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Tales of the White Front: Part 3

By Yvonne Nyenhuis

Fri, Sep 6th, 2013
Posted in All Commentary

By Yvonne Nyenhuis

As dawn creeps into the valley, I step out on the cement apron under the canopy of the White Front. There is a stillness, a quiet beauty. The last stars twinkle and are gone. A translucent turquoise invades the sky and dispels the geometric shapes of the neighboring houses. Windows fill with light and the promise of a new day.

I imagined myself as the narrator in the play “Our Town” watching Grover’s Corners wake up and come to life. To me our restaurant was always a stage. Our customers appeared, spoke their lines and performed reliably each day. There was Jim Peterson ready to see the humor in life, Everett Johnson, in his red overalls, his white hair covered by a baseball cap, Andy Drake who was blond and handsome, Jim Wagner who often looked tired and Al Vogen, who was slight of build, wiry and intense, his voice low, his words forced through thin lips with a suggestion of a smile as he exchanged pleasantries with the others.

Most of our days were evenly measured and had a dependable rhythm as our customer’s behavior was governed by their habits. Every day at ten-past eleven, “Ore Borgen” came through the door and took his place in the third booth. He ordered a glass of water and a bowl of soup. When he finished his soup, there was a tapping sound as he knocked loose the old ashes from his pipe. Soon the aroma of fresh tobacco filled the room. It takes an old man steeped in tradition, who has time and is unhurried, to smoke a pipe.

Another gentleman in his 90s came at noon, sat in the first booth with his back to the window, which faced the street. We wondered why it was that the sugar container at his table needed to be refilled each day after his visit. This mystery was solved at last. We saw him dump one third of the container into his soup. Most amazing, this day he was having clam chowder! It seems that the sense of taste is often dimmed as we grow older. For him, sugar was a way of regaining flavor in his food.

At 6 a.m we turned on the lights. There was a deafening roar as we started the exhaust fan over the fryers and KNXR played the National Anthem. While the days began in a reliable fashion the events of the day were often full of surprises.

It was a stifling hot, humid Sunday morning in July. We were enveloped in a misty vapor where there should have been air. There was a throng of tourists and locals: one sweating mass of humanity.

One of the waitresses came running to me, her eyes wide with excitement as she spilled out the words. “There’s a truck going down the street without a driver. There’s no one behind the wheel!” I followed her to the doorway in time to see the back of a green pick-up truck. It veered to the right and coasted into a utilities pole. In that moment the lights went out.

Outside was dark grey gloom, heavy clouds hung low. With a ladder you could reach out and touch them. A light rain was falling. Inside there was total darkness. Everything stopped. Silence reigned. The deafening noise of the exhaust fan in the kitchen was stilled. The radio was mute. The hum of the refrigeration was no more. In the dark interior of the kitchen a gas flame could be seen burning under the grill and the burners on the stove. A lone shadowy figure was moving about, my husband, who was laughing at the absurdity of the scene! “Now what do I do, cook with a flash light? Light a candle?”

The customers were making jokes as we all searched for a response to our dilemma. How to play out this hand which fate had dealt? It was a whole new set of rules. Do we serve cold coffee or heat it on the stove? Toast was “out.” Cinnamon rolls were “in.” Thoughts tumbled over themselves in my head, like stones being polished. How long would we be without power? Refrigeration was a major concern. We could ladle up ice-cream in soup bowls! Were we in danger of a major melt down where the meat in the freezer would thaw and turn into a soggy mess? The truck had knocked out a transformer. An emergency crew arrived from the electric company. We kept an eye on their progress. In an hour power was restored. By then the customers had filtered out, returning to their individual pursuits.

In general, Sundays took on characteristics appropriate to that day. At that time it was tradition to come to the White Front after church for coffee or a late breakfast which often included pancakes that famously covered a dinner plate. Olive Haugan explained to us when we took over: “First come the Catholics, then the Lutherans, followed by the Methodists!” Every one made themselves at home. The women cheerfully served coffee to their friends, helping out the busy waitresses. There was a buoyancy to the spirit of the room and the sound of laughter.

Also at that time Sunday dinner was in vogue.We served marvelous beef and pork dinners with mashed potatoes and gravy. Farmers in the country side came to town to enjoy a break in their routine. We were open seven days a week. Sunday we closed at two. We considered this our “day off.” I asked Glenn if he ever missed getting out into the world? He replied, “Hell no, the world comes to me!”

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