The Shaman of Friendly's

As I sit alone in a computer lab and sip my morning coffee from a paper cup to ward off the cold of this January morning, I am reminded of a woman I know who used to serve up coffee every weekday to every kind of human being imaginable in a small Connecticut town--painters, photographers, May-December lovers who had slipped away from their spouses to start the day together, truck drivers, sanitation workers, bankers, secretaries, shop clerks, ne'er-do-wells who always had just enough change in their pockets for that morning cup....

They would sit on stools around the bays of the diner where this woman worked or, in the case of the lovers, they would slip into a booth as if the walls of their seats somehow made them invisible to passersby outside the plateglass window. This waitress would bring them their coffees in the diner china mugs that kept the heat for a very long time, and they sat over the steaming brown drink as if there were no other place to be.

Lined up in their row around this public kitchen table, they talked of their lives and their work and their frustrations or they said nothing and read the paper. They knew each other, and from Monday through Friday, they were family--not the Cleavers but a rag-tag bunch of otherwise strangers who expected each other to show up and and knew what to expect when they did.

Every day the woman would leave with pockets full of coins and dollar bills offered in gratitude for the hospitality she showed them. She was the heart of the conversation for them. In addition to bringing the coffee, she brought herself to the table. The painter sought her thoughts on his paintings and illustrations. The photographer brought his images to her first. May-December showed her the rock when the spouses were no more and they were free to marry. And on and on.

Every day the woman would leave with stories she took home to her own family. These were stories about the struggles of a gay artist to get his little rabbits just right for a new version of a classic tale about acceptance. This man lived in the shadows of his own world because his own mother would not accept his homosexuality. And the photographer who was brilliant but adrift and lacking the grit to get his stuff showed. She found him a place to display his work in town. May-December were the story of how strange and sad and lonely and not quite right life can be.

This woman understood these people. They knew it. She loved hearing their stories. They loved that she listened, cared, poured the coffee. The few things they all had in common were that they showed up like clockwork every day in life and they liked being there. They needed to be there.

This woman is my mother. She was a Friendly's waitress for almost 20 years. She was a mom and a friend and a healer to everyone who sat in her bay at that restaurant. She was and is a gifted storyteller. She finds the truth and the joy in everything and takes these for her themes.

Somewhere along th way in her career at Friendly's, the company came up with the dreadful slogan, "Friendly--you bet we are." It didn't last long, and it's just as well. Friendly is enough; it makes everything else happen.

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