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Sisters In Waiting

In roadside cafes and all-night diners she's the resident diplomat, defender of visitors and dispenser of wisdom

By Andrew X. Pham

I walked through the creaking door of the roadside diner, and the old salts and the dusty ranch hands, hunched over on their bar stools, turned and gave me the eye. Silence said hello. Eyeing the escape route to my bicycle outside, I edged to the stool closest to the door, farthest from everyone. Maybe hunger could wait.

Her voice greeted me like a cavalry bugle, her smile a homing beacon. "Good morning, sir. I'll be right with you."

Salvation. The locals went back to their breakfasts and the hum of conversations resettled over the cafe. The waitress had taken me under her aegis--none of the tough guys would bother me now if he wanted to be welcomed in here.

I nearly blurted out my profound gratitude, but instead I said, "Morning, ma'am. No hurry. No hurry at all."

Soon the waitress, a rail-thin woman in her 40s, came, poured me a cup of joe, then asked me rhetorically if I wanted coffee. She scribbled my order on a green notepad in her illegible shorthand. A man at the other end of the counter beckoned for a coffee refill.

She shot him a sharp look and then turned to me with a smile. "Where are you from, hon?"

"California, ma'am. The Bay Area."

A fat man nearby grunted to his companion, who answered with a grunt.

She grinned fondly at them. "Don't mind them, hon," she said, patting my hand. "I've been to San Francisco once. It's beautiful."

When my food arrived, the eggs were overcooked, the hash browns soggy, the coffee bitter, the apple pie vulgar: all forgiven--even appreciated--because hospitality seasoned a meal like nothing else.

It felt as though we were old friends because I had met a hundred of her sisters under a hundred different skies. I recognized them, the sisterhood of the roadside cafes and the all-night diners. In every dusty little shack, behind every Formica counter, there reigned a waitress who was in all but title the resident diplomat, defender of visitors and dispenser of local wisdom.

Considerable courage, compassion and understanding were the stock in trade of these women. None embodied those qualities more thoroughly than Caroline, a stout, graying waitress who worked the night shift at a greasy diner I once frequented in Los Angeles. She was neither quick nor jovial. Yet there was something refined in the way she greeted her customers, and the way she made them feel better in the loneliest hours of the night.

I made Caroline's acquaintance during a solitary meal after one particularly disastrous blind date. Although I had been to the diner several times before, I hadn't received the "Caroline Welcome." Apparently, she perceived my distress and, in her straightforward way, sat down across the booth from me.

"Girlfriend?" she asked, reaching for one of my fries, to my dismay.

It was the beginning of a friendship that would see me through two girlfriends and a career change. As our friendship developed, she would help herself to my fries, take an occasional bite of my hamburger and warn me of the leftovers her husband, the cook, often tried to pass off as casserole. She taught me a few things about "diner cuisine." At my request she introduced me to the seamier side of L.A. that wandered through her domain.

There was a Canadian-American interior decorator named Kristin, a chain-smoking 49-year-old woman who must have been stunning in her youth. Twelve years had passed since her ex-husband kidnapped her daughter, yet she spoke as though it happened last year. Caroline kept Kristin's coffee mug full and asked her about decorating.

There was Paul, an eloquent homeless man who showed his business card to everyone he met but never parted with it. It had a post-office box number and a single word depicting his profession: "writer." He always had enough change for a cup of joe plus tip. Caroline usually saved him a piece of pie.

There were bandanna-wearing gangsters who occupied their regular corner booth. Caroline treated them with respect and they adored her like a favorite aunt.

One night after a minor scuffle broke out between two regulars, I asked Caroline, "How do you put up with people all these years?"

She shrugged, reached for my fries, and replied, "There are good people and there are bad people, but mostly there are good people who just don't know better."

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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