The sign that reads “Jack’s” still swings above the George Street cafe. Brown paper covers the windows, concealing the renovation of 42 years worth of greasy memories. It has been two weeks, and I am still sad. I keep thinking about the things Jack would whisper to me.
Think back to the times your friends have gotten married, had babies, and gained promotions. Did you say, “Oh, I’m so happy for you”? Now, think harder—were you really happy for them, or was there a twinge of jealousy. Did you almost immediately compare and contrast your life to theirs?
Before I present my emotional motives and provoke possible tissue grabbing, I want to tell you a story, a story chock full of secrets and explanations of inside jokes. This isn’t a story about how Jack’s Cafe was once called the Hungry Lion or about who bought it or what it will turn into. This is a story of my time as an employee at Jack’s Cafe and what happened behind that orange and pink counter. This is a story about Jack and the things he said to me.
When I first started working at Jack’s Cafe, I was filling in for a rogue dishwasher. Katie Mauldin, the surliest of the waitresses, had frantically sent a text asking if I could wash dishes from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for some cash. I had just been fired from yet another job for being late and needed the money. So, I showed up at 7:05 a.m. wearing a new pink T-shirt and shoes with no tread. Mauldin walked me back into the kitchen, showed me the triple sink and the sponge, looked at me with a half-cocked grin, and said, “Ok, wash the dishes.”
I had never done any job like that before. I'd had some tough jobs before, but never had I worked in a kitchen. By the time 9 a.m. came around, I was in over my head. The customers kept coming in, the dishes kept piling up, and my new pink T-shirt was speckled with bleach stains and grits. Jack’s voice raised above the clamor to say, “Come on in and have a seat.” I could barely keep up with the dishes, and I was tired and messy—I was horrible at it. But for some reason, Mauldin asked me to come back, and I did. At 7:10 the next morning, there I was, ready to spend the next 8–9 hours wondering how much commercial dishwashers cost.
Days turned into weeks. I made a niche for my personality within the group, and the girls—Krissy, Apryl, Mary Beth (affectionately known as "Merbs"), and Mauldin—told me they liked having me around. That was that. I was in. I worked at Jack's. I learned how to portion out hamburger patties, that you can’t pick things up by the grits, and how to quickly clean enough lettuce to feed a rabbit army and work the radio in the back. The radio was where Jack and I first bonded.
NPR was always on when I got to work around 7:15 a.m. I would keep it on in the mornings for the news. Jack would make his way to the kitchen and quietly say things like “it’s a shame” or “it wasn’t always like that” or “gosh,” followed by a sigh. At promptly 11:00 a.m., I would turn the radio to some at-work, people-pleasing station—that’s when the dancing started. I still hadn’t bought non-slip shoes, and the floor was prime for doing the twist on. Jack and I worked parallel to each other, him at the flat top and me at the sink. One day, as I was mid dance move, I looked up from the sink, turned my head to the right, and saw Jack looking back at me. I waited for the embarrassment to creep up, but it never came. His face was the most unthreatening thing I have ever been confronted with. He was chuckling. His cheeks were rosy from the heat of the flat top. He gave me a wink and a nod, then shook his head and rolled his eyes.
As months went by, Jack got more comfortable with me. He started telling me stories that were vaguely provoked by Morning Edition. Jack was a Navy man for years. That’s how he got to Charleston from Texas. He was stationed here and, like any good Charlestonian, stayed. Jack would walk down the line, into the kitchen, and back to the reach-in refrigerator. As he passed by me, I would blow soap bubbles from a big slotted spoon. He would give the greatest chuckle you have ever heard (imagine Winnie the Pooh mixed with the Pillsbury Doughboy, but less cutesy and with a dash of boyish mischief). Then, he would start into some wild tale about nights out on the town in Charleston—running around the city, chasing the good lookers, and visiting bars in buildings that are now home to cheap fashion outlets and art galleries. You know, what any solid Navy man would do with a night off. He would speak softly and throw his hands up at the end of each story, then walk back up to the flat top.
Honestly, I hated the job. Jack’s was always busy, and I was not a good dishwasher. But I stayed because we were family. About five times a day, the girls would yell from the front, “We need more knives!” I would rush to the front, grab the flatware from the dish bins behind the counter, and scrub them down as fast as possible. During these relay races between the sink and the knives, something magical would happen: Jack would growl at me, like he was just letting me know that he knew I was there. It wasn’t mean, and after a while, it became comforting. If dogs purred, it would sound exactly like that.
Poor guy put up with some of the crazy stuff from us. We were five girls and Jack, Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., which gave Jack just enough time to go to the bank or the grocery store in his bright blue Volkswagen Beetle and make it home to Georgetown at a reasonable hour. Note that 3:30 p.m. was also just in time for happy hour. Seeing as how the girls and I didn’t have to run an entire business, we went a drinkin’. Now, not all the time, but some of the time, happy hour would turn into long nights. Some of those nights ended poorly, producing mornings of toothless grins, skinned knees, same outfits, apologies to the CofC basketball coaches (PS: if you are not a member of the CofC basketball team, you are not allowed in the locker rooms for any reason), and—I kid you not—cars driven through front porches. Jack heard all of it. We would stumble in late, sometimes still drunk, and squawking about our late night adventures. He would laugh at us, roll his eyes, let his jaw drop to the floor, and occasionally be a little grumpy about his muck-running girls. Sometimes, on days that I had obviously had one too many because of some deeper, underlying problem, Jack would come back to the kitchen, lean over my shoulder, and tell me a dirty joke. The kind of dirty joke that would make a nun blush in public but giggle in private. It was more like a dusty joke. I never understood how a dirty joke could be so insightful. He was never once judgmental. He had a special, unthreatening, disarming way of making us think twice for a moment while letting us know that we were loved, just as we were.
Jack’s Cafe had some loyal regulars, from the CofC basketball team to men who have sat on the same stool at the same time on the same days for nearly 25 years. And we loved them. We went out for dinner with them, confided in them, and had inside jokes with them. We all had our favorites, including Jack. I’m not going to name names, but there were some folks that Jack would come around the counter for. Folks would come from all over to visit Jack. He would put his spatula down and walk around the counter for a hug. Jack always embraced people with both arms. He would have a big smile on his face and remember everything about them—names, kids, what year they graduated from CofC. Jack was a savant for anyone who had ever spent time in there. He would come back around the counter and tell me all about them: “She was a nice lady, she screwed over her husband, he owned a business that is now gone, he was 19 when I met him, she hasn’t been back in 30 years, I don’t think that is her real nose, etc.” Jack was an expert on humans. He had been quietly observing from behind that counter for years and knew the details of most everyone that walked through his door.
Some days, Jack would be in the kind of mood that can only be described as “a mood.” It was this playful state that illuminated his wit the most. He was quick. He was human in his wit, too—sometimes very sassy but never unwarranted. I remember Jack leaning over to my ear one day and whispering something like “you would think her hair was supposed to be blond,” speaking about Krissy, the waitress with bright red hair and a big friendly smile. Now, Krissy is smart and went on to be a nurse. But she did do things like grab a ticket that read “TO GO” and, underneath it, the word “Danish,” (implying that someone had ordered a Danish to go), then stand at the front of the restaurant yelling “Danish” as if it were someones name, impatiently wondering why no one was coming up for their to-go order. I loved when Jack whispered the things that everyone was thinking but not saying.
The most special thing Jack ever did for me was give me strength I didn’t know I had. He would utter three little words and my heart would explode. These words were sometimes warranted by a look on my face that conveyed weariness. Sometimes, they were provoked by some tenacious act I had preformed but was unsure of. But it never failed. He would look at me with the most honest eyes and say, “What a woman.” In the split seconds following those words, I was impervious. He would reach into my heart and pull out my armor. Like I was a groom on my wedding day and he was my father reaching out to straighten my tie one last time before the ceremony. He didn’t overuse it. It was always special, and it always worked.
I thought I had been happy for people before, until Jack’s Cafe closed. Don’t get me wrong—I am no saint. I had my moment that was driven by distaste for the way Charleston is changing. I was sad that I was losing a very special and safe place. Then, I realized that it wasn’t about me; it was about Jack. Jack, the man who saved me, took me in, turned his head when I was late, cheered me up, and made me believe I was something special. It wasn’t the cafe, it was him. He was my safe place. And he took care of not only me, but a whole group of outrageous girls. Girls that came in on any given morning stinky, hung over, down and out, bruised, angry, sad, frightened, trying our best, real and hopeful for the future.
Call it an epiphany if you want, but whatever it was, it hit me like bricks. Jack was going home. He was never going to get out of bed at 3:30 a.m. to drive from Georgetown to George Street just to make it to the cafe in time to make biscuits from scratch. His back wouldn’t hurt as much. He could cook for fun. Rainy Wednesday mornings around the house were a possibility. Doctor’s appointments wouldn’t be such a hassle to schedule. He could get to that thing around the house he’d been putting off for 40 years. He was going to be home with his true love.
So, I’ll ask you again: Have you ever really been happy for someone? The kind of happy for someone that brings you just as much joy as the person you are happy for, selfless and empathetic?
As all of my thoughts about Jack being at home ran through my head faster than butter could melt on a flat top, my insides suddenly felt like mush. My heart fluttered, and my breath stopped short. I was truly happy for Jack. And more than being happy for him, I was happy because of him. Being this happy, not being a cynical, selfish jerk for a second, and understanding how to truly love a person—that’s the last thing Jack ever gave me.
And Jack, if you’re reading this, you’re the first person I have ever loved more than myself. Thank you, for everything.