Afternoons at The 20th Century, the new restaurant that my Dad and Uncle Jack opened on Valley Mills Drive, could be excruciatingly slow. After the noon rush, the place often was virtually empty until suppertime, when business finally heated up again.
When my shift included the hours after lunch, my job, if there were no customers, was to clean the dining room thoroughly, a task I loathed. As much as I loved being Lord of the Grill, when I could display my virtuosity as the orders piled up, bringing complex combinations of burgers, dogs, fries, rings and shakes together with a wave of my magic spatula, I found busing tables and mopping floors to be unbearable drudgery.
The bustling metropolis of Waco is the seat of McLennan County, which was in those days dry. Liquor stores were not allowed within the county line and restaurants were prohibited from serving alcohol. This was Baptist country, and the Baptists ruled. The ban extended to all citizens, regardless of faith. Only in the privacy of one’s home, or in a private club, could intoxicating spirits be served. As a result, private clubs, convenient legal exceptions to the enforced city-wide abstinence, flourished. One merely had to pay a temporary membership fee at the door to be admitted.
Often The 20th Century was visited in mid-afternoon by one of the waiters who worked at the supper club just up the road. He always ordered a Superburger, fries and a Coke to go, paying at the counter in the invariably empty dining room.
One day that summer, workmen began digging a trench for a new sewer line down the middle of Valley Mills Drive. This meant welcome business for us; we were now serving large hungry and thirsty men huge orders of burgers and fries, and giant soft drinks by the gallon. Drinks, by the way, are the big money items for a fast food restaurant. The margins for sandwiches are painfully slim, but the drinks are cups of pure liquid profit.
That afternoon, well after the noon rush, four men claimed a booth in the dining room, sweat dripping from their faces, their clothes muddy from working in the trench, grateful for the chance to sit and eat for a spell in an air-conditioned room. Dad worked the counter, sharing good-natured conversation with them, while I wiped tables and swept the floor. I’d have to wait until these last customers left to bring out the mop.
The waiter from the supper club walked in. He was a tall, muscular man whose impressive presence was somehow magnified by the impeccable uniform he wore. Black slacks, matching burgundy bowtie and jacket over a starched white shirt. He came to the counter and ordered his usual meal from Dad. A Superburger, fries and a large Coke.
The workmen at the table turned as one and stared in disbelief. Their jaws dropped open in unison. Their conversation ceased. Time seemed to be suspended in the room for the eternity it took Dad to cook and deliver the bag of food to the man, and for him to exit.
When the door had swung shut, one of the men finally spoke.
“Lou,” he addressed my father. After several days of dining here, the men were on a first-name basis with Dad. “I didn’t know you was INTEGRATED!”
Cheerfully, Dad answered, “Always have been, boys.”
“Well, gosh darn,” another of them chimed in, “we really like eating here. We like your food. We do.”
“Glad you enjoy it,” Dad smiled.
“But, Lou, we can’t eat here anymore.”
“Well, I’d be really sorry to lose your business. It’s been nice having you here, but that’s how I go.”
The men started to get up from the booth.
“Take your time, boys,” Dad said “No need to rush. Finish your meal.”
When they had gone, Dad just shook his head and stared off into space for a long while.
Then he told me to get busy and finish mopping the floor.