for breakfast, and there I decamped yesterday, in search a dose of the familiar and the comfortable. And I was hungry.
Sure enough, the corned-beef hash and eggs (cooked perfectly, actually as ordered) and warm, crisp rye toast (still hot when served) set me right and adjusted my attitude after a long week. And—remember this part?—they bring your coffee to the table, and pour it into a white ceramic cup. No massive countertop coffee urns for self-service if you dare, an acre away from your table. If you are looking for the exotically roasted, this place is not for you. They pour the old standard, black-magic fluid that will stand your hair on end and rev you like a Grand Prix driver on the final lap. Even more miraculous, they come by the table to pour your refill without waiting to be asked, using one of those glass carafes with a wide plastic pour spout. Like I said, it’s a trip back in time.
While the hash has no equal in town—I think it’s their corned beef—the real soul magic here is served up by my old friend, the waitress whose station I always request. She’s been pouring my refills, remembering to crisp up my bacon, and checking on my grandkids for more years than I can recall. Every time I return and request her tables, not as often as when I lived just around the corner, I stiffen my back against the eventual probability that she will someday retire, her feet or her back will give out, and my breakfast will never be the same. Yesterday was not that day, and my heart warmed to hear the hostess confirm we were heading to an open booth in her station.
Her name is Jamie, and her age I have never known or inquired. Her blonde ponytail now features a couple of grey streaks, but otherwise, she has not changed in all the years I’ve known her—thick bangs, bright blue eyes, petite frame, black work costume, ubiquitous smile. Yesterday she approached the table from behind, beginning her customary, bright, “How are you this morning..” before she realized the woman in the straw fedora hiding my Saturday hair was familiar. “It’s YOU!” she exclaimed, reaching into the booth for a big hug.
How are you? I asked, and earned her unwavering answer, the blue eyes as wide as ever: “I’m wonderful.” Over the years, over the clunking of countless warm plates of hash or French toast and a steady rhythm of those coffee refills, I’ve heard bits and pieces of Jamie’s own story. And like the story of anyone who can see reality with both eyes open, there are lots of un-wonderful bits. There was the unexpected death of her sister, and an unemployment stint for her long-time partner, referred to as “my old man.” More recently, we wondered if the restaurant would survive the COVID restrictions. Staff hours were cut, service hours reduced, takeout promoted. She and the “old man” moved still further away from town to cheaper quarters, hanging on and scraping by like so many millions as those nightmare months stretched on.
And yet, she is wonderful. Day in and day out, year after year, shift after countless shift, cheerful customers and jerks, on her tired feet, punching in orders and juggling plates and hot pitchers and looking after other people. On the second coffee refill this visit, she paraded the steaming glass pot to the table and executed a little two-stepping dance maneuver in the aisle before she stopped to pour. The breakfast traffic having slowed a bit, she plopped into the booth across from me and asked for more news of my grandkids, who often came with me to breakfast when I lived in the neighborhood. I produced a photo showing the older of the two, at 12 now taller than his grandmother. “When did they get so BIG? You need to bring them back to see me soon.” I played her a brief video of the kids delivering a toast at their mother’s recent wedding, and she turned toward me, her eyes filling with tears. And then she was gone again. Time to pour refills at another booth.
The great writer Margaret Renkl, a fellow Nashvillian, delivered a commencement speech earlier this year in which she repeated this line: “The world is beautiful, and most people are good.” At a time when one is so often consumed with doubt and fear about the first, perhaps we can more easily believe it if we can open our eyes for the second. Along with great hash and hot coffee, Jamie always provides a reminder to watch for the good people, the ones who shed kindness with every dance step in the most ordinary, innocuous places.
I know where to find one, when I need to. She’s still out there, and she can’t be the only one. She’ll plunk down that white ceramic cup and bring all the steaming refills I want. And if you are lucky, like me, you might get to take your coffee with a dance.