(Lisa’s note: this happened on November 19, 2016, when I decided to close the restaurant part of my business. The wholesale part is still going strong. Thanks everyone!)
They file in on cue, awkwardly, hesitantly, a bit suspicious of what is to come.
Nine gentlemen walk through the door of the restaurant. They will be our final guests before we shut the doors for good.
I made the decision to walk away from the restaurant world three months earlier. For someone who worked most of her career to finally pilot her own ship, it was an unimaginably hard decision to make.
I lived and breathed restaurants for almost twenty years.
My brain taps along to the Morse code of the ticket machine. My heart pulses with the hum and swoosh of the dish machine. My head pivots to sound of the bell ringing, calling servers to come get the food. My soul loves the sound of utensils clinking on plates.
But now it feels like preparing for death. In a way, it is. I am saying goodbye to a way of life that I have embraced for so long. And like anyone facing death, I wonder if there is life on the other side of the Styx. I wonder if it will hurt. I wonder what I will do next, if there is indeed life after….
I do know one thing. I don’t want to slink away at the end of the night. I don’t want to post a note on the door for my employees telling them we are no more. I don’t want to just disappear.
I want to go out proud, and with dignity.
I want the last meal I serve to the public to be one that means something, that will make people remember us kindly, perhaps. I want to use my restaurant one last time to be a part of the neighborhood and do good.
The nine men walking in the door are key players in this. They are from a organization in the neighborhood that helps people deal with HIV. And these nine men have been living with HIV for a long time now.
Tonight, they will do me the honor of being my last guests.
Of course, I cook way too much food. Of course, they don’t eat half of what I think they will. We end up distributing care packages of food around the park to the unseen people, the ones that are forgotten, the homeless.
The men sit, a bit nervous, not sure of this largess that is being thrown their way. But they eat, and as they eat, they begin to open up.
They tell their stories. They talk about their pain. They recount their daily lives. And all through the dinner, in the quiet camaraderie, they simply are. It’s wonderful to see.
I don’t go out to talk to them. I am too shy, and I don’t want to them to feel obligated to thank me or anything like that. I want them to eat and enjoy, to let me, let us do what we do best: feed and serve.
I’m holding myself together pretty well, like a lighted firecracker bound together with duct tape. Despite the emotions of the night, my stern impermeable facade stands tough.
And then as they get up to leave, one of the men hands me a silver dollar. He gives each of us one. He calls them his worry coins, says he keeps one in his pocket to turn over and spin when he feels nervous.
Another man, actually several of them tell me thanks, and say how this was their Thanksgiving dinner, since for many, they are estranged from their families.
I crumble. I feel like I failed. I wish I had thought about it more, about their circumstances. Had I realized that this would be their holiday dinner, I would have made a turkey, a traditional feast. I feel thoughtless and foolish.
But they smile radiantly at me, and my staff and I take comfort in that. We may have filled their stomachs; they have filled our souls.
After they leave, I lock the front door. We clear up the dining room, and I make one last family meal. Because this staff, these people who are still here with me, they are family now. We eat, laugh, cry a little.
I touch the silver dollar in my pocket, now my talisman for luck.
I get home, walk through the door into the dark living room. I pick up the dog and sit, hugging her like a rag doll.
It’s been a good chapter.
It’s been a great story, so far. It’s not over yet.
Tomorrow, I sharpen my quills and start writing the next page.