Tag Archive for: old friends

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.


As high school reunions go, our 45th was pretty darn good fun.  A core group of stalwarts who stayed in my hometown have been great about planning these gatherings regularly, and hats off to all of them for excellent planning and hospitality.  As a regular reveler at these affairs, I can testify that after you attend a few you begin to anticipate some basic, recurring fundamentals.

There will be those who looked exactly the same, and those who are utterly unrecognizable.  (You can only hope to be categorized as the former, but who knows?  The mirror is a tricky partygoer.)  There are always surprises with those who journey from long distances, especially characters who you wouldn’t have recalled giving a rip about high school. Inevitably, there are poignant absences among classmates who live a stone’s throw away but don’t show, due to life’s heartbreaking difficulties. As the decades progress, conversations at these soirees migrate from career arcs and notable achievements (I try to leave my envy hat at home, but in our crowd, it’s a tough one to shed) to the tallies that matter more in late midlife:  Headcounts of grandchildren, losses of parents, and retirement travel plans.

On the relationship and behavior scorecard, there’s always one who you wouldn’t have expected to get plastered so early in the evening; this time, a svelte athlete, perhaps too thin to hold the liquor, or too dedicated to sport to know how to imbibe responsibly. There’s going to be someone you wish, at an awkward moment strangely reminiscent of teen angst that should have dissipated a half-century ago, would remember you.  And as surely as bourbon flows from Kentucky, there will be at least one attendee you’d desperately prefer to forget, or just as frantically hope has forgotten you.   (And possibly even think: If he pats my shoulder or rubs my back one more time, I’m going to shriek something that my mother would describe as “most unattractive.”)

And if you are one of the lucky ones, as I have been these 4.5 decades, you have a steady friend with whom to attend and navigate these choppy waters as a team.  My best high-school pal, Jane, and I have attended nearly all of these together, still being the best of buddies after all these years. Facing the music together adds immeasurably to the side-splitting moments and helps to assuage the others.  Even better, we’ve got a circle of additional friends from the old gang who keep in touch and generally turn up, so for us it really can feel like old times.

As much fun as it was to catch up with everyone, and to gab about people we hadn’t really known well in high school but thoroughly enjoyed seeing—the reunion that mattered most to me was the smaller, quieter one that followed.

The following morning, Jane and I drove the short ride to a tiny town less than an hour east, in Central Kentucky, to visit my 88-year-old mother and take her to lunch.  It was to be the first time they had seen each other in person in more than 30 years.  What a long litany of changes on both sides in between meetings—marriages, divorce, children, death and widowhood, cancer, unemployment.  It’s been a life saga no one could have chronicled when Jane and I were bouncy teenagers, spending as much time in each other’s homes as we did in our own, growing to love each other’s parents as extended family, the kind you could count on to lend an ear or a 10-spot for food after the game, maybe even provide your first approved cocktail in the safe environment of home.  When her mother’s health began failing three years ago, I was determined to get in a good visit while time still allowed. Other losses had taught me that nothing prepares the heart for loss more profoundly than the chance to say anything that needs to be said, while we can still say it.  While we didn’t discuss it in those terms, perhaps Jane felt the same, this trip. My mother in many ways is holding her own, but the last two years have brought serious bumps, and who can forecast the time and seasons to be given to an 88-year-old?

Timing, as fate would have it, was not great.  Mom moved just two days before our visit to a beautiful new home with all the help she needs, but moving is a tough gig for anyone.  Jane and I were prepared; we discussed it and agreed we would roll with whatever we encountered on arrival. A preview phone call from my brother, followed by a text, forewarned us that Mom was not having a good day.

When we arrived, Jane thoughtfully asked if I wanted to go in first, just in case. I found the main entrance and was preparing to search Mom out, but there she was, waiting for us at the door, dressed in bright Sunday best, jewelry on, nails painted, hair fixed.

Leaning carefully her walker as I approached, she accepted my kiss on the cheek, but without preamble for me, demanded, “Where’s Jane?

So, I went and fetched her. And then stood back, out of the way of the bear hug that went on forever, with the tears on both sets of cheeks, and watched as the past and the future melded into one warm, glowing arc.