Shady’s Goes Jambalaya

Tonight’s menu at Shady’s Cafe is quintessentially Cajun. We serve Mojo Jambalaya, red beans and cornbread for dinner. Dessert is homemade chocolate bourbon bread pudding with vanilla cream auglaise and of course, whiskey-spiked tea. The menu reads, “Whenever possible we have used organic ingredients in tonight’s dinner…Next week: Pot luck – Same Time and Place – Sign Up Sheet By the Door…”

Dan, Viva, Amber and I have more of a rhythm since we worked together last time, but tonight we are overstaffed and there are almost too many volunteers. The kitchen in back is tiny, to say the least, and too many people only equals confusion. But the atmosphere is not about exclusivity and cannot ever become that – so Viva and Dan welcome the help with grace and style, saying “Here, handle the cornbread,” or “Here, yup, back right table gets drinks next.” For a moment, I consider that my ego may be getting in the way; after all, I felt so included last time and everything flowed so well, I had planned on a repeat experience. Dan assures me though, stating that we’ll be serving together again and that’s that.

Any anxiousness I had fades as soon as the customers start arriving. Within twenty minutes half the tables are completely full. Dan and I discuss how to handle vegetarians and the two people coming with known garlic allergies, then we see that we both showed up in identical clothing tonight (completely unplanned). After work, I had shed my teacher clothes (long brown skirt, big necked striped knit sweater, Birkenstocks, and long underwear) and quickly swapped them for my crafts school stylish clothes (faded blue jeans, Asolo hiking boots, tight black shirt with a Guiness logo on the front, and yes, the good bra). When I see Dan we chuckle instantly about our likeness – he wears the exact same brand and style of boots (in similar condition), faded jeans of the same shade, and a black shirt that says Shady’s Café (leave it to the artist gone underground restaurant manager to design and distribute his own business cards, matchbooks, maps, menus, and handmade t-shirts). We high-five at our coordination and agree to take a photo later.

By the time we finish serving the first table (again, back right, then clockwise around the room) the rest of the restaurant has filled and we are at capacity (about fifty people). Viva, Amber, and Sarah serve food relatively fast but there is no sense of urgency because the customers are happily chatting and enjoying the music. Viva seems noticeably uncentered, which she explains to me:

“Well, I got too drunk last night. There was a Valentine’s party at the Resident Barns and I got all jealous because I didn’t get to make out with anyone,” she laughs a little to herself but I know that look and the feeling that sits behind it in the mind and heart. I relate a mildly similar sob story from this weekend and she seems at least a little consoled.

“See,” I say, “what the fuck is it all about anyway?”

But still, Viva is able to maintain her status of woman of the hour, coaching us as we huddled in the kitchen before serving.

“There’s going to be a slower pace tonight. The food is heavy and thick and some of it is cold. We’ll be warming things up slowly but there is only so much room in the oven. People should expect to wait a little. It will be slow and steady and dessert will come out much later,” she is efficient and firm, yet the sweetness of her style and voice dominate her tone. “And we have vegetarians coming and yes, the two no-garlic people, so survey the tables before we prep the plates so we can get it just right.”

The evening wears on and a few new customers arrive (all familiar faces, of course). I get party invites for this weekend, kisses on the cheek, winks for more whiskey tea, introductions to brothers and new studio renters, and then Viva says to me “Yes, we need to have tea together before I leave at the end of the month. We need to talk about the writing and visit and spend time together.”

I pause to look at her soft face and nod in agreement. I point out that our schedules have been impossibly busy the last two weeks and our two attempts to eat dinner together failed.

“Look, if we’re going to do this let’s just do it this week. I’ll just come by your studio, I’ll find you,” I say, leaning in so she can hear me over the din.

“Friday. Lunch. After you’re done with work. Call me and come up. I’ll make tuna on no-wheat crackers,” she smiles, knowing my food allergies, knowing my tastes, sealing the deal.

“Yes. Yes. I’ll call,” I say and return to serving.

The evening finally wears down and Dan and I focus our efforts on clearing the tables casually, so as not to turn-away the ten or so lingering customers. Everyone else has headed across campus for a winter craft sale at Northlight, which means we’ll be finishing up our work a little earlier tonight. Hands filled with empty glasses and a few dessert plates I turn toward the kitchen and see Viva in slow motion as she chats with the clay studio coordinator. Her legs are crossed and her shoulders slumped in an exhausted fashion. She wears a plaid/checked blue and ivory wool skirt that goes halfway down her calves. Underneath are thick black tights and boots that go above her ankle, but are left stylishly open and floppy at the top. Her shirt is a faded light magenta V-neck with a thick band seam but her retro-apron covers most of this. It is her face though, and her hands, and everything – it all seems lit up. When she blinks it is like the poem I could never write, and it is enough to just see her in that light, for a millisecond, and know that some days I can look at the world without a sliver of judgment or bitterness. Her energy and look provides some sort of landing pad for my doubts about humanity, which is precisely why I find it so soothing to be around her.

On the way home there is an accident on the highway and a fireman tells me it will be cleared in just a few minutes.

“Should I head north and take the Sycamore loop back ‘round instead?” I ask.

“Nope, be just a few minutes longer here, just a bit. No one was hurt,” he reassures me.

A few minutes turns into twenty-five (more than twice the time it would have taken for the Sycamore loop) but I cut the engine off and roll down the window. The light outside is soft from the moonlight reflecting on what snow remains. The air is balmy and I will not need to build a fire tonight because of the passive solar design of the house and the good fortune of another sunny day. But the wait in the car does not perturb me. I breathe easily, reflecting on the evening and thinking about the rest of the week. I am grateful to have served a roomful of people I knew almost all of as acquaintances and a good number of as friends. And momentarily, I feel flattered, recalling that Dan had elbowed me in the ribs just before we started serving and said:

“Hey, I read what you wrote about Shady’s last time”

I blush instantly, but accept it. This has been happening a lot since the local article.

“It was, whew!” he continues, blushing and then waving his hand to fan his face. “It was just how I remembered the evening too. There was feeling there. Thank you for what you said, that meant so much.”

I nod, accepting the compliment, and brace myself for another evening full of inspiration, a particular way of seeing the world, and the chance to dance a little in a room filled with life and love.


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