My co-worker Nat passed away two days ago. We knew that it was coming; we had been told that she wouldn’t be returning to work, and she’d been at Penn Hospital for a few weeks. I dropped off a card there on Saturday — it took forever to find how the hell to get in there, and I wasn’t allowed to visit because she had a “family only” policy. That makes sense considering she would only live for two more days. I am not even sure if she was aware at that point to receive the card. It doesn’t much matter, I guess. The card is irrelevant now; a vibrant, amazing woman has left the earth, card or no. Tony told me that she had passed as I began my shift yesterday. I found it difficult to concentrate; our co-worker, Mia, apparently had a breakdown earlier in the day (I came in early so she could leave); and they were just downright hiding it from Sharon, another old timer, until the end of her shift. Matt, our manager, was dreading the call he’d have to make to Tina. Tina, whose regular of 20 years just passed away a week earlier.
I don’t know how it works that customers and co-workers at a stupid diner become a part of one’s life, but they do. They are. We give you your coffee and English muffins (“not too much butter!”) and we gripe about you behind your back (“I’ll give you too much butter, lady…”) and somehow, somewhere along the way, we are all family. 75% of our clientele are returning customers. I see those faces again and again — sometimes more than once a week. Sometimes once a day.
Who are you that you do not have a family to eat with? What work do you do that you cannot muster the energy to make dinner for yourself and your kids? I’m not judging; I am curious. I would never wish that you found that energy, because I enjoy your company (and your money), and the fact that you do not have family nearby simply gives me entry to become the person you talk to over dinner.
This is just a job. It’s not even remotely the work I wanted to do with my life. It is not how I define myself. But for a year now, it’s been the reality. At times I’ve been ashamed of it. Others, I’ve been oddly proud. But proud or shameful, it is what I do. It is my offering to the world. And Nat, she was a lifer. She worked the first shift, called the cooks to make sure they were awake and headed in at six a.m. Then she left, cared for her invalid brother until he passed away, and once he passed, she took care of her grandchildren until her daughter came home. At night, she baked, made dinner, cleaned house. The next morning, she’d be at Lucky’s at five a.m., often with baked goods or food to share. When K left for her cross-country drive, Nat brought in an enormous bag packed with food, supplies, a bedazzled “driving hat” that reduced us to hysterics. For Christmas, she bought me a pair of earrings that “just shouted Lori.” She was right — I love them. They hang on the “Wear Often” rung of my jewelry frame. Nat was the lady at the diner who wore frosted color eyeshadow, whose voice sounded like she had gravel in her throat. She hated waiting on kids (“spend less, need more — I hate them!”), and she sadly epitomized her generation by using a racial epithet every once in awhile. But flaws or no, Nat was a fantastic lady. Even on her crankiest mornings, she’d crack you up with her commentary on humanity, on our small slice of the world. She left us so fast, it still seems like she never left. But sure enough, it’s Cindy who works the early morning shift now. And I’ll never see Nat again.
I had to leave a voicemail for K, letting her know. I did the same when I found out Nat was sick. We just don’t have the same schedules, K and I. She texted me back quickly last night though, having listened to the message. “I just wish I could have seen her one more time,” she said. But Nat didn’t want anyone to see her, not like that. So I’ll remember her as she was: fashionable, for an older lady. She had this tan leather bag with embroidered flowers that I would have worn happily and always complimented. Her hair all piled back up on top of her head, short and highlighted within an inch of its life. Pastel-colored eye make-up — always done, like she had time to do it at four a.m., just for the fun of it. Her peculiar walk, which, even when we were rushed, was always the same medium speed. Her smile, big and friendly, and kind of rare — at least the genuine ones. I’ll remember her for her generosity, her mothering, her sense of humor. She was just a good lady. Just all around a good lady. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her, and I know she’d tut-tut at that, but deep down, she’d appreciate the sentiment.
Written April 14, 2009. Featured image Sun-Times portrait of Marie Williams by Rich Hein.