Friday’s lunch hour at Daniels’ Diner was a fisher of Catholics. Being the second busiest lunch of the week, its swivel counter stools were filled with men in hats. A fleet of Fedoras docked at the restaurant’s speckled Formica counter; the 50 seat dining room filled to capacity with businessmen, priests, and ladies who lunched. The Diner’s popular Friday lunch menu often forced Grandpa Collin to lock the front door at the height of rush. For any number of customers leaving, only as many were allowed to enter. Diners would line the front sidewalk along Fairground Avenue, between parked cars and the two-story brick flatiron building, sometimes angling around the corner onto 8th street. The smell of home-cooking enticed travelers from the train depot across the street as well.
On Fridays they did not wait long. Tables turned.
Waitresses in their white starched uniforms, lapel name tags, and black aprons darted between tables, behind the counter, through the kitchen’s swinging doors like albino worker ants carrying green band Buffalo china, glassware, hot cups of coffee, or the day’s plate special: fried catfish fillets with all the fixins and creamy Cole Slaw in monkey bowls.
One of those Fedora-wearing-men sitting at the counter was a new salesman for The Ohio Valley Uniform Supply Company located in Evansville, Indiana. Later, when recounting the events of this particular Friday, Grandpa Collin nicknamed him Red, because he’d never seen a man’s face turn so bright a color. He looked to be in his thirties, about the same age as my grandfather. Perhaps he’d recently begun working for the company and was responsible for their southwestern Indiana territory. During the first few months he must have done his research, known that Mean’s Clean Towel Service—a local company—had been supplying the Diner since my Grandpa Collin bought the restaurant four years earlier.
This Friday in 1955 Red must have timed his stop in Fort Sackville precisely at noon to have lunch at Daniels’ Diner. The day-shift cook had called in sick and Grandpa Collin found himself in the kitchen working the grill. At the height of the lunch rush he spotted his waitresses gathered round the Fedora-wearing-man sitting at the end of the counter. Not one for pretense, my grandfather yelled from the kitchen, “Get your ass back to work!” The waitresses quickly returned to business. Only moments later, when Collin again looked up from the grill, the waitresses were once more gathered round the man, his cigarette smoke wafting above their huddled heads, circling his hat.
This time Collin stormed toward the group. One of the waitresses saw him approaching. She signaled the others. Attention was once again hastily returned to the Friday lunch crowd. Red, seeing Grandpa Collin for the first time, stood. He offered a handshake, introduced himself, and tried to speak about the uniform business. Clean towels too. “You’ve got a great place here, Mr. Daniels; I’d really like the opportunity to be your supplier.”
“Mister, we’re covered up. You gotta leave my girls alone.”
“Absolutely. I was just showing them some of our latest styles. Where do you currently get your uniforms? I assume Mean’s is your towel supplier?”
“I don’t have time to talk. Neither do the waitresses. Looks like you’ve finished your lunch. One of the girls will bring you a cup of coffee shortly.”
Grandpa Collin returned to the kitchen.
In Fort Sackville it was common knowledge that my grandfather hated two things: salesmen, and salesmen that took another paying customer’s seat.
But Red? He didn’t give up so easily.
Grandpa Collin had a reputation. He grew up during the depression, suffered abuse, knew hunger. He was a Navy man that could fight. Grandpa Collin did not like fools. If tramps riding the rails or vagrants wandering from town to town appeared at the restaurant’s back kitchen door, they got a meal. Grandpa Collin understood their kind. But salesmen? Forget it.
Red sealed his fate when Grandpa Collin, for the third time, looked up from the grill to find the waitresses gathered round him once again. Red had his uniform sales-book open, the waitresses’ attention captured.
Grandpa Collin slammed his steak weight on the grill; the dining room went silent. When he again sailed through the kitchen doors, removing then throwing his grease-stained apron to the floor, and approached Red from the service side of the counter, utensils paused in mid-air.