The restaurant’s open sign was dark, but the thick, beveled windows revealed that a back table had four men sipping coffee. Behind them on the wall was a big-screen TV showing Saturday cartoons. I tried the brass door handle. Locked.
A temporary sign to one side listed seasonal business hours. I was 20 minutes early.
So, I left, but as I passed the adjoining hotel’s entrance, a white-haired man in bulging half-zip sweater stepped out. His sleeves were pushed up. A stained white towel hung over one shoulder.
“Care to come in for some coffee, sir?” he asked.
I stopped. “Oh, that’s fine, but I’m looking for a place to eat, too, and I see you’re not open yet.”
“That’s OK, sir. I’d be happy to serve you coffee until we do. You come in for some coffee?”
I nodded and said thanks as the man backed aside and motioned me in. The door was heavy and dark like the one for the restaurant, and it opened into a small lobby. Past the empty front desk, which had a slotted wall behind it and a numbered room key dangling from each slot, was a passage to the restaurant.
“Please sit anywhere, and I will bring coffee over to you right away,” the man said as he followed me through.
The restaurant’s décor was as dark and heavy as the door, assuring a gloomy ambiance even on the sunniest days. All the tables and the thinly padded chairs were against the far wall or close to the picture windows facing the street. A long, carved wood bar curved from beside the passageway toward the back near the big-screen TV, which had its volume set at just above a hum.
I slid onto one of the square-backed bar stools. They were aligned at 45 degrees toward the picture windows, through which one saw the gas station across the street starting to receive a flurry of business. The man set a ceramic diner mug in front of me and a one-page menu. He introduced himself as Mo, owner of both the restaurant and hotel. His accented English put his heritage closer to Europe than to the southern Illinois riverbank town where the restaurant sat.
“We’re not open for lunch until 11,” he said as he poured. “But here, you can see what we have, and I will make sure they get it going for you when we do.”
I said thanks. Mo pushed over a carousel of coffee creamer, sugar, and stir sticks, then went over to the back table and sat with the other people who I saw through the window. Though the room was warm, the three around Mo had on light winter jackets that bulged tight around their ample mid-sections the way Mo’s sweater did.
On my second sip of coffee, one of the men chuffed quietly.
“Sir? You called him Sir? When did you start doing that?”
“Shh,” Mo murmured.
“Looks to me like he should be the one calling you Sir.”
Two other voices chuckled. Mo ignored this.
“So, you sold your car?”
“Yep,” said the first voice. “$500.”
“Then let’s go out and get drunk,” the second voice said. More chuckling around the table.
“A 2007,” the first voice continued. “Needed $3,000 for the transmission. Not worth putting that much into it. Found someone in Jerseyville to look at it. Couldn’t get anyone in St. Louis to look at it for me.”
“Not much use going up there for anything,” said a third voice.
“How old’s your car?” Mo asked.
“Mine? Less than a year,” Voice No. 3 responded. “Didn’t want to deal with all that hassle.”
“Well, I would have fixed it up,” said a fourth voice.
“You? Whadda mean?” Mo replied. “You’ve got that big truck of yours. It’s not a month old.”
“That’s what matters,” Voice No. 3 said. “One of those big trucks. Or an SUV, the ones that sit up high off the ground so you can load stuff into it. If you’re going to buy something, buy something like that.”
“Yeah, don’t get one of those small trucks,” Voice No. 4 said. “They aren’t worth it.”
An outer door near the TV opened, and a young woman in a green Southern Illinois University pullover entered. Morning sunshine poured through just long enough to highlight the thick lacquer over the bar and the age of the men around the back table.
“Hello,” she said to Mo. The door thumped closed like a bank vault.
“Hello. I’ve already given the gentleman a menu. What’re you doing here so early?”
Voice No. 3 interrupted. “Change the channel while you’re at it. Something like the news. We should listen to what that new president is saying. Makes more sense than watching cartoons …”
“… More entertaining, anyway,” said Voice No. 4.
Chuckling went around the table again. Then all four took sips of coffee before the man with Voice No. 4 cleared his throat and rose.
“Yeah, well we’ll see how entertaining,” he said. “I want to see him actually do something.”
“About Obamacare?” said Voice No. 3.
“About that, immigration, anything,” he replied. Unlike Mo’s accent, his and the others’ fit the region. I wondered what they thought of Mo the first time they met him?
The others also rose and replaced the chairs under the table. One by one, they carried their mugs to the end of the bar and turned to leave in single file.
“See you later,” Voice No. 2 called over his shoulder. “Thanks, Mo.”
“You’re welcome, boys.”
Mo put the mugs on a tray disappeared through a door behind the bar. The woman was already busy wiping up the rest of the bar as the table emptied. On the TV, the channel remained unchanged. A “South Park” rerun was starting.
“So, I think Mo let me in because he saw me at the door,” I said to the woman. “But did I interrupt something?”
“Nah. Just their usual weekend gathering,” she answered as she brought over the coffee pot to refill my mug. She introduced herself as Jessica, a senior at the university represented on her shirt who after three years was working her last weekend for Mo before starting an internship. “Every Saturday, they’re here. You must have come up close to when they were breaking up anyway.”
“You open at 11. How early do they come in?”
“Oh, it can be early. Sunup sometimes.” She held up the half-filled pot. “This might be their third or fourth.”
As she replenished my mug, Mo reemerged and headed toward the lobby. It was still too soon to unlock the restaurant’s main entrance.
“Jess, I’m going home now for a little bit. Call me if you need anything.”
The lobby door thumped closed right as another woman emerged from the door behind the bar. Her gray-blonde was hair tied up above her neck, and her chef’s coat was clean but fraying around the collar and sleeve cuffs.
“So, where’s he going?”
“He’ll be back,” Jessica said as she replaced the coffee pot on its warmer.
“Well, text him to come back with ice. The ice maker’s out again.”
“And are we changing the channel?”
“They’re gone. Whatever.” Jessica turned back to me. “Do you have a preference?”
I said no.
She reached beside the coffee maker to pick up the TV remote, a black bar of plastic almost as long as her forearm. Jessica held it over her head with both hands. The channel change ended on Fox News and aerial video of women’s marches taking place that morning around the country. She set the remote back down and returned to work. The sound remained on the edge of audible.
The woman in the chef’s coat clicked her tongue at the images on the 60-inch screen.
“Yuh huh. I heard some sort of marches were happening everywhere today. Think there’s one in St. Louis, too, right? I don’t have time for any of that.”
“Me either,” Jessica said without looking back up. She wrung her hands. “I just don’t understand what all the fuss … I mean, I’ve got too much else going on in my life right now to worry about anything like that.”
Jessica’s college major is criminal justice. In a week, she begins interning with the county probation office pushing paperwork she hopes will push people out of the legal system and into assistance. She knows that about 90 percent of the cases involve drugs – heroin and methamphetamine foremost among them.
She knows about 90 percent of the people, too. She grew up here; she understands their pain and the frustration causing it. Those people, not the marchers, are her inspiration, which is why her fingers are crossed that the internship turns into full-time work.
She is not optimistic, however – about the job or the people.
“If they get out, there’s nowhere for them to go,” Jessica explained after the woman in the chef’s coat left the room. “State doesn’t have any money – they get out and go right back to what they were doing: nothing. No jobs. I’m not saying jobs will keep them off drugs. But if there’s something out there they can look forward to, they might not go back to drugs once you get them off.”
Jessica glanced back at the TV screen, then at the floor.
“I mean, I know these marches matter. But Trump says he’s going to get us jobs. Right now, to me, that matters more.”