Ode to Nick’s caf
It was a portent of something big. There was a parking spot right in front. The sizable crowd that was already hanging out watched, anticipating something to criticize, as I deftly angled my large SUV into the space on the first try. We opened the doors, poured out onto the sidewalk and my wife, three kids, and I immediately became part of the mix. We got there a hair after 4:30, an earlier opening time than ever before. It was already shaping up as an evening of mystical qualities.My wife being thinner and nimbler than me under any conditions was especially so that night as my youngest clung to my neck while I struggled to hold the child safely above the fray of head-high elbows in constant motion for drinking. She set off through the crowd to find Nick, to put our name down, to be considered for the next available five-top. Twenty minutes later she was back with a confident smile: “He said it’ll be just a couple of minutes.” I left the children with her and made for the bar, gathering drinks, girding for a drawn out siege.Standing near the entrance by the bar, waiting for some attention, I watched the tapster load a tray with what appeared to be six pink martinis. A waitress carefully slid her hand underneath the tray, and the delicate glasses without adequate bases began to dance for us – or maybe it was because of us. Double-clutching, she immediately set it down again. Nerves frayed and nearly in panic, she pleaded, “Can you help me?” I obliged and stretched my arms wide to hold back the throngs. She eyed the double-hinged swinging doors at the entrance, made for quick entrances and sometimes awkward exits. That night they appeared to never find rest. She wheeled to her right when she should have turned left. They always used to turn left here. What happened next was a surprise to nobody but her. We all saw it coming. The door flashed open. It only glanced the tray, but the precarious balance was upset, and everything fell, shattered. The bartender smiled broadly amidst the sudden quiet. “Not a good night for fancy drinks,” he remarked, and began setting them up again on a new tray, like he had several times each of the several nights before.I grabbed a bottle of beer and two Shirley Temples with my left hand, a margarita and a root beer in my right. I bullied my way through the dense crowd and didn’t spill a drop – at least not that I noticed. We talked with some friends, and more friends after that. It seemed like we knew everyone who came in. It was like nothing I’d seen before, but we reminisced as if it was. We were fine with the hour -and-a-half wait for a table. It was the kids, the newest comers of all, who grew impatient. Their friends were there, too, but history is lost on those without much of it. They wanted something to happen; they’re always looking for something to happen. For their lack of understanding it, they grow restless with tradition. Our dark corner in the lobby became their base, they coming back from within the crowd only intermittently for a reprieve from the chaos they found exciting and curious. They were thrilled with the surreal celebration of an institution dying. Only after making the long journey home much later that night would they know how exhausting being part of that paradox was.”Please follow me,” Nick finally said, looking over our heads, to the patriarch of a family that arrived 40 minutes after we had. As his glance came back to the tablet of names he held in front of him, it scanned my wife’s face. For an imperceptible moment his grin froze and tried hard to leave. In the melee he had forgotten us. He laid his hand on her shoulder, silently directing us to follow him to a table set for six on the patio.The kitchen was overwhelmed, the service was slower than ever, and the bartenders too busy to even hand over a free drink. Nobody had ever seen the place like this. Everybody tipped more than average. The blowhards and windbags were out in force. One after another they shook Nick’s hand and orated too long about dedication, loyalty and generally good citizenship. Afterwards, they all bought T-shirts, insisting on seeing all of the colors available first. It would be a little something to remind them of their memories. The second, or third, margarita came and went while waiting for the desert that never got ordered. It was then that I began to think right. We were putting up with this chaos together simply because it was going to be the last chance that we could. This three-hour meal in a place that only slightly resembled the La Cocina that I used to know was not a celebration of the past. It was nervous energy. Hell, in most towns this size there’s a dozen simple restaurants with simple themes serving simple meals for simple prices, and run by nice families. If one of those families decides to call it quits and do something else, everybody wishes them the best and doesn’t sweat it much more than that. Another simple place will turn up. But, that’s not going to happen here. We all know what’s coming and it’s going to be pretty, a little too pretty, just like most every other replacement around here, including the townspeople. It’s fine if you like to visit. I guarantee you though, after a few months, maybe a year or two, possibly even as long as a decade of living here, it starts to feel a little uncomfortable.We need places that are comfortable.I’m skeptical now. I don’t believe we’ll have another place around here where we can all get together for some dinner and everyone feels comfortable. If somebody finds it, I hope they tell me about it. I’m buying the first round. Of course we’ve got to blame somebody. But, it’s not Nick’s fault for selling his building or the new owners for replacing it with a more expensive one any more than it is yours or mine by paying for both of them. You can’t cover a $5 million dollar investment selling $11 burritos. For half of the past 33 years Nick has carried our torch, defying the laws of economics and time. He and his family held out longer than most. I savor the last bite that I will ever have of a No. 3, or did I order a No. 5? I can’t tell, never could. Finally, I’ve had all that I can take. There simply is no more for me. I’m never coming back to this place.Roger Marolt believes that nothing will happen to the town because La Cocina is gone. It’s only fallout. Send an e-mail to email@example.com
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Vagneur: Today’s the big local’s day, even though the celebrating may need to be a bit different this year.