Break Dancing in Nice
I was a sailor in the US Navy in 1984, stationed aboard the USS America (CV-66) which was home ported in Norfolk, VA. We were deployed on a six month cruise at the time of this story.
After a rigorous and trying tour of duty in the Indian Ocean and North Arabian Sea which had cost us both aircraft and lives lost, we passed back through the ditch (Suez Canal) and made for Naples, Italy.
We concluded a very short port visit there and then sailed for another “spin” around the eastern Mediterranean. These exercises maintained the required “military presence” that influenced diplomacy and brokered deals beyond the visage of the public. Finishing whatever the real purpose of that exercise was, we were finally ready for the destination that this story is about; Nice, France, by way of Monaco.
Aircraft carriers are too large to dock pier side at most port facilities, and it was considered bad planning to put your primary warship in a “compromised” position in a foreign port. So, you “drop the hook” (sailor speak for park them at anchor) close enough to ferry the crew to the land, but in deep enough water to be able to get underway without the delay of having to maneuver through narrow channels.
The anchorage at Monaco was quite close and afforded a lovely view of the city, the castle, and the Monte Carlo casino. Their harbor held many very expensive yachts belonging to the rich and famous from all over the world.
Our close proximity also allowed Princess Stephanie to ride around the ship on her personal watercraft, topless, and drive the sailors crazy who had duty and couldn’t leave the ship. She had a great time teasing the American sailors and made multiple circuits around the huge vessel wearing only tiny bikini bottoms, sunglasses, and a beaming smile. The Princess was definitely a sailor’s idea of the perfect goodwill ambassador!
The Monaco port call was unusually long at nine days and there are multiple stories to be told, but only one takes us to Nice, France. Like many of the stories I tell, it is complicated and winds around itself as it is revealed.
My friends and I had originally planned to go to Cannes on the train, maybe even on to Toulon. That city (Toulon) was where one of our small escort ships had docked many times, and the crew told stories about how wonderful it was.
We were as flexible in our destination, as we were resolved to get away from the port city where 5,000+ sailors were making their presence known. I had done a tour (8 hour shift) as a Shore Patrol supervisor the previous night and I was definitely ready to be in a different city. Americans are brash and rude in general as guests in foreign lands, but sailors work hard at earning their reputation as ugly Americans.
Having gotten a few hours sleep after being relieved from my watch, I joined the others in line to get off of the ship. On a vessel carrying so many men getting ashore from anchorage is a much longer process than you might imagine, sometimes taking hours from getting into line until your feet hit dry land.
Once ashore, our journey took us to the Monaco train station, where everything is neat and organized and everyone is in a hurry. As we found out, French trains are the exact opposite of the Italian ones. Not only are they clean, but they are extremely punctual, running to the second. French train conductors will not tolerate any delay; if you were three steps away when the second hand on their watch hits 12, they would shut the door in your face. That exacting precision by the train system is how we ended up in Nice.
Two of our party went to the restroom (never go anywhere alone!) and were just late enough returning to have the train doors close in front of them. Our plan should we get separated, was to go to the next station and get off and wait for our friends to arrive; which was precisely what we did.
You would think that we would be mad because of the inconvenience, right? Wrong, we were as happy as can be! Considering just such a problem in our discussions while waiting in line to get off of the ship, we had reached a deal that whoever caused such a delay would be required to buy the beer for the others that night. Hurray for punctual trains!
When we got to the next stop, which was Nice, we got off of the train to wait. We knew that we had exactly 30 minutes to kill, so we decided to walk around the immediate area.
Nice was much friendlier than Monaco already, and we had only just stepped away from the train station. People would say hello to us and everyone returned our greetings. It was great to be away from the impact that so many sailors made on an area.
By the time our mates arrived we were sold on Nice and quickly convinced them to stay there. It wasn’t very hard to do really; I just mentioned that women sunbathed topless all along the beach there. Americans are so easy to amuse.
It was getting late so we made our way to a hotel that was close to the beach (priorities you know) but not on the expensive boardwalk, and had vacancies. The proprietor was leery of allowing six Americans to stay in his hotel, having heard horror stories of property destruction and debauchery by our sailors in other ports.
I wish that I could say that the stories he heard were fabricated, but the sad truth was that they were based largely on fact. Our smiling faces and sincere reassurances that we were not “like that,” plus (mostly) the hard currency that we offered for three rooms, made our case. He did require us to go to the local bank and exchange our U.S. dollars for French francs to pay him though, as he was afraid of the exchange rate and possibly losing money.
The next morning we woke to knocks on our door, which was the maid bringing us continental breakfasts. For Americans who traditionally eat such massive amounts of food at breakfast, the European version of the morning repast can be quite shocking.
Those “continental breakfasts” were puny little excuses for food all wrapped up in a cloth inside of a basket. In the basket were two croissants and two muffins, with two little pats of butter and some jam. Also on the tray were a little glass of juice and cup of coffee for each of us.
One friend said, “I don’t know why they bothered to tease us, if they weren’t going to feed us.” My roommate asked me if I was going to eat, and I said I would drink my juice and coffee. He didn’t hesitate for a second and scarfed down the bread, barely taking time to remove the little paper cup thing from the muffin.
We all met up in the lobby as planned and one of the guys asked the desk clerk where the best beach for “girl watching” was. The poor man looked at us kind of funny as he tried to process American English into French in his mind.
All of a sudden the light went on in his brain and he made the motions depicting a woman’s curves with his hands. The nodding heads indicated that he had the right idea, and it set him off into a barrage of French that none of us could follow, at all. His hands were gesturing this way and that way, and I am sure that he knew exactly what and where he was describing. We didn’t have a clue.
Looking at each other and reaching an unspoken agreement that it was no use trying to decipher his instructions, we backed towards the exit. Taking our leave, continuously nodding our heads and smiling our faces off, we hustled out the door. Our new friend just kept on talking and waving his hands like we were getting the picture.
We needn’t have worried, the beach was only a block away and the sun was shining. To sailors who spend so many days in the dark, everything is perfect when the sun is out!
This was the Cote d’Azur after all; the French Riviera. Nice was a jewel of beautiful landscapes, sparkling water, and ornate and elegant buildings. All along the coastline of the city ran a boardwalk for strolling, which the French do very well at all hours of the day and night. On the land side of this walkway were a couple of rows of parking, then a street and magnificent buildings housing hotels, restaurants and shops. The proprietors lived above their businesses we found later as we strolled in the evening and all of their lights were on and windows open.
It was the sea side of the walkway that interested my friends the most though; it was what swung their vote to stay in Nice after all. The beaches there are tiny compared to any U.S. beaches. There was a seawall all along the beach, with steps every one hundred feet or so for access. Morning was a good time for sunbathing it seemed, as there were many people all lined up in rows on the sand when we got there.
Of the six of us, only two had grown up in beach country; myself in Florida, the other in southern California. The remaining four were all from the inland cities. It was a full time job to keep these guys from drooling over the seawall as nearly naked bodies were on display everywhere.
As you are probably aware, many European women go topless on the beaches and the men are wise enough to keep their mouths shut and just enjoy the “scenery.” Not so with young American males. They had their cameras out snapping away and whistling at the ladies. More than once a disgusted woman grabbed her things and left. I was embarrassed by my friends’ actions, but they were unfazed by anything that I said to them about their behavior. Evidently admiring the view without being obnoxious was not encoded in their DNA.
People in Nice would come to the beach from work or wherever, in their regular attire. It was not the custom to wear bathing suits everywhere like it is in the US. So they changed right on the beach. The modest ones were very skilled at wrapping a large beach towel around themselves and changing clothes. Some only covered their lower half as they weren’t putting on a top anyway. A few were unconcerned about who saw what and just got naked.
It was a member of that unconcerned category that finally broke the trance.
A very pretty, dark haired sun worshipper wearing a nice business skirt and blouse walked past us as we sat on the seawall. So graceful and slender was that new arrival that four of my companions (the city boys) fairly floated along in trail (reminiscent of Pepe Le Pew of cartoon fame), whistling and snapping their cameras.
A spot on the beach sand was obtained and with back to the audience, the clothes started to come off. Out of a bag came a light blue towel with “Cote d’Azur” emblazoned upon it, which was quickly and expertly wrapped around the hips. Turning to face my friends, the top was playfully removed revealing no bra, and a very small chest.
These young American sailors were actually leaning forward, cameras at the ready, full of anticipation as the towel was untied and the opening was teased, but not done. They called out for more, yelling “take it off” like they were in a strip club. Asking sweetly if they really wanted to see, the object of their lust took a couple of steps closer to them, and whipped the towel wide open.
Their cameras were flashing away, as they finally realized that dangling in front of them was a very large “man part” in all of its glory. The crowd of locals roared in laughter. What they had thought was a pretty lady, was definitely a pretty man, who dressed like a lady. Life was truly full of surprises for my young friends.
That very public education of my over eager shipmates somehow created a sudden craving for alcohol. My mates felt the need for beer and wanted to “get out of the sun.”
I believed that it wasn’t the sun that kept their faces red, but rather the thought of how to explain the photos they had just taken when they got their pictures back.
Our group split up at that point as my roommate and I did not want to get drunk, nor did we want to pay the high prices charged at beachfront drinking establishments. So, the two of us wandered inland, in search of a dining spot with better prices.
One thing is certain in France; you can always find good bread. We had not walked a mile from the shore when the aromas of freshly baked bread lead us by the nose (also a very cartoon like image) down a side street to a corner store.
A store by name, it was really a house with a room set up to sell goods out of. Mama baked bread in her kitchen and sold it, along with some fruits and vegetables from her garden that were sitting out on a counter. A small variety of cheeses and sausages were on a wooden block table along one wall. They had some generic wine (no labels) available by the glass or the jug. It was barely a store, and even less of a restaurant, but the place smelled delicious! I wanted to take a bite out of the air.
We purchased the best food that I had eaten in all of Europe, at that little store. The smell of the bread had me starving. They asked for 18 francs (the equivalent of two dollars) each (we gave them 20 because we thought that it was too little) and had all the bread, cheese and wine that we could consume as we sat at a table outside in the shade.
Papa kept refilling our wine jug and bringing out more cheese to “try”. Mama brought out more bread for us to take with us, because we “looked starved.” Eventually we had to cry “enough!” I felt like we were being adopted.
Before we took our leave from these delightful people, we asked them for a recommendation for where to get our evening meal near our hotel. They talked excitedly back and forth in French for a minute and apparently Mama won. The instructions were given and we were admonished repeatedly to not go there before 8 pm.
Rejoining our friends, still in the same bar that we left them in earlier, we hauled them back to the hotel for a nap and to clean up. They had mightily contributed to the local economy, settling a bar tab of three figures. All of their expenditure was for hard alcohol (not beer), which they had consumed in the same time frame as we had spent getting our four dollars worth. Just standing was a challenge for them; they definitely needed showers and a bed.
I was glad that we took the walk and not just for the monetary difference. In general, in bars the people who run them prey on those with addictions and weaknesses for alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, prostitutes, etc, it’s how they make their money. It was an uncomfortable atmosphere for me and doubly so as an American sailor; we seemed to have targets painted on our backs.
The people that we met running their little store were genuine and welcoming, making us feel at home and like we were almost family. Leaving them I felt refreshed and happy, instead of used and abused like my friends felt as we dragged them from the bar.
I was so eager to follow our dinner location instructions to the letter, that we didn’t even leave the hotel until 8:00 pm. The route to follow was easier than I had feared and we had no difficulty locating the small diner. The place was filled with locals and very busy.
The very attractive waitress who met us at the door was an aggressive “take no prisoners” type and seated us at an outside patio table for eight, telling us that if she needed the space, she would seat others with us. No one gave her any backtalk or made rude comments, which made me happy. I thought that perhaps they were still sufficiently humbled from earlier events. Or, maybe it was just that they didn’t recognize her from the beach that morning. She was one of the first girls we saw and did look different with her clothes on and her hair up in a twist.
Based on the recommendation from Mama at the store, I already knew what I wanted, even though I had never even heard of it before. I got the Spaghetti Carbonara with an egg on top. It was so good that I could have rolled in it!
The others ordered different things, and some wine with their meals (I had water with lemon.) It was hilarious to watch the waitress at work. The guys would order the wrong wine for their meal and the young woman would throw her hand up in the air and say, “what, are you insane!” or call them “stupid little boys” and tell them which wine to order. She was having fun and the guys were in awe of her.
When I paid my bill, the waitress asked if I had had a good day. The quizzical look on my face made her laugh and she said that her mother (Mama from the store) had told her that some Americans boys were coming to dinner after 8:00p.m. She was very pleased to hear my praise of her mother’s bread and compliments about her family’s store in general.
She also remembered us from that morning at the beach and commented that I had hung back and kept my mouth shut while my friends acted like naughty children. Her laughter at the memory made me blush so much that my face was still red when I went back to the table. It was silly for me to be so embarrassed, I had done nothing wrong.
We left the little (in size) restaurant at about 10:00 pm, and the people were still coming in to eat. They did a booming business and were open from 6:00 pm until midnight, with mostly tourists eating early. The waitress said that they had to put people out at midnight every night because of their operating license which required them to close at that hour. To be open later required negotiating a new license which was very expensive.
As we left the noise of the restaurant, our ears picked up music that sounded strangely familiar. We followed that sound until we located the source of the music. It was coming from a dark structure in an even darker alley.
The beat was definitely coming from inside of what we guessed was some sort of nightclub for lack of a better description. Since there were six of us, wearing our badass big boy jeans (Americans are so full of bravado) we felt OK risking going inside.
I half expected a panel in the door to open like the “speakeasies” of the 1930s and almost jumped backwards when a door that was fully half of the wall opened. A large young man with a hoodie sweatshirt and dark pants opened the door and shined his flashlight on us.
“Americans!” he shouted into the building and we had dozens of instant new “best friends.” The tiny place (really a garage I guessed) was packed with at least fifty young French people and a few visiting Europeans who were in the know about where to find such clubs.
“Crank it up, crank it up, they dig it!” was shouted out by our doorman and the dance music that lead us there rattled the walls. This was a break dancing, hip hop Mecca for kids who loved American music and dance. Our blue jeans also made us instant celebrities. Levi Strauss is a god to the youth of most of the world.
A couple of our American six were actually decent break dancers and did “bust a move” as the saying goes. The rest of us just kind of bopped along with the music and tried not drown in the free beer that was continuously shoved into our hands.
A competition was held and I have not seen better break dancing, even in the movies like “Electric Bugaloo”, etc. One guy had gloves on and his hood up with the drawstring pulled until you couldn’t see his face. This guy was incredible and had ALL of the moves, even spinning on the top of his head. He won first prize.
I asked a general question of the group around us as to why he covered all up. The hushed reply was that he was a gendarme, a policeman, and if he was caught here he would lose his job. It was strictly forbidden for him to participate and it was against the city ordinances to even have such dance parties. I had to ask as it was such a shock to me, “Do you mean that it is against the law here to dance?” They said, “Oui, the break dance is considered immoral. It is not America.”
We stayed with the illegal dance party until four in the morning and enjoyed ourselves immensely. After we left the party we went back to the hotel, got cleaned up, checked out, and went looking for an American sized meal for breakfast. One of the big hotels on the boardwalk had what we wanted, albeit for a large price.
Our train trip back to Monaco later that day was quick and easy and I had more adventures on other days.
I could not get over the idea that kids having fun dancing was against the rules, and it became “Break-the-law” dancing to me from then on. Some laws are just insane! Dance on kids, I’m with you!
Second Chance Cafe
It should be noted that life continues to march regardless of who we are, what we have done, or how much money we have.
In most towns you can find a dining establishment that serves a good meal for a decent price. The often repeated advice given by experienced travelers is to, “Find the spot frequented by the locals, and follow them in.” As a kid I had heard the want-to-be wise men spouting, “Eat where the truckers eat, they always know the best spots.” Although I have found that last one had a bit more to do with where a driver could park his rig, than the quality of the food.
Our town has many fast food establishments as well as what we refer to as “sit down restaurants” where wait staff take your order and bring your food to you. The former is perhaps cheaper, but to me the second choice is far more satisfying.
As people get older and have less demand on them to provide for others, (which might be referred to as the “empty nest years”) they find that spending time slaving over a hot stove for two people no longer seems reasonable. It does still happen occasionally, just not often.
Some people become full time “nibblers” and snack themselves out of wanting meals. Others eat fewer meals and exist on coffee or tea.Then there are those of us who combine all of that with a daily trip, (sometimes two) to a local eatery for both food and a certain amount of socialization.
Many empty nesters say that something is missing since the house got so quiet. The simple fact is that two older adults do not make as much noise as even one child and most of the time there is quiet.
What seems to drive many of the retired folks that we know to restaurants is not just freedom from cooking and cleaning up afterwards, but the chance to interact with other people.
Our diner of choice I will call “The Second Chance Café,” which is not its real name, but it is safer that way.
If you frequent the same establishment repeatedly over a period of time you get to be known as “regulars” and achieve a reputation with the staff as either good customers or “PITA” types with the first word of the acronym being “pain.” I’m sure that you can figure out the rest of it.
Those who are students of human behavior or just good observers can have a lot of fun watching the antics of both customers and staff on any given day. There truly is a plethora of free entertainment to be had while you dine.
People in the food industry have hard, physically demanding jobs. Add to that the aggravation of dealing with the public and the stress score climbs pretty high. There is a trait common to all of the restaurant workers that I have observed doing well in their jobs, and that is a good sense of humor. From manager to dishwasher and especially the servers (as waitresses and waiters are now called), it is a vital quality if you are to make it longer than one week.
Anyone who has ever worked with the public can tell you that interacting with customers is far harder than being isolated with just co-workers or solo jobs.
When you throw in the attitude of many customers who have never had to deal with demanding individuals (like themselves) into the mix, it just gets crazy.
The following examples were just a few of the things overheard in our local diner.
“I am paying for this so whatever I want, it is your duty to provide it.”
“Do you have vegan fish sticks instead of the all you can eat fish special? Oh, I don’t want them; I just wanted to know what kind of establishment you were running.”
“Can you take 50% off of my bill, because I only ate half of my hamburger?”
“Why can’t you send the bus girl across the street to get me a beer? They have a liquor license.”
“Can I have three large go-boxes and fill them up with more of the all-you-can-eat spaghetti? Well I can’t eat it now, but I can eat more, later. No, you can’t charge me for four meals, it is just one order.”
“Why did you butter my toast? I wanted to butter it. No, I don’t want more butter, you have ruined my toast. I want you to take my entire meal off of the bill. You have wrecked my dining experience.”
“What kinds of tomatoes were used in the making of this soup? You don’t know what kind of tomatoes Campbell’s uses in their soup? I should call the health inspector. What kind of joint are you running here?”
I am really surprised that more bowls of soup aren’t dumped on people’s heads.
We are evidently on the “good” list as we are greeted like family and hugged by waitresses and bus girls both upon arrival and departure. We were also the only non-employees (or their families) invited to the closed door Christmas party held at the restaurant. The staff all knows us by name and treat us like family all of the time.
If I were being cynical I could say that it is because we probably spend more money there than any other customers and they like the financial support. But the truth is that the place is one big family.
Many of the employees are related and those who aren’t have known each other for years. I have known many of them for years myself, having met them delivering their mail. Some of them knew Anna at the high school. For whatever small town reason, there is familiarity and closeness.
The work environment is a happy one, with laughter being a near constant sound and very, very rarely is an angry sound heard from anyone. On the odd times that discord erupts, it is nearly always a customer fussing with someone that they came in with.
The current manager was the lead waitress for several years and when the existing manager got fed up with her corporate bosses and the commute to work and quit, she stepped in without a hiccup in the operation as far as the general public could see.
Within the first few days I could see the mood improving and the quality of the entire operation stepping up to a new level. A person with “from the ground up” knowledge was at the helm and respect was now a two-way street in the building. People tend to react positively to being shown respect.
This restaurant is a special kind of place where everyone is made to feel welcome, the service is good, and the food is worth the money you pay for it. That combination is not as easily found as one might hope.
So why do I call it the Second Chance Café?
Like so many people working in low paying, demanding jobs, most of the staff have had rough spots in their lives and didn’t have the opportunity or good fortune to make it to (or through) college. Some have seen the inside of the “barred hotel” and others have burned up eight of their nine lives with personal problems that that would have killed a weaker person. No one spends their youth dreaming of being a waitress in a small town café. At this establishment everyone is respected and equal. They are judged solely upon the effort they put in and how they conduct themselves now. The past is over.
Another reason for the name would be the giving and supportive attitude of the entire group. When misfortune strikes, whether it be death, or house fire, or any number of calamities that can and do happen, whatever needs to be done, will be done. Money is raised, comfort is given, hours are covered, and places to live are found. They exhibit the finest qualities of humanity without hesitation.
All waitresses are not (thankfully) created equal
There are endearing qualities present in all of the servers and staff — some of it just won’t stay inside of them.
The staff plays jokes on each other and keeps up a running banter of jibes and faux insults that you would have to be blind to not see through. To those of us who know them well it is easy to see that they love each other more than most blood-related families.
One star of the floor show is empowered with an over abundance of awesomeness. She knows it, and we all know it. I have known this woman for more than twenty years and I can truly appreciate the difference between her former aggressive, obnoxious self and who she has become in the last few years. There is no one who can handle a full house like she does, and make you like it while you wait for your order to hit the window. Your meal comes out right, the food is hot, the drinks get refilled and she keeps you laughing the entire time you are there. It is no wonder that she is the top tip earner and the most requested server in the house.
Another of the wait-staff warriors is a woman who is generous and giving to the extreme, often turning over her daily tips to a family member or a bus person who mentioned a need for something without a moment’s hesitation. She knows what it is like to have nothing and be hungry and I have seen her pay for a stranger’s meal out of her own pocket. She laughs so much that if she stops, we look to see what’s wrong. To say that she is a character is like saying that the Pope is a Catholic.
One of the veteran servers is an accomplished horsewoman who not only can handle cranky horses, but can put an unruly customer into the back of a booth with a single glare. I am fortunate that she likes me and uses her powers for good and braids my beard for me. Nothing can get the plaits to lay flat and tight like her experienced hands. She also makes the cook fix my /quesadilla/ the right way and finds jalapenos for me when they have some.
Another long time hash slinger is closer to our age and is raising a grandson which means that retirement is not an option and like it or not, she has to roll out early in the a.m. to put on the coffee for a few hundred folks. I have seen her in the place on her day off, popping up out of her booth to get coffee or tea for customers in her civilian clothes. She is always ready with a laugh and smile.
Cooks are a tough crew
Cooks at most restaurants are scary people. Many are given to angry outbursts and mood swings that make you think that they are all bipolar. Wait staff and managers alike have cautioned me against upsetting a chef or cook when I needed something out of the ordinary. I consciously look for the location of all knives and the available exits whenever I enter a professional kitchen, just as a habit.
The Second Chance Café cooks labor for long hours trying to make every meal come out right and quickly, facing constant pressure to perform.They get oddball requests and last minute changes tossed at them by servers who are trying to give their customers what they want. To their credit I have not seen a meat cleaver thrown into a wall or a steak burned to a lump of charcoal in this restaurant like I did another eatery in this very town. It is a rare occasion that they even get upset to where the customers notice. I must lead a charmed life because I have never had an order request turned down in this restaurant. These cooks care about what they produce and it shows.
Young people get into the profession for different reasons. Sometimes it is purely a lack of experience at any job and getting hired to wash dishes or bus tables is a doable entry level job.
The latest hire into the floor staff tells me frequently that she is so happy to work at this restaurant and even though it is hard work and long hours she can’t wait to get there each day to see her coworkers. She has friends and a life, but knows the value of employment and feels fortunate that she has such a good work environment.
One young shining star of the local eatery has lived far too fast and hard for her years and nearly ended before she began. Today she is living, learning, earning, and gaining respect for herself and from others who gave her the chance to act like the adult that she can be. Life is still one day at a time for her, but I have every confidence that the woman she is becoming will make her proud. She has an infectious laugh and a smile that melts bad moods on contact. She has gone from a bus girl who spilled everything that she touched, to handling (as the waitress) a full-on lunch rush solo with a prep cook chasing refills for her.
There are young people who work at the diner because they have family members already there and it did give them a chance to get a foot in the door. Those folks have to perform twice as hard to meet the scrutiny of both boss and the relative who spoke up for them. It is not a cake walk for them as they soon learn.
I am very pleased to be a part of a learning environment where we get to practice Spanish while helping others perfect their grasp on their second language at the same time. Several of the employees speak Spanish as their native tongue but must speak English to the customers and fellow staff members who do not know their language. Their progress is an inspiration and their patience with me as I mangle their language is a great lesson in how to behave.
The work ethics shown by the least well paid employees at this restaurant is another lesson in how people should behave. They never do as little as possible to get by, which I have seen in many higher paid vocations. From the dishwashers to the food prep crews they bust their butts supporting the staff out front. They are willing (to the last person), to come out of the back and do whatever is necessary to make the operation work. On many occasions we have seen dishwashers acting as hosts, seating customers, taking their drink orders, carrying plates of food to tables, and then cleaning tables on the run so more people could be seated. They know that their tasks are still waiting and no one will be washing the dishes while they are doing the extra work, but they never hesitate. We should all be that willing to step up when needed.
There are families that have three generations employed at this diner and it is a joy to be around them. The work ethic and enthusiasm is consistent from grandmother to granddaughter. They are a joy to be around and always earning their wages.
It is both amazing and amusing to realize that I have known some of the people waiting on me since they were little children.
One of the waitresses, who was a little girl when I delivered her grandmother and mother’s mail, now has kids of her own and takes care of me. A hostess/bus girl used to drive her mother crazy at work asking questions until she got parked in a corner with a coloring book. Now she hugs me when I walk in the door of the restaurant and before I leave. That doesn’t happen at Mickey D’s.
The customers who frequent our chosen oasis are even more varied than the staff and span the age range from newborn to over one hundred years young. The place has been open since 1966 and some of the original customers still get their morning coffee there.
Some diners I have been in have a particular clientele made up of locals with the same opinions who seem to run off anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Since one of the commonly heard nicknames for our town is “Fal-abama” you can probably guess how conservative and redneck things might be here.
I am happy to report that while the “Good Ole White Boy” (Tea Party) contingent is still present, and still wanting things to go back to 1950, they have no control over this restaurant.
The presence of the navy base brings a delightful mixture of humanity to add to our Native American and Hispanic cultures, and the influence of Burning Man is felt in a very positive way. The clientele is as diverse as the United Nations, and are better behaved (no diplomatic immunity.)
I used to get harassed and called names because of my beard braids, and people with ink and/or piercings were rudely stared at until they left. That is no longer the case. Gay couples or mixed race couples were made to feel uncomfortable and in some cases refused service in this community as late as the late 1980’s. That is no longer openly true (you can’t fix everyone) here and most certainly not at the Second Chance Café.
There are characters that make the world unique and like them or not, they do add color to the mixture.
One such person is a very large man with a burning need to be the center of attention. Not just the focus of his captive group seated with him, but everyone within earshot of his always too-loud voice. He will often wear a top hat to the diner and sometimes rides up on his Harley and revs the motor loudly before shutting it off, to let everyone know that he has arrived. The man says whatever he can to cause the most controversy, upset the most people, and agitate the largest group. He lives for argument.
There are people who are referred to in diner language as “campers,” meaning that they “camp out” (usually in a booth) and spend hours drinking coffee or tea and don’t order anything else. This ties up the seating and cuts into the profit made from “turning” tables quickly. The real money is made from turning tables as often as possible, not from which meal customers order. This is why the most successful restaurants have bus people cleaning tables as quickly as customers get up, and frequently come by and take the “finished” dishes out of your way. It isn’t “to give you more room” as they are trained to say, but to cut down the reset time when you leave.
The Second Chance Café has its share of campers, some of whom are senior citizens who will generally take a table and hold court for several hours in the middle of the day between lunch and dinner. They are not too much of a problem and do order a meal or two among the group.
A far more problematic group comes around in the evening hours and is usually young people who will attempt to camp out in a prime corner booth where they can put their legs up and stretch out. They usually order water to drink and share large orders of French fries, making a mess all over the table with salt and ketchup and if left unchecked will get loud and rowdy. This is the group that unscrews the lids on the salt and pepper containers and spills water “accidentally” into the artificial sweetener holder. By the time they leave their tab will be five dollars or less, they leave no tip, and the booth looks like a group of toddlers had a confetti party. The cleanup efforts take forever and it adversely affects all of the tables around them. As you might guess they are very unpopular with the understaffed and overworked swing shift crew.
The toughest campers to deal with are on the midnight shift. These are frequently people who have had too much to drink and/or have nowhere to go. People under the influence of whatever, are unpredictable at best. They hang out for hours and vent their frustrations on the staff. This can make the graveyard shift a scary shift to work with only three people on duty. To make it worse sometimes if it is slow the supervisor lets one person go home early.
In recent years we have seen homeless people use their panhandling money to buy a cup of coffee (and free refills,) spending all night inside where it is warm and there is a bathroom. If they behave themselves and stay awake (no sleeping allowed) they are usually tolerated at the Second Chance Café. People who work there understand what being down on your luck is like and aren’t as quick to toss people to the curb.
We are part of the growing group of “I don’t want to cook” customers who have enough disposable income to exercise the option of paying someone else to handle the kitchen duties. We trade the grocery bill and entertainment allowance (we don’t drink or gamble) for a restaurant bill.
The Second Chance Café gives us another chance to interact with people and have a sort of second family to pick up the slack where our own busy family has departed. Life is good and every day is another adventure with old friends. I’ll drink (iced tea) to that!