When I’m feeling hungry, I like to find those old hole-in-the-wall restaurants that look like they’ve been around for generations. The paint is usually chipping around the window edges and not all the stools are working in the breakfast bar area.
As the waitress approaches to top you off, the coffee pot looks like it has served your father and grandfather. She greets you with phrases like “sweetie” and “honey.” It makes you feel good inside.
I like those places because with all their wear and tear, they show you that with a little grit, you can make it through almost anything.
Today, many of them are closing their doors. The pandemic and its political aftermath were too much, even for the diners and corner cafes of yesteryear that survived world wars and depressions. It makes me a little sad to think that almost all we have left are big name restaurants with shiny menus and shinier tables.
Earlier this week, I stopped by a barbershop I had never previously visited in a small town near the Mexican border. Named Al’s Barbershop, I was attracted to it because it was in an older looking building that in its heyday seemed to be home to several businesses.
As I walked in, I was greeted by an older man with a big and friendly voice. He was almost done cutting up a town regular. I asked him if he accepted credit cards and he said that he didn’t but not too worry about it. He told me that he won’t go chasing me around town if I don’t make it back with the $12. I knew I was in the right place as soon as he said that.
I asked him if he was Al himself, and he said no before going on to tell me the history of the building, one of the oldest in town. He shared a lot of history as he made his way through the cut. I learned about the military base adjacent to the town, the different canyons just outside of town, and a little about a couple of famous musicians who have museums named after them in another small town just down the highway.
He went on and on, and I didn’t say much myself. He never asked me again about the cash, but I did return with his $12 after a visit to the bank down the street.
Cafes, barbershops, bookstores, and other small businesses that have stood the test of time are what make our communities special and dear to us. They served our parents and now they serve us. They make money, and sometimes they don’t, but they stay open because they care about the people — they care about us.
So, every time I’m traveling to a small town, or a big city, I look for one of these places. I look for the struggling blinking neon sign that is often accidentally left on after closing time. I look for the barber chair that has a strip of duct tape on it because it’s still too good to throw away.
I look for the smiling faces and I listen for the “come on ins” from people who are working day and night, not be rich or famous, but to make me feel like someone that is.
I like those places, and as they have done many times before, I hope most of them make it passed this tough time. I would like my kids to experience them one day.