in a lifetime faraway, my grandfather owned a diner. From the days of my earliest memories, Pop ran the diner. He rose at 4:30 every morning, without an alarm clock. He started the grills, warmed up the dishwasher, and welcomed the first customers at 6 AM. This was who he was. He made up for it with a daily nap in his downstairs office most afternoons.
I remember the office. It consisted of two small rooms and a smaller bath, or rather a “shower”. One room housed a desk with tumbling piles of receipts. The other, dimly lit, surrounded a double-sized foam mattress. Noxzema shaving cream and Close-Up toothpaste vied for predominance of the shower. It was only in dire cases that we dared tap on the office door to wake Pop in the middle of an afternoon.
My grandfather was a good man. He gave many people their first chance at a job. In addition to almost all of his grandchildren, Pop gave first jobs to many high school students in our town, one of whom was an old girlfriend of mine… story for another time. Beyond these many first starts, Pop was the helper of many a down and out fellow. From my farthest memories, Pop consistently hired men from a restaurant staffing agency out of Philadelphia. Most of these short-order cooks are now nameless faces, greasy-haired individuals apparently without house or family, soulless men of my childhood, smokers and drinkers all.
In addition to Freddie Schneider, flat-nosed out-of-towner who by miraculous length of days and despite steady streams of imbibed alcohol and cigarettes became a long-recognized pilgrim between the St. Cloud Hotel and the diner, there was five-foot-tall Tommy. Tommy was short but his heart stood tall. Tommy loved the bottled spirits. But he also loved our family. There were days when the bottle got the best of him. He would disappear for short seasons. Then I would come to the diner after school and Tommy would be back. Pop never condemned him. Tommy always returned loyalty and respect.
Tommy was the head evening cook during most of my high school days. I was the cashier and night “manager”, sixteen-year-old ruler of my female classmates who were fortunate enough to be hired by my grandfather… more stories for another time. When Tommy would vanish on one of his binges, I was the head cook, happy to exchange the handling of currency for the flipping of burgers.
Tommy had a woman. She was the widowed mother of one of the girls in my class. For easily deduced reasons, we mercilessly teased that girl with horrid renditions of “Hello Dolly”. She never saw the humor in it. Her mom was oblivious to her daughter’s hardships. Tommy loved her mom. Though I thought it was corny to see that short short-order cook nearly stand on his tippy-toes in order to put his arm around his girl, I now remember it as the act of a big man, and I realize that that’s as tall as a man gets. I still look up to Tommy in this respect.
As once-upon-a-time stories go, villains entered the plot, placid characters were disrupted and reality entered the scene. So it went with the story of Pop’s diner. One month after my high school graduation in June of 1981, Pop announced his retirement. The man was 81-years-old. He had served family and employees well. By the end of that summer, new owners had taken control of the diner, trampling freshly-painted stairs and unprepared hearts alike underfoot. I remember the non-English speaking chef plunging his nicotine-stained hands into bowls of macaroni salad. I remember the feelings of violation as Pop’s ways of procedure were carelessly neglected. I remember quitting my job at “my grandfather’s diner” and not being paid overtime by the new owner. I remember saying good-bye to Tommy.
As the world has a tendency to rotate and life has the impulse to move on, I worked at successive factories and then for the town road department after Pop laid the diner to rest. It was all new to me. I had only ever worked at our family business since I was 14. My early twenties was a time of blending into the background of our town’s economy. Once I was known as the grandson of the town’s best diner. Then I was just another blue-uniformed town road worker.
However, if the world has a tendency to rotate, it also has a tendency to come full circle. A moment of definition came one afternoon while I was standing outside the town garages. That day, under the hot summer sun, a small figure staggered across the parking lot through the heat waves. Stopping unexpectedly before me, there swayed Tommy. Most likely by the assistance of angels, the man was able to focus his eyes enough to recognize me. He stepped closer, managing to stop himself from tripping headlong into my chest. Gathering his intrinsic respect and sincerity, Tommy reached up and placed his hand on my shoulder. In that moment I was again Pop’s grandson. Tommy, setting the influence of alcohol aside, said, “Sammy, it’s me, Tommy. Remember me? It’s Tommy. Sammy, you’re grandfather was a good man. You are a good man, Sammy. I love you, Sammy” Then the little man collapsed in my arms and I wish that I was still holding him these twenty years long. Tommy died suddenly from a brain tumor a few months later.
So, I ask myself, “Is this the way life goes?” Does a man live, despite his weaknesses of habit, to eventually make another man big by falling into his arms? Was the purpose of Tommy’s life to give stability to mine? Did he stagger into my arms to set my life in the right direction?
All I can say is, “Tommy, too early taken at the age of 50, I miss you. I love you too. My life was enlarged because of you. Thank you.”