I’m a very blessed person. I actually enjoy my job a great deal, even though most people wouldn’t want it. I’m a waitress at Caffeine High. No, I’m not an actress or director. I have no scripts to sell. I don’t have an agent. I’m a waitress, period, and I love it.
Being happy with my job makes me a generally happy person. The reason for this is simple. I’m a people-person. I love to watch and listen to people. I enjoy hearing their stories, their jokes, seeing first dates, business lunches, job interviews, and every other situation that walks through the door and sits at my tables. I’ve seen seven wedding proposals, countless break-ups, four women go into labor, and one child conceived in the ladies’ room. Despite all I’ve witnessed, I’m still surprised by the human race and what we are capable of. Case in point, our most recent bi-weekly staff meeting.
“Let’s go, people. Find a seat quickly and quietly,” booms Larry’s baritone voice through the tiny diner.
Not good. Larry only goes back to his teacher roots when there’s seriously bad news. Only twice previously has Larry spoken to us in such a manner. The previous two involved us finding out his wife and co-owner, Cybil, has breast cancer, and that a new employee was arrested for selling drugs behind our dumpster.
The long-term employees know something is up and sit down immediately, nervously looking each other over. Larry looks terrible, even more so than normal. Larry is a large man, carrying at least 270 pounds with a thick, short build and long cheeks hanging below his jaw. Larry is a big, but Godly man, with his heart on his sleeve. His big brown eyes cry at least twice a week. We love him.
Larry covers his face with his left hand while he grasps the counter with his right. Cybil strides through the double doors from the kitchen and begins to rub her husband’s back. The gesture seems to work. He wipes his face with his hand and looks at his alarmed staff.
“Unless business picks up, and I mean fast and heavy, we’re going to have to shut the place down within the next two months.”
Before we can properly expound our outrage and disbelief, Cybil cuts in. She wears her custom blue checked bandanna, pirate style, over her smooth head.
Cybil’s voice is soft, but clear, “We know how you feel, even more so. This place is our baby. But, we feel we have to be honest. We’re saying that things are not going well, and honestly, they don’t seem like they’re going to improve.”
Larry gains more composure, but his brown eyes remain wide and scared, “We’re telling you this now in case you want to start looking for a new job. We understand about bills and groceries and families. Please tell us if you need references, advice, anything.”
Larry bows his head and speaks to the counter, “We are so sorry. For all of you.”
We spend the rest of the week stunned, working in a fog. The joy of my job is muted, my head whirling, trying to figure out a way to help, to keep things the same. I pray to God like never before. I speak with my priest, make prayer requests daily, and start buying a lottery ticket on the way home from work. I know things are bleak, but I never allow myself to be consumed by darkness. It just isn’t in me. Besides, God has never failed me.
Despite that knowledge and my faith, I’m human and humans have doubts. My only true pleasure is our number one customer. Too bad he never pays us.
I see him before he even crosses the street. I smile and look at my watch, 9:02, right on time. Same camouflage jacket, stained jeans, and ragged old school Converse sneakers. Same smile and outlook on life. Johnny, coming for his daily “fresh start”.
By the time I serve three local and loyal customers, Johnny has made it across the street and through our doors. It’s easy to tell how many regulars are in the establishment by their reaction to Johnny when he charges through the door.
“Mornin’ all! I’m ready for my daily fresh, Katie.”
“It’s on the way, Johnny,” I answer pointing a thumb over my shoulder to Larry. Every single day for the past six years, Johnny D, a cute form of John Doe, comes in for coffee three times a day, nine A.M., one in the afternoon and just before we close our doors at ten P.M.
Johnny smiles directly into the faces of those he doesn’t know and waits for them to react. Regardless if he’s told to buzz off, asked, ‘Can I help you?’, or simply given money, Johnny’s response to these people is always the same.
“Aren’t you an interesting and wonderful specimen? Don’t forget, God is watching and he’s counting on you.”
Johnny then gives a huge smile, two thumbs up, grabs his coffee (no cream, three sugars) from the counter and points a hello to Larry. It’s during this time, when Johnny appears to be reading his paper that I finally ask him.
“Johnny, what exactly is God counting on us to do?”
I can see his beaming smile reflected in the window in front of him. He turns to me and says, “To take advantage of what we have. To pay our debts. To make the most of our fresh starts. To help others, and to do all that for His will and not our own.”
Johnny smiles up to his green eyes, tosses his stringy blonde hair away from his face and turns back to his comic page. In a moment, he starts his other daily routine. Reading us each and every frame from each and every comic with his patented snorting laugh. Within ten minutes, even the most patient of patrons have left our establishment shaking their heads, often glaring at Johnny, then at us for allowing him to be so disruptive. Only the regulars are able to tune him out and return their own routines.
During Johnny’s 10:15 bathroom break, our newest employee, Mark, asks the same question we all had within our first month on the job. Mark is a bit more direct than we were, but then again, now we all have to start reading the classifieds for job openings.
“Why do you guys let him do that? Did it ever occur to you that he’s killing our rush hour business every damn day? Maybe if you got rid of him, you wouldn’t have to close this place. For God’s sake, he doesn’t even pay for anything.”
Larry glances at the clock, sees that he has four minutes until Johnny comes back for his third and last refill.
Sighing, he gives his standard answer, “Johnny is still a child of God, just like you and me. He gives us the gift of laughter each day and that is worth much more than a cup of coffee. Johnny also shows us what we could be, if we were so lucky.”
Puzzled, “What? Insane?”
Sternly, “Don’t do that. Johnny is pure, honest, and hides nothing. He only wants good for people no matter how they treat him. Again, being inspired like that is worth the cost of the coffee and paper. Understand?”
He doesn’t, but lets it go, because Johnny comes back grinning from ear to ear. Then makes a stunning announcement.
“My time is done here, folks. I’ll be movin’ on. Larry, Cybil, Katie, Lacey, Skip, Mark, I want to thank you kindly for your constant hospitality and inspiration. As well as my fresh starts to my many days. Here’s my first and last tip. Good luck to all of you.”
Johnny stuffs an envelope in the tip jar and struts out the door and across the street. I’m about to run after him, for no other reason than to ask why, when I’m distracted by the sound of breath being sucked in, followed by a heavy thud.
Shockingly, Cybil has fainted. Even more shocking, Larry is struck silent. He keeps moving his lips soundlessly, brown eyes bulging. As my fellow co-workers help Cybil up, I pick up a fallen letter.
As I said, I’m movin’ on, and as you know I believe in settling my debts. You are now paid in full. Good luck and God bless. Thanks again for so many fresh starts.
John E. Dougherty”
Larry shoves a check in my hand. I feel my eyes widen.
“Come on, Larry. He doesn’t have this kind of money. He’s homeless. He’s-“
A memory stirs. John E. Dougherty.
“Not the John Dougherty, the guy who won the lottery and donated it to charity?”
“Not all of it, apparently.”
“So, he’s giving us-“
“A fresh start.”
Steve Uppendahl is a middle school teacher and coach. He has a lovely wife, Trina, and two beautiful, young and exhausting daughters. Steve loves to write whenever he can and loves those at FW for their inspiration and support.