“Oh, holy shit, what’s this all about?”
I understood his reaction. Working the graveyard shift at a pancake house, you witness all kinds of crazy stuff, and not all of it translates into funny stories to tell your friends. When you’re first starting out, it can be difficult to know the difference between what will later be an amusing anecdote and what will later be a police report.
It’s not like we were always getting robbed, but it wasn’t unheard of, either. Dealing with the occasional stick-up is the price you pay when you live in a shit neighborhood and don’t want to commute very far to get to your minimum-wage job. I could have hopped a bus and gone an hour uptown, and I wouldn’t have had to worry about getting robbed. But that was another couple hours of my life wasted on commuting, and another sixty bucks that I would have had to spend on shit that was non-essential. Back then, if it wasn’t food, rent, or school, it wasn’t essential.
Point being, you either got used to the crime in this part of town, or…you didn’t. It was there, either way, and I don’t just mean robberies. Working the graveyard shift in the in a dive diner in the shit part of town, you bear witness to all kinds of wickedness.
The man that had just walked in wasn’t a criminal, though—or, if he was, he had never shown his criminal side in the diner. In fact, he wasn’t even one of our stranger patrons. Compared to some, this guy was pretty normal. I looked over at the new guy—Matt, his name was—and wondered how long he was going to last if guys like this were scaring him.
“Don’t worry, Matt,” I told him, “Heybuddy’s cool.”
“Heybuddy,” I said, pointing in the direction of the quickly approaching man. Tough to tell his age for sure, but probably in his late thirties or early forties. His gray hair wasn’t overly long, but it hung down in a way that made it look like it was—shaggy, I guess you might say. It stuck out in places, matted in clumps and jutting out in directions that pretty much defied gravity. Although his clothes were always semi-clean, he gave off the vibe of a homeless person. Not because he was dirty or smelly, but just because he looked like he could play the part really well. Hanging around his neck was what at first glance might be mistaken for a heavily-worn fur scarf. On closer inspection, you could see that it was a string of plush puppies all tied together, like something you might see displayed at a carnival booth. “Get the ring around the bottle, and you get your pick of any of these stuffed puppies.” Like that.
“Hey, buddy!” the man cried out as he approached. Once you heard the enthusiasm in his voice, or saw the gigantic grin on his face, it was even harder to tell his age, because he seemed so much like a little kid.
“Hey, Heybuddy,” I replied. Matt started to pull out a menu, started to bust out into his spiel about how welcome to the Pancake Palace, how many in your party. There even used to be a bit about how you asked them would they prefer smoking or non-smoking.
We were supposed to say that welcome to the Pancake Palace shit to everyone, but as late-night rolled around, you were mostly dealing with the throw-aways of society, and they just got confused by the niceties of a prepared speech about how pleased we were to serve them.
Heybuddy was a special case anyways—he knew exactly what he wanted, and what he didn’t want. What he wanted was the table over by the third window from the left, a glass of iced tea (with two refills, please) and the rib-eye steak special. Two biscuits, a side of green beans, and a dish of gravy. What he didn’t want was someone giving him a menu and welcoming him to the Pancake Palace.
I put my hand out in front of Matt’s chest, stopping the spiel and stopping him from handing a menu to Heybuddy.
“Heybuddy, this is Matt—new guy.”
“Hey, buddy,” Heybuddy said, and extended his hand.
“Hey,” Matt said, putting the menu back into the little wooden slot beside the cash register. He didn’t offer his own hand.
“Matt’s new, so he doesn’t know about your usual, he doesn’t know about your seat, and apparently, he doesn’t know about shaking hands.”
Heybuddy smiled his enormous smile and dropped his hand. “Well, hey, that’s okay! Takes everyone a while to learn at a new job!” He gave the thumbs-up to Matt. “You’ll catch on in no time!”
I walked Heybuddy over to his usual seat, and placed his napkin-wrapped silverware on the table. “What can I get for you, HeyBuddy?”
I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
“I’ll have my usual,” he said, because he liked to say it.
“All right—rib-eye special, medium-well, two biscuits as the sides that come with the special, as well as a side of green beans, and a dish of gravy.”
“And I’ll just have iced tea to drink, please, with two refills.”
“Can do,” I told him, and flipped my order book closed, even though I hadn’t written anything down. It was all part of the ritual. “I’ll get your tea, and that steak’ll be comin’ out in just a few.”
“Thank you kindly.”
I walked to the order-up window and yelled back to Ralphie. Ralphie was the cook, and his real name was Rafael, but none of us called him that. He was in his late twenties, and when he wasn’t at work he was either in clubs or in the gym, working out so that he would look good when he went to the clubs. He shaved his head bald because he refused to wear a hair net, and he had a scar across his forehead that I never asked about. He was a nice guy; funny and quick-witted, especially when he came to work with a sex story or a hangover.
He came walking up from the depths of the kitchen, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and a yellowish goo dripping from his hands. It sort of looked like egg, but there was really no telling, and I had long ago learned that it was better not to ask the cook what his hands had been in.
“Heybuddy’s here,” I told Ralph.
He gave me a thumbs-up, and vanished back into the kitchen. I walked back out into the dining area just as Matt finished checking his tables.
He had waited tables before, so he knew what he was doing, for the most part. He knew how to make the old women giggle, and how to treat the self-important men with enough artificial respect to get a good tip. He knew when to pour it on, and when to chill out, and he knew when it just wasn’t worth the effort. Bad tippers exude a certain aura, and when you’ve been waiting table for a while, you can spot a shit-tipper in under five seconds.
It was about ten o’clock, so the place was pretty dead. The drunks hadn’t started pouring in yet, and the real people—the ones that just wanted some supper—had already come and gone. We had about five tables, not including Heybuddy, and Matt had made sure that everyone was okay for the next ten minutes or so.
“So what’s the story with that guy?” He asked, nodding sneakily in Heybuddy’s direction. Heybuddy noticed, and nodded back. Then he waved real big, just in case we didn’t see his nod. I waved back, smiling almost as big as Heybuddy.
“I don’t know his story any more than I know the story of anyone that comes in here.”
“I don’t mean his whole story. I just mean…I don’t know. Is he retarded?”
“I don’t think so. He’s not the sharpest knife in the rack, but I don’t think he’s retarded. He comes in every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night. He always gets the same thing—always—but he still likes you to ask him what he would like. He gets a real kick out of being able to say ‘the usual.’ He likes it if he can he have that particular table, because he parks his bike just outside there, and he can see it if he sits there.”
“What happens if the table has people at it already?”
“Sometimes he’ll take the table on either side, but if they’re all full, he’ll just wait. If that happens, you wait until the table’s being cleaned, then you stick your head out the door and holler to him that his table’s just about ready.”
“Seems like a lot of trouble for a guy that just orders the rib-eye special.”
“We don’t go to the trouble because of what he buys—we go to the trouble because he’s a regular, and because he’s a nice guy.”
When I had first started working at the Pancake Palace, I had wondered what the big deal about Heybuddy was, too. Everyone made it a point to stop by his table and say hi, and some of the waitresses even stopped and chatted for a minute or two. I didn’t understand what made him special for almost a month. And then one day, as I was taking an order, I heard the bell over the door ring, and when I looked up I saw him.
And I suddenly realized. Heybuddy was important because he was a regular, and he was a good regular. If you were busy, he waited, and no matter how long the wait, he was always nice. He was a pleasant person to talk to (although he talked pretty loud most of the time, whether the diner was packed or almost empty), and surprisingly entertaining. He had a wealth of stories that were truly interesting, and many others that—although not particularly exciting—were still fun to listen to because of the excitement with which he told them.
But more than that, Heybuddy was comforting. He was a familiar face in a place where the patrons were always changing, and where the staff changed almost as often. It was a big, unfriendly city, and if you were working at the Pancake Palace, things more than likely weren’t going too well for you. Heybuddy was something you could count on, someone you could look forward to seeing.
Of course, none of this really describes it very well. You know that feeling you get when you look up and see a friend unexpectedly? That’s how it was when Heybuddy came in. Because you heard that bell, and you knew it could be a potential robbery, or a potential angry customer (which was better depended on what kind of night you were having), and then you saw that it was Heybuddy, grinning that huge grin at you and waving, and for just a second, the world was a better place. I know that sounds silly, but that’s how it was.
I didn’t say any of that to Matt, though. I just said, “He’s a good customer—you’ll see.”
When it was ready, I took Heybuddy’s food out to him, and when he was finished eating it, he came up to the register and paid with a ten and a five. If you actually rang it up, the price of his meal was something like $12.87, but we never charged him for the extra biscuit or the gravy. In fact, we never really rang him up—when he approached the register, you just typed in eleven dollars, and hit the SALE button. He would pay with his ten and his five, and then when you gave him his change, he would walk over and put three of the dollar bills on the table and tuck one of them into his wallet.
Heybuddy waved as he left—that almost comical over-exaggerated wave that you usually only see from little kids—and shot us another one of those huge grins, and then he was outside. We watched him through the windows as he made his way around the corner of the building and over to his bicycle.
It was an old bike, with a heavy frame and giant tires. Even back then it was old and bulky and oversized. There was a wire basket attached to the front of the bike, with a cardboard box sitting in it. Heybuddy opened the top of the box, peered inside, and then closed it. He climbed onto the massive bike, manhandled it off of the sidewalk, and then rode away into the night.
“So what’s in the basket?” Matt asked.
“Beats me,” I told him.
“Nobody’s ever asked?”
“It’s not our business.”
“Your business or not—in all the time he’s been coming in here, nobody’s ever asked, hey what’s in that basket?”
“Yeah, people have, I guess. He just tells ‘em ‘this and that.’”
“‘This and that?’ What kind of an answer is that?”
“The only answer he gives. Nobody ever presses.”
“Hm. So he’s in here three or four nights a week?”
“Three nights. Never changes. Nothing about the routine changes.”
“Still seems like a lot of trouble to go through for some retarded guy that only gets the rib-eye special.”
I turned and looked at Matt. “Listen, man, I know you don’t come to this joint to make friends, but I doubt you come to make enemies either, so you probably want to watch what you say about Heybuddy.”
“What the hell does that mean?” He looked a little uncomfortable, and although I hadn’t been trying to make him feel uncomfortable, I didn’t mind it too much.
“The people here really like him. Not just the people who work here—the other regulars really like him, too. You’ll probably end up liking him, too, actually. My point is, if you say bad things about him, you’re just asking for hostility.”
“Maybe. I’m just telling you.”
“Well thanks, I guess.”
“No sweat. Oh, look here—our first drunks of the evening! This is where it gets fun.”
And then we were into the drunk rush, Heybuddy forgotten.