Monday, January 5, 2015

"Tommy's Cafe"


"Tommy's Cafe"
I'm almost sure few from Selma, California will remember a little joint called "Tommy's Cafe".It didn't stay in business long enough to leave a lasting impression. But it was the one and only grab for the brass ring for my mother and grandmother. 
Situated on the corner of Thompson and then 99 highway, the joint was just across Thompson from Lister's Service Station, diagonally across the freeway from Jim Cropper's Used Cars. The whole building could not have extended more than 20 feet from the front door to the back wall of the kitchen, and no more than 15 feet wide. 
As I recall it had about five tables and a counter, with enough room left to house a juke box and pinball machine. The business had strange origins and a bizarre ending. When my grandfather died in Oklahoma in April of '55 my grandmother sold the family's belongings and moved to Selma, to be with our growing Okie clan there. She brought with her, her entire "estate" hidden in a tobacco pouch and stuffed in her bra. In the beginning she joined the rest of the Friend clan working in the fields. 
Then, one day my mom and grand mom were driving up Thompson Avenue and spied the little abandoned roadhouse, the refuse from some other unfortunate's failed dreams. They got out of the car, peeked through the windows and then and there decided that they could make a go of the restaurant business. I have no idea who owned the property but, as I recall, they got a favorable deal on the lease. So the two women scoured the thrift shops for old restaurant dish ware and cut a deal on some other stuff in a restaurant supply. 
The commercial coffee unit came from Farmer's Brothers? They supplied the coffee station if you bought the coffee from them. The only other thing I remember about the business end of it was that Mr. Capps did our bookkeeping and any excess from the cash register went into a little gray cash box kept under the counter and carried home for the next day's banking. 
So, on one fine day mom and grand mom threw open the doors for business. Granny did the cooking in the back, slid the plates through the open window, and mom served and worked the cash register. The bill of fare was home made Okie food; a full breakfast menu, burgers and fries for lunch, then chicken fried steak, or fried chicken, pork chops, or meat loaf and the like for dinner. The two ladies worked the place from 6am to 8pm and learned that restaurant work was every bit as taxing as a day in the fields. Still, the business thrived from the very beginning. Jim Cropper and his salesmen first began frequenting the place, for breakfast, or a mid-morning coffee and donut. 
Soon word got out to all the car dealers along old '99 and the place was packed all day. My five year old brother became a customer darling and often danced for nickels to Elvis' "Hound Dog" or "Don't Be Cruel". Customer traffic tailed off around 6pm, the only customers being regulars who took their dinner at our place. I recall one particular set of customers who drove my mom nuts. A man and his son would come in for dinner and order the bowl of beans for ten cents a bowl. They would then ask for bread and butter to go along with it and go through half a loaf of rainbow bread and a stick of butter before they were done. The ladies never made a cent of profit off of those two. 
As an aside, I don't believe any other business in Selma had the owners living in a dirt floor garage. Our family, having spent every nickel on getting the restaurant started, couldn't afford house rent, at least until the business got going. So we moved into a dirt floor garage just east of the restaurant property. We took our meals n the restaurant and bathed in a steel wash tub. I was just getting old enough to feel ashamed about that, especially when the Bentley girls, whose back yard was just adjacent to our little hovel, would come back and peer at the dumb okies living in a garage. 
Still, as bad as our living conditions were, there was hope that the little restaurant would some day pull us out of poverty. Alas,, as in all things with my mom, Tommy's Cafe had a sad and abrupt end. My dad, who wasn't working anymore, was lingering around Jack Hupp's car lot and heard that Jack needed more space to park his cars. My dad then and there put his X on an agreement and surrendered our property lease for less than a hundred dollars. My dad then took his ill gotten gains and drove back to the restaurant, stole the available cash from the little gray cash box under the counter, and headed out to Missouri, leaving all of us high and dry. When all of this was discovered at the end of the day my mother and grandmother were stunned and heart broken, their "brass ring" snatched from them with the greatest cruelty. 
But, for a few months back in the mid-50's the two ladies went to bed each night, tired, but full of dreams for a better future and I guess having the chance to dream is a fine thing to have, no matter how fleeting. 
Note: Some of you may have read my story; "Mrs Norman and The Water Biscuits", as posted here before. That tells what happened to us in the months following the end of a dream.


Jerry Carlin said...

Sometimes the real story lays with the storyteller. Nice and refreshing how there is no anger or bitterness in this story. You have a huge respect, admiration and love in this tale and it shines through.

A Modest Scribler said...

Thanks, Jerry. I'm a bit more critical in tomorrow's blog...called "Toad".