Though it was illegal to work at that age, my dad got me my first restaurant job at a college joint named Big Eds a few months before I turned fourteen. Little did I know I’d been apprenticed to a great tribal chief. My father always denied violating child labor laws that prohibit working at such a young age. If Ed would have taken me in at twelve I’m sure Dad would have signed me over then.
Walking into Eds restaurant was like walking into the end of a Junior High make-out party. You knew something interesting was going on when you stumbled into the basement rec-room, but it was too damned dark and smokey to do anything but step on people as you tried to find an open space on the couch. I never knew why Ed kept the lights so low in a restaurant without any windows. Perhaps it was to hide the nicotine stained ceiling panels that hovered just a foot above the clientele at the bar. Maybe some of the regulars were long dead and he didn’t have room to store them in the cooler.
After opening the first windowless door I usually paused a moment in the closet sized entry before opening the second windowless door. This gives your eyes a moment to adjust before stepping into the 12 table legendary establishment. Ed was a tall Texas good ol’ boy who picked up his cooking chops as a Marine. He met his Mormon wife Barbara while stationed at a Utah military base, converting to Mormonism only to marry her. After hearing the first joke out of Eds mouth there was no doubt he was not a practicing Mormon.
“Hey Timmy, I saw Johnny is trying to grow a mustache. I told him I’ve got more hair growing wild on my ass than he’s ever gonna see on his face.” If Ed wasn’t laughing he was working like the devil or sucking down a beer. “OK Timmy, its beer-thirty.” Beer-thirty came at 3:30 – Ed arrived at 4am to open the restaurant by 7am. He taught me how to pour him a beer right up to the edge of the cup (no head please) before my fourteenth birthday.
Ed’s had a very dedicated clientele, some who would come in at dawn and not leave until closing. You’d recognize them in the morning by their ceramic hats – empty coffee cups perched rakishly on their heads – waiting for another free refill. In the afternoons you’d know them by the sound of empty beer bottles trying to find room on their table. Come closing time they were not recognizable as human being, peeling themselves off the wall in expectation of another dawn, another day at Eds. We all had the same shocked look when we stepped outside, having forgotten the sky existed.
All the waitresses had their favorites – some were stage hands, some professors, some just regulars. John and Richard, two disabled men were at the bar almost every day I worked. Both living on disability, they formed a tight family with Eds acting as their front porch. Richard had been ill since birth, John suffered a brain hemorrhage during a long distance race that left him partially paralyzed and mentally challenged. Christmas Eve might find them sitting at the bar, working on their tenth cup of coffee.
I worked about 30 hours a week in the summers and 10 during the school years and as much as I could over holidays. Eventually I worked my way up from dishwasher to cooking in the kitchen. That’s when I got to know the Good Ol Boys Tribe. My father was one of its members, which put me in the odd position of relating to him as a visitor in the Sacred Land Of The Kitchen of which I was a humble slave.
It started before noon every day of the week during the school year. One of the college professors pushed the swing-door open and took up a position between the freezers and the grill. He might try to motion to another professor, someone not yet initiated into the tribe of Big Eds Good Ol Boys. For a few moments, these well educated gentlemen of academia would forget about the complicated world they spent their days in and hang out with the Workin’ Man. Ed would “Shoot The Shit” with them, as only a Marine from Texas can, while I scurried around like a cross between a cobbler’s apprentice and a mouse trying to get orders out.
The kitchen could barely fit two cooks, adding four or five academics into the mix didn’t help much. Of course if I said anything I’d probably have to spend the day cleaning the toilets with a toothbrush. As it was my Dad would quip Ed wasn’t working me hard enough. “No really Ed, work him to death if you need to. College is expensive these days!”
Good Ol Boys got their meals handed to them in white bags where they stood, custom made to their liking. They’d look out through the kitchen door at the customers the way an insider would, both appreciative and disdainful. Some of the greatest legal minds of our nation picked up jokes they’d likely never be able to repeat to anyone while waiting for their burger and fries.
Though most customers were not allowed back in the kitchen, Ed knew how to approach anyone and make them feel at home. I remember one professor in particular, he always came in alone just before closing. Ed always had two pork chops waiting for him.
Professor K. was on the downward slope of middle age and still living at home with his Mom. A brilliant chemist he always carried on a conversation with an invisible companion. “Have you ever walked by the bathroom while he was in it?” Ed asked me one evening. “He’s talking to his body parts. The conversations when he’s peeing are the most interesting.” Though Ed enjoyed the occasional laugh at K’s expense he always took the time to talk with him about his life and family. I know the professor felt like he was eating at home when he ate at Ed’s. We ordered food just for his nightly visits with his invisible companions and cooked things up just how they liked them.
Tribe’s like Eds are the result of years of someone showing up with an open heart every day. The food had to be good, but the heart made all the difference. Ed fed rich intellectuals and disabled paupers one step away from homelessness. They were all warmed by the same uniquely Texan charm, and some really good food. I learned later, after he’d moved on from his restaurant that he thought those years were the best of his life.
Eds was a refuge for me for years. I learned to smoke there – buying cigarettes when you could still get them out of a machine. In the darkness I hid from adolescence, becoming a regular like the others – eating my paychecks away when I wasn’t working. Most regulars pretended I wasn’t a kid while I shared a smoke with them, I even ran into a few of my high school teachers in their off hours.
The rules of conversation were different at Eds. Anybody could talk to anybody. Gay men hung out with straight men, teenagers with professors, dancers with construction workers. The only thing not tolerated was bullshit. Eds was an embassy for our souls.
He sold the restaurant before I was done with my adolescence. The new owners took on the cooking tasks and I was out of a job. My one safe haven from the madness of childhood was dissolved from my life. My brother and sister, and a good many of my friends worked at Eds. Getting his kids jobs there was a genius stroke on the part of my Dad. Not only did it keep us busy, it exposed us to the good and bad of the world with a big Texan watching our backs. It inoculated me against the white bread flavor of suburbia, making it necessary to seek out the dark, smoky back rooms of the world. You know, the places where all the really cool people hang out.
At Eds I learned not only how to get food out on time but also that a dinner table could feel like a magical oasis, impervious to the suffering of the world. Better than the UN, people of all stripes and ages could imagine for an hour or so that they were related to everyone else in the room, and that peace prevailed.
The last time I saw Ed he stopped by my folks house for a Christmas party. He was no longer married, dating a woman who was a good deal wilder than his wife. I tried to explain to her what was so special about working with Ed. “He has a poet’s heart.” It was out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying, a sure sign of its truth. Ed understood most people better than they did themselves. You’d never think of him as sensitive, but he was deeply so. How else would he have been able to make everyone feel so at home?
I’d love to share some of Ed’s more sophisticated recipes – his chilled borscht, Texas chili or amaretto cheesecake. Ed’s is still in operation, even if I could remember all of the ingredients I’d probably get sued for publishing them. Instead I’ll list an item that was not on the menu for years, I think the new owners put it on there after being asked by the regulars for it so often. Ed’s cure for a hangover:
The Gawd Awful
Start out with a pile of fried hash browns.
Cover that with chili – don’t skimp on the cayenne.
If you are a protein starved college student you can add a hamburger patty at this point.
Two eggs over easy or sunny side up on top of that.
Cover with grated cheese, green onions, tabasco and ketchup.
Consume with a beer, yes even if it’s before 10am.