Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Sunny-Side Up

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Sunny-Side Up

Article excerpt

On the corner of Northwest Broadway and Everett in downtown Portland, Oregon there is a greasy spoon of a restaurant called John's Cafe. I call it Police Headquarters because on any given morning you can find at least seven or eight cops at the counter mopping up their eggs with dry toast and washing them down with around five cups of industrial-strength Folgers. From 8:30 to 10 a.m., Monday through Friday, John's Cafe sits on the safest square block in three counties. It's run by an old Greek immigrant, his wife, and their 18-year-old grandson who acts as dishwasher, busboy, and interpreter. It is the kind of cafe that your doctor warns you about, a kind of cardiac hell. But I still love it. The service is good, the ambience is vintage 1962, and they cook my eggs just the way I like them. In the Hannon family, that is just about as good as life gets.

So when one day Stanley Wicks asked me if I wanted to take him out for breakfast, it was the first place I thought of. And for the next two years, on the first Monday of each month, Stanley and I would have breakfast together at John's Cafe. It became our regular haunt. We would meet at St. Vincent de Paul Church where I worked, and together walk the five blocks to John's--rain or shine. We would sit in the same booth, the one closest to the bathrooms, having arrived with some amount of fanfare and fuss. Stanley, being a rather large man and loud, would enter with cheerfulness dripping off him like water, saying hello to everyone, patting the shoulders of all the cops who, after the fourth or fifth time, rightfully concluded that Stanley was harmless and refrained from instinctively reaching for their weapons. He would blow a kiss to Sylvia, the grandmother stationed behind the counter, and wave to her husband slinging hash at the grill. I half-enjoyed the spectacle, respectful of the fact that in a large city, this was Stanley's home base. He was like Norm Peterson in the situation comedy "Cheers." Folks like Stanley gravitate to watering holes and eateries like John's Cafe because they are places where everybody knows your name.

Placing our order was like celebrating the old Latin Mass: it was a ritual wrapped in mystery and awe, lost to all but a very few who were privy to its inner workings. Stanley had to have coffee from a fresh pot, and it had to be poured in a mug that was free of chips or stains. His eggs had to be cooked over easy, with the stress on easy. The toast had to have just come out of the toaster. (It is a huge pet peeve of mine that at Denny's the toast is always cold.) It had to be cut diagonally and placed around the plate. Hash browns had to be brown, not yellow. I know all this because that is how Stanley ordered. He was specific and unapologetic. And he ordered each time like it was the first time he had set foot in John's Cafe. It was grand theater, and I loved it.

One Monday, Stanley seemed sullen and unlike himself. He didn't kid me about my age, reminding me that he was one year older, that his middle name was John, after John XXIII, that I looked like Robert Kennedy, whose older brother was also named John, and wasn't that a coincidence. He didn't call me "bucko." Or mess up my hair. Or ask me what I thought of his new shoes, which were actually eight months old, but I still said were the cat's meow, which always made him laugh. No, we had none of this playful banter as we walked from the church to John's Cafe. No patting the cops on the back. No blowing a kiss to grandma. No saying howdy to the cook. Stanley sat across from me and fished out four or five prescription bottles from various pockets and counted out his medication and placed them on the table as he always did. Without those pills, Stanley would be languishing in a state hospital somewhere counting the ceiling tiles instead of being here where he needed to be, blended into the soup of humanity.

Our breakfast arrived and I dug right in, leaving Stanley in the dust, nibbling his toast like a mouse and sipping his coffee. …

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