If You See Salem…

When one owns their own business, it’s not all glory and glamour. In fact, it can only be described as down right thankless. Living the diner life is not for the faint of heart. One needs guts and gumption to pull it off day after day. My father had both.

It seemed through out my years growing up in “the land of burgers and fries” that my father wasn’t just my “dad”. He was Salem, father to not only his children, but to those that needed it, whether it was an employee or a customer. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a father as “one who might care for another as a father might.” This particular definition describes my dad perfectly. Over the years, my father hasn’t always been the easiest person to work for or with, but one fact has always remained true. His bark is worse than his bite. I remember the first time I truly saw the depth of my father’s heart. It was on our second family trip to San Francisco, my father’s hometown. We were visiting family. I was 16 years old at the time, and we were on a street corner waiting for my mother to finish paying for her purchases in a store. There was a homeless man digging in the trash, eating the left over chicken wing bones someone else has discarded. I watched my dad walk up to him and say, “Hey, man. You don’t want to eat that.” My father, Salem the Magnanimous, pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, and handed it to the hungry man. This instance has not only stuck with me since, but it has been my guide for how I should treat those less fortunate or just down on their luck. I’ve never seen him deny anyone in need. So, why should those residing in his business be any different?

In fact, it was on our first family trip to San Francisco that we had to come back early because our cook at the time, Andy, had to be bailed out of jail.  Andy got into a fight with his girlfriend’s ex-husband and ended up with a broken jaw and an extended jail stay.  We had to come home early so my dad could cover his shifts, and because my father is who he is, to bail Andy out of jail.  He was pretty banged up, and I’m fairly sure he had wires holding his jaw in place, but he came to work.  However, not everyone shares my father’s principles.  Andy stopped showing up for work, and simply disappeared leaving my father with his debt.  It was par for the course when dealing with a certain breed of cook.  It wasn’t the first time my father had bailed an employee out of county lockup.  My father’s long-time cook of 14 years and manager, Kelvin, got into some trouble a few times, mostly for a suspended license.  He needed to be bailed out a couple of times, and my mother and father helped him get his license back.  In fact, they helped Kelvin out quite a bit, but his story is for another day.  Needless to say, my father got left holding the check, again.

It should be noted that when my father wasn’t paying legal fees, he was playing savior in other ways.  I remember an instance where one of our waitresses found herself with a flat tire.  Tammy was with us for a couple of years.  She and her husband even played babysitter for us a couple of times.  Tammy was pretty with feathered, chestnut-brown hair and big teased bangs.  She wore dark blue eyeliner and sheer bubblegum pink lipstick.  This was her signature look.  It was the late 80s.  For some reason or another, Tammy’s husband, Dan, couldn’t be reached.  So, she called my father to rescue her from the side of the road.  His generosity didn’t just extend to his employees, but to his customers, as well.

If you were  a loyal customer, frequenting one of his establishments anywhere from 3-5 times a week, he knew not only your name, but a little bit about your life, and even though you frequented the diner 5 times that week, you only paid for 3.  My father always believed that loyalty should be rewarded.  Looking back, my dad wasn’t just a boss, the guy who signed the paychecks and barked orders.  He’s been many things:  father, brother, savior, provider, and friend.  No matter the circumstance, my father helped if he could, whether it was changing a flat tire, providing food, financial assistance, or late night rides home.  He has even been known to buy a bike or two for those employees with no driver’s licenses who have a long way to walk from their homes.  Actually, he did just that pretty recently for a particular dishwasher’s birthday.  Granted, this dishwasher got it stolen a few months after he received it by leaving it unattended, but once the gift passes hands, my father is no longer liable.  Each diner has been less like a business and more like family, and every family has its duds, who, of course, provide the Diner Life community with nothing but entertainment.

So, if you see Salem, while visiting Johnny Angels Diner in Jacksonville, FL, give him a big “Hello!”  If he looks angry, please remember that he suffers from chronic stress, and RBFS (Resting Bitch Face Syndrome), a genetic flaw I, unfortunately, inherited.  He might look angry, but in fact, he is a man, whose heart is deeper than his pockets, and who has spent the better part of 30 years raising children, customers, and employees.  Give him a break and a big smile.  I’m willing to bet, you’ll get one back.