Cold Coffee, by Terry Barr
The year I started teaching in South Carolina, I’d often get up at 6 am and head down to the diner closest to us, a place called Bullock’s. My wife didn’t have a job yet, and truthfully, we were both teetering on depression. We had left Knoxville that summer—a town we had lived in for eight years, where we had met and fallen in love, and where her family, immigrants and refugees from the Ayatollah’s Iran--still lived. Knoxville had hosted a World’s Fair, had a college football stadium that accommodated over 100,000 fans, and offered restaurants serving as many international cuisines as a person could name. My wife had even waitressed in one such place, The Bahou Container, a Middle-Eastern café owned by an Iraqi family, the Talo’s, who offered us occasional free meals—vegetarian stir-fries (the “Farmer’s Market”) and Chicken Divan-- and generally treated us as if we were their children.
Greenville, in that summer of 1987, had one “natural café,” Annie’s; a chain of pseudo-Italian restaurants, Capri’s; and a German deli with two locations, The Red Baron. We knew no one in Greenville, and the college where I began an assistant professorship in English that year, Presbyterian College, was located 45 miles away in a former and now-depressed mill town. Clinton had a Pizza Hut, a Holiday Inn, and Robert’s Drive-In, a meat and three that used to be THE hangout for the local KKK. Even before learning that fact, my wife had taken one look at Clinton and said, “Nope, not gonna do it,” in her beautiful accented English.
So we chose Greenville, which was a larger town and offered us affordable downtown living. We found an eighty-year old apartment complex that rented us a two-story townhouse for $375 a month. Today in booming downtown Greenville, such a place would go for at least $1250. But that’s another story that’s been well chronicled in publications such as Garden & Gun and Southern Living.
My story focuses on a Greenville that was emerging, though we didn’t know it then, from the sort of urban flight plaguing most southern downtown cities. In the Greenville of 1987, downtown restaurants were mainly lunch places, and the few that did open for supper, like Annie’s and The Red Baron, or Charlie’s Steakhouse, served only from Thursday through Saturday nights. Those other nights, downtown looked like a scene out of The Walking Dead, after the zombies have caroused its streets.
My college, while generously offering me a position right out of grad school, couldn’t believe we didn’t want to live in Clinton, and so my department colleagues saw nothing wrong or shameful in providing me with 8 am classes three days a week, 9:00 on the other two days. It gets old trying to rise that early, make coffee for one, and figure out something to eat that would sustain me until noon or later. My drive was 45 minutes one-way, and 7 am was the latest I felt comfortable leaving. So on those 8 am class days, I would head to Bullock’s, located on Laurens Road less than a mile from our apartment. On some days when I overslept to 6:45, I’d just grab a large coffee with cream. On the days when I did get up on time, I’d dress as quickly as possible, kiss my sleeping wife, and arrive at Bullock’s for breakfast by 6:20.
Bullock’s was a white brick building with a red balloon-awning out front. To its right was an empty lot, and on the side of the building, Bullock’s had a hand-painted sign in flowing black script. I knew that the place had been there since the 50’s—the menu was clear about that—and I wondered if Bullock’s had seen better days or if these were those days.
You could sit in the dining area at one of many squared tables strategically placed on a beige-colored tiled floor that might have been original to the structure, and which you never wanted to inspect too closely, or you could sit, as I normally did, on the rounded diner seats at the counter, facing an ancient Bulova clock that still, as far as I could tell, kept perfect time.
My wife and I had ventured into Bullock’s not long after we moved, enjoying “breakfast for lunch,” since Bullock’s served breakfast anytime between its opening at 6 and closing at 3. Their cheese omelets and home-fries looked and tasted about like you’d imagine: American cheese, grease sliding from the eggs, potatoes softly-browned. We didn’t eat red meat then, and every time I ordered, I’d have to explain to our waitress,
“No meat please.”
“Not even sausage? We have links and patties.”
“No ma’am, no thank you. But maybe an extra biscuit?”
Our waitress never asked why we chose no meat, and though she looked at us like we were an American and an Iranian-immigrant out of place, she still smiled, at least on our third visit.
My wife usually handles these encounters better than I do. Born in Alabama, even in my red-meatless days, I found it difficult to pass up sausage and especially bacon. For her, as long as the home-fries were well-cooked and crunchy, life was good, or as good as living apart from everyone she knew could be.
Bullock’s offered meat and three’s, too, but we never ordered even a vegetable plate there, only breakfast. I can’t exactly say that it became “our place” in that first year, but it became a comforting thought, a reality where after the first few visits, the cashier, who may or may not have been a Bullock herself, greeted us like we were regulars, which, I guess, we now were.
I, of course, was even more regular on all those early mornings. Sometimes I might ask for onions and peppers in my omelet, but usually it was “the usual,” cheese omelet, home-fries, and multiple cups of coffee—Maxwell House—which tasted fine as I sipped it looking out at the rising fall and winter sun.
My usual waitress, whose name may or may not have been Doreen, had a slightly dark complexion, brown hair that covered her ears just to her neck, and a look that suggested that she hadn’t risen much before I had. When she smiled, it was soft and unforced. But she didn’t smile often, mainly, I think, because one of her lower front teeth was browner than the rest. But then maybe I wasn’t as pleasant to smile at as I liked to think I was, the thirtyish me on no coffee, that is, and facing a drive and then a class where I’d expound on the joys of subject-verb agreement.
Clearly, there were no frills in Bullock’s, and honestly, every American cheese omelet looked and tasted the same. Dry. I know my Alabama mother wouldn’t have approved of the cooking style, because the omelets were over-cooked, brown all over, and fairly hard, except for the grease.
“You can’t overcook an omelet,” Mom would say, “or it will turn hard, like your daddy cooks them.”
She was right: dad could have excelled as a Bullock’s chef. In her kitchen, however, Mom would ensure that each and every omelet she made was soft, the cheese barely melted but blending perfectly with the egg.
I couldn’t worry about quality-cooking on these mornings sitting at Bullock’s counter, wondering if I would last in a job where your worth was often measured by how many comma splices you found in student essays, or whether you were still a member of a Christian church. I was failing in both measures that first year. So often, my breakfast at Bullock’s was my day’s pinnacle.
I had few colleagues that I considered friends. Most were much older than I was; some had never heard of MTV; others still lamented what The Beatles had done to music; and no one knew anything about the films of David Lynch, even that diner culture phenomenon Twin Peaks, when it hit three years later. I know I looked down on everybody at the college in that first year, and I thought that after two or three years, we’d move away and find jobs more suitable to our cosmo-urbane lives.
When I sat at Bullock’s counter, no one really knew me; no one there judged me—except for that meatless thing—and they even seemed to accept that this guy with very long red hair, a loud houndstooth jacket (remember Willi-Wear?), and black Chuck Taylors might be all right.
What I’m saying is that I thought I was a fit at Bullock’s. I thought I belonged, whereas in Clinton, I felt tenuous. I thought I could live with this college and town for as long as they would have me. Through that first year though—especially after my department chair called me in one day to tell me that every tenured person in the department thought I was trying to “undermine” our freshman composition requirement—it was only the sanity and peace of my wife, and breakfast at Bullock’s, that gave me enough ballast to endure.
Until one morning.
Running late again, I popped in for a cup of coffee-to-go. Bullock’s would give me their largest Styrofoam cup, with a barely plastic lid I’d have to tear my own opening into. Doreen took my coffee order, I gave her a five, and she promptly gave me change. I took a few minutes adding cream (or let’s face it, milk from that ubiquitous metal tin), and getting my lid opening ready for my drive. As I worked, Doreen, who had been serving someone else, came back to my counter-spot, and stood there watching.
When I finished getting my cup just right, I took one sip, and then, as I usually did, said “Thanks and see you later!”
I noticed that she was staring more intently than usual at me, and I wondered in that half-second what was wrong. It was a moment to breathe in, to see a turning. But I didn’t see or reflect or believe that Doreen had anything more to offer. That’s all this was, right? Just a relationship based on needs: mine for caffeine and a full stomach; hers for that special dollar or two I’d leave on the counter by my yolk-stained plate and empty cup.
So I said nothing and instead started walking out. And that’s when Doreen finally stopped me with a sound.
It was actually just one word, a word she stammered as if there were others that could or should have preceded and followed that one. I’m sure her mind wondered what was going on and why I was acting so nonchalantly. I’m sure she was embarrassed. I’m sure she believed whole-heartedly in the word she stuttered:
“PppAY,” she said.
“But I did pay; I gave you a five and you gave me change.”
“Nnno, no, you didn’t.”
Our exchange lasted another few seconds before the cashier, Mrs. Bullock or whoever she really was, came over and asked what was happening here, to us?
We both stammered then, and Mrs. Bullock, accustomed to understanding, or to letting go, or to realizing that everyone believes in his or her own story, looked at me and said,
“It’s all right. You go on now.”
Doreen looked away then, and I stood for another moment,
“But I did pay.”
“I know, it’s all right,” Mrs. Bullock said.
I walked out of Bullock’s then with my coffee, which grew cold on the drive down to school.
It was a blow I felt for weeks. On another day, I found a Krispy Kreme, but it was out of the way, and of course it didn’t have any eggs or cheese near its “kitchen.”
The night of my mishap at Bullock’s, I told my wife what happened.
“It was just an honest mistake,” she said. “It could have happened to anyone.”
I knew she was right, but I also knew that what had happened, had happened in Bullock’s. I don’t remember the rest of that day at school, but what I do remember is that on that day, I decided that I could never enter Bullock’s again. How could I? What would I say? What would Doreen do? Could the two of us ever go back to “cheese omelets, home-fries, and coffee” again?
It was maybe a year later, maybe longer, but one morning on a day neither of us had work, my wife suggested that we go out for breakfast.
“What about Bullock’s?”
Though I didn’t want to go, I thought that maybe my purgatory had lasted long enough. Besides, did anyone besides me remember what had happened, and if so, would they still care? A disputed 85-cent cup of coffee, in the long run, is no big deal, I thought.
We took a back table that morning, and as I looked around, the place was pretty much the same. Maybe the paneled walls looked a bit grimier, but the counter, Mrs. Bullock by the cash register, and all the homey smells were the same. So was the Maxwell House, and so were the cheese omelets and home-fries, served to us by Doreen, who, if she remembered what happened or remembered me at all, never let on one way or another.
Our breakfast tasted as good as it always had, even though the eggs were still hard and dry, and the home-fries, less than crunchy.
The one change I saw clearly that morning was in Doreen: she was a little stooped, had more wrinkles in her face, mainly around her eyes.
And her brown tooth was gone. In its place, there was only a gap. She didn’t have to smile for me to tell.
Not long after that morning, Bullock’s closed for good. As Greenville changed and became more “upscale,” Bullock’s became first a Thai Restaurant, later a Gay Bar, and finally an African-Jamaican eatery.
There are some good and local-owned diners left in Greenville now, but I‘ve never tried becoming a regular in any of them. I still teach at the college, courses in Creative Nonfiction, Holocaust Literature and Southern Jewish Literature. The college no longer requires faculty to be Christian, a change I helped engineer when I decided to adopt my father’s religion, Judaism. I never fully converted, but then, I didn’t have to in order to make my own transition.
Recently, I taught a Food and Southern Literature seminar. As I was discussing John Egerton’s Southern Food with my students, I thought about Bullock’s. I would have loved to take my students there for breakfast, but I wonder if that would have been fair or right? Bullock’s wasn’t an experiment; it was an experience—one I thought for all these years that I appreciated and understood.
The building is empty now. I pass it regularly on my way to The Fresh Market or Borderlands, my favorite comic shop, or to The Kitchen Sync, which says more than I need to about life in Greenville now. Those white bricks at Bullock’s have been left alone long enough to take on that grimy look that white usually turns into when it’s been exposed to the weather, to neglect.
When it rests on a street that is losing its identity, as is happening to the end of Laurens Road where Bullock’s used to be.
And as I think about those early days, I see something else that has tried, but failed, to fade away: that I was the one who was out of place in Bullock’s.
While I’m certain that I paid Doreen that day, I understand thirty years too late that being “right” has costs that we just can’t fully see or value in the glare before our morning coffee or, sadly, after several full cups.
For it wasn’t just my colleagues I thought I was better than.
Terry Barr is the author of Don't Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother and We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornados, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family (Third Lung Press). His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, Hippocampus, Wraparound South, Under the Sun, Flying South, Full Grown People, Eclectica, and Cleaning up Glitter. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family. Read more from Terry at: medium.com/@terrybarr