This blog post is in memory of one of my customers from my days as a waitress in a classic American “greasy spoon” café. Sadly, I’ve forgotten his name, but I’ve never forgotten his smile… and his tragic death.
After my trips to Denmark and Nepal in 1978, I returned to the US for my final year at Carleton College. That was not to be. I had culture shock. My memories of my adventures clashed with orderly Northfield, Minnesota. People seemed to have changed, too. Our “student uniform” was typically a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. Now, people were changing clothes when they went to dinner – in a college dining hall! That’s how I saw things, at least. People were thinking about final exams, and I was thinking about the world and its problems. I had to get out. I took a break from school that winter, moved out of the dormitory into an off-campus house, and took a waitressing job at the local diner.
Fred’s Ideal Café opened at 6 in the morning, ready to serve the classics for the locals: eggs, bacon, hash browns, toast, soups, sandwiches, milkshakes, coffee, and the very popular cinnamon buns. It was a bit of Americana with its red vinyl booths and a counter with round padded stools. Fred ruled the kitchen and the giant grill in the back. I started on a schedule of 6 AM to 2 PM Monday through Friday, and I was the only waitress for the first few hours. I thought it was all very exciting to leave my books behind and become a working class girl.
In case you didn’t know it, Minnesota has cold winters.
One winter, I saw the temperature sign on the downtown bank read -40C. This was my third Minnesota winter, so I just threw on layers of sweaters and left my warm apartment at 5.30 to walk down the street to the café. Sometimes, Burt was outside, sweeping or shoveling the sidewalk in front of the café. No one asked Burt to clear the sidewalk of snow. He just did. Burt (I think that was his name) wore the typical Minnesotan gear – red and black plaid jacket and the big (lined) farmer’s cap with earflaps. In those days, they called Burt “simple”. He certainly didn’t seem to understand why Fred wouldn’t let him into the café before 6 AM. I think Fred waited until the last minute to minimize exposure to Burt’s chatter. I don’t think Burt ever noticed me. He sat at the counter drinking his coffee until someone interesting came in, and then he’d try to strike up a conversation with them.
Night-shift workers came in from the Malt O’Meal factory and ordered the big breakfast (eggs, toast, steak, hash browns, bacon) with coffee and a chocolate milkshake. Locals drifted in for their morning coffee. Sometimes “Carls” (students from Carleton) came in early for a break from the cafeteria service. The one person I soon looked forward to meeting every morning was the homeless man.
I quickly learned to pour a cup of hot coffee for him the moment I spotted him out the front window coming in from the dark morning. When he reached the counter to sit down, he could warm his fingers on the piping hot cup. We exchanged smiles and good mornings. I really think he appreciated my preparation of that cup. Each day, he would order two eggs and toast to go with the coffee, and that was that. He’d sit there in his big brown coat and the lined cap with the obligatory earflaps, finish his breakfast, and be off somewhere. It bothers me a bit that I cannot remember whether he had fried eggs or scrambled eggs. I have no idea why it was such a big deal to give him his coffee like that, but it was.
It was Fred who told me the man’s tale. Apparently, the man lived in a cardboard shack by the river somewhere on the road to Dundas. A wife and grown children were somewhere in the past, but all connections were lost. He was alone in his shack, walking into Northfield for breakfast every morning at freezing o’clock. His face was probably what you’d call grizzled. He didn’t have the best shaving conditions down by the river! He seemed shy to me, but he had the kindest smile. I gave him that coffee to get that smile.
He tipped me. He tipped me a dime every single day. His meal was probably a total of 75 cents and he gave me a dime every day. A middle-aged office-worker-type woman who came in everyday for her eggs, toast, and coffee tipped me a quarter on my last day in the café. That was her first tip for me. I couldn’t help comparing her to the homeless man’s generosity. Maybe that generosity held the reason for his death.
One morning, the homeless man didn’t show up. Later, Fred told me that someone had intentionally crushed the cardboard shack with a heavy vehicle. There were tire tracks all over the area like someone driving back and forth. The homeless man was dead. Rumor had it that some kids had heard that he had money stashed away in his shack. Fred figured they were drunk and drove around the shack, terrorizing him to death. I was sick to my stomach. To me, this was murder. I didn’t know what had happened in his life or what had brought him to that shack. I do know that he didn’t deserve to depart this world in such an undignified and cruel manner.
I never heard more about the incident and whether the people responsible for this horrible act were found and properly punished. I left the café after 5 months employment to head back to Denmark and a love interest. In September, I returned to Carleton and finally completed my degree the following year. Occasionally, I’d stop by the Ideal Café as a paying customer, but it felt strange. I associated it with dark mornings where the café lights were some kind of oasis for souls in the night. (Yes, I have a vivid imagination.) My time there was over. The Ideal Café has changed owners several times since the days with Fred. I really wish it could talk and tell some tales. Until it does, I’m sharing this one.