“I’ve got troubles,” I say.
I’m trying to explain why I’m half an hour late. “Trolley security. Hauled me off the damned train. Lemon Grove. Must have been 20 of them swarming on board. The one time I forgot to get a ticket. This new system sucks. No more transfers, dude! You have to pay for each leg of the journey. They gave me a warning, but I tell you. That MTS. They’re soaking the poor…”
“You will have troubles,” says Hank, “if we’ve missed lunch. It’s three o’clock already.”
We’re here in La Mesa, outside this little corner place that looks a bit like Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe. “Jitters Coffee.” Has eats, too.
“What I don’t get is, why all the way out here?” I say.
Hank goes all misty. “This used to be the Greyhound Depot, back in the day, when I was a kid. This was how we arrived, when we first came to town. Also, they do a great chicken walnut salad. Six bucks.”
I must admit, it’s a cute little place. Creamy bricky exterior with maroon window frames, a canvas-covered side patio, and, I notice, windows festooned with Scotch-taped pink-ribbon “Walk for Hope” cards for breast cancer.
By coincidence, the sparky, trim-figured lady behind the cash register is wearing red and cream too. Red silk tank top and cream pants.
“Are we too late?” I ask.
She looks toward the little kitchen. “Ronny, Vicki, hold it. We’ve got customers.” She turns back. “What would you like?”
Man, what a smile. But concentrate, I tell myself: there’s a whole blackboard to consider. Sandwiches, soups, salads, waffles, and — well, lookie here now…
“Can I still get breakfast?” I ask.
“Sure,” says the lady.
Hank stands looking up at the blackboard.
“Chicken walnut salad, right?” I say. It’s the first item in “Salads.” Has diced chicken, walnut, and celery, for $5.95.
Does sound good. So while I’m eyeballing the menu, I check out the soups (all $3), like chicken and noodle (or rice), chili, beef and barley. And sandwiches. Most expensive are the $5.95 Jitters Club (turkey, ham, bacon, and cheddar); the turkey, avocado, bacon, and Swiss; and the one that almost drags me away from brekky: chicken breast with onions, bell pepper, and raspberry vinaigrette.
“What’s the most interesting breakfast?” I ask the lady. Name’s Camille.
“I’d say the burrito, or scrambled eggs in a croissant,” she says.
Meanwhile, Hank has decided on the salad sampler ($5.95), a combo of the chicken walnut and the tuna and egg salad. “And I’ll take a big garden veggie sandwich in eight-grain bread,” he says.
Camille looks at him. “Salad’s pretty big. Sure you can handle both?”
“I got Garbage Guts here to process the leftovers,” says Hank.
I see the burrito has two scrambled eggs with bacon, ham, and cheddar. The croissant comes with eggs, bacon, and cheddar. Hmm. Just not into wraps in the morning, or eggy croissants. I order coffee ($1.25) and keep lookin’. All the cooked breakfasts are $4.95 each, except for — and I almost go for this — biscuits and gravy. Three bucks. Two bucks for a half order. Man. That’s hard to resist. And in a way I wish I hadn’t resisted, because the scrambled eggs and sausages and wheat toast that I do order are fine but lack that oozy, sausagey tastiness I can imagine in those biscuits and gravy.
Plus, natch, we all get to talking so much, I leave the danged eggs to go cool and a bit rubbery. My fault. But once I start seriously wolfing, and Hank finds it in his heart to shovel over some of the delicious chicken walnut part of his salad, I’m happy. The piece of avo-zucchini-and-cheese veggie sandwich he rips off for me is pretty darned tasty, too.
We’re sitting in all-wooden chairs with arty coffee cup shapes cut out of the backrests. Camille has local artists’ work strung around the walls. And also interesting teapots shaped like elephants and camels up on display shelves.
“My grandfather brought those back from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia,” she says.
It turns out Camille has only had this place a couple of years. “My sister Sara and my niece had just come back from Hawaii. We were having way too much fun, so my husband bought this business to keep us occupied. And boy, has it done that.”
“You should see us in the morning,” says Vicki. She’s come out of the kitchen with a big mop. “The place is packed. Eighty percent of them are locals, regulars, elderly — La Mesa has a lot of elderly — and if you come in, you’re expected to join the conversation. It gets pretty wild sometimes.”
“We have so many Bobs,” says Camille, “we have to have a name for each one. There’s Pineapple Bob, Across-the-Street Bob, Cowboy Bob, Kemo Bob — because his buddy Tonto calls him ‘Kemo-Sabe.’ And every Wednesday, without fail, we get a group of old ladies, 80–90 years old, who’ve all had husbands die of cancer, or who’ve had it themselves, and they just rip this place up.”
You can see, Camille is Peanuts’ Lucy. “The Doctor Is In.” Everybody tells their secrets. And it turns out she has a secret of her own. Well, except that everybody knows. She’s going to have to give up this place she loves. Ronny, who cooked my breakfast, is taking over. “I have cancer, a lymphomic tumor in the aorta. They can’t do much, here anyway. I should really go for treatment at Johns Hopkins, back East. My customers are telling me to go, go. But I’m not sure I want to leave. I just want to have as much fun as possible.”
My gosh. This beautiful, vibrant lady. The phone rings. It’s her mom, worried that she’s not home yet. Hank and I get up.
“Wow,” he says as we take a big gulp of air outside. “So you were saying, you had troubles?”