The Cafe Was Closin’…

Athens  Dairy QueenI’m in Athens, Ohio, working on a couple of projects with Curator Jessica and getting ready to head up to Columbus Sunday to pick up Friend Anne, so the two of them can Road Warriorette back to Florida with me.

I hit town and promptly came down with a killer sore throat. I managed to make it through a 2-hour video interview, but by the next day my voice was reduced to a croak and my head felt like there was a basketball inside trying to get outside. I alternated between being completely stopped up and having to carry a bucket to capture the drips.

Saturday afternoon was spent wandering around a huge rural cemetery looking for a grave that would “tell the rest of the story” of one I did in 1970. The man and his wife weren’t were they were supposed to be, so I guess I’ll have to try again later.

A greasy burger called my name

Union Street Diner 05-10-2014I took a two-hour nap and woke up feeling both better and ravenous. Somewhere in Athens, Ohio, I knew there was a greasy hamburger calling my name. There was: I ended up at the Union Street Diner, and it was all I had hoped for.

On the way back to the motel, I stopped to shoot night photos of a number of small businesses, some of which had been in business when I worked here.

Only a few cars were left in the Dairy Queen parking lot, and the waitress was stacking chairs getting ready to clean up the day’s messes. I decided it was worth a U-turn.

While shooting this, John Prine’s song, Far From Me started playing in my head.

As the cafe was closing on a warm summer night
And Cathy was cleaning the spoons
The radio played the hit parade
And I hummed along with the tune

She asked me to change the station
Said, the song just drove her insane
But it weren’t just the music playing
It was me she was trying to blame

And the sky is black and still now
Up on the hill where the angels sing
Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle
Looks just like a diamond ring
But it’s far, far from me

Y0u can read all the lyrics here, or listen to John sing it here. You can click on the images to make them larger.

“Mom” of The Hilltop

Back in the days before fast food joints, every town had a “Mom” and a Hilltop Restaurant. This Hilltop was owned by Mom and Pop Pennell in Athens, Ohio. (You can click on any photo to make it larger.)

Athens Messenger Chief Photographer Bob Rogers and I practically lived there. It was just up the hill from our photo darkroom, it was far enough from downtown and the university that parking wasn’t a problem, it had good homecooking and comfort foods in large quantities, and, most importantly, it was cheap. Oh, man, I just got a craving for her hamburger steak with gravy, mashed potatoes and corn.

Lots of hustle and smiles

“Pop” worked the kitchen and grill. “Mom” waited tables, handled the cash register and acted as traffic cop behind the counter. It was the kind of place where the regulars would flirt with the waitresses, then pull family photos out of their wallets to show around. The highway patrol headquarters was just down the road, so this was a good place to meet troopers on “neutral territory” to swap war stories.

A time for reflection

One day, Bob and I did a picture page on “Mom.” I took this photo, and Bob had a more arty shot of the restaurant’s neon sign shot through the window. That pretty much defined our shooting styles: I was the more literal journalist and he was an artist with a camera.

Here was the copy that ran below this photo: “You meet a lot of people in 10 years at the same location. At closing time, when business starts slowing down, Mom can sometimes be coaxed to talk about some of her favorite customers. Like the college students from years back who still visit her, or the hitchhiking servicemen she’s given money for bus tickets. The end of the day is a time for reflection, and Mom Pennell, owner of The Hilltop Restaurant, has a lot to reflect on.

The morning the story ran, we stopped in to get her reaction. We watched customer after customer come in with the page cut out so they could give her a copy. That’s when I realized that I had the ability to make someone Queen for a Day.

I’ve always said that my goal was to do stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things. I liked to photograph people who were unacknowledged by the paper except when they were born, when they got married, when they got a speeding ticket, and when they died. Somebody else could have the celebrity beat.

Good coffee in an honest mug

The Hilltop was a place where you could get a good cup of coffee served in a heavy mug. Even though the portions were big, I always managed to save space for a slice of her homemade pie or a huge ice cream sundae. At the time, I weighed all of 132 pounds, so I could get away with it. Or, maybe it just caught up with me in my 40s.

Visiting with Bob

That’s my partner Bob. We liked to think we were her favorite customers, but I’m sure that all of the regulars felt they held that honor.

It’s tough being a “Mom”

“Mom” was always upbeat in front of customers, but when she thought nobody was looking, she’d let her guard down. It was a tough job. I don’t think The Hilltop was open seven days a week, but it opened early for the breakfast trade and stayed open for dinner. On top of that, “Mom” had to do the baking. She might sit down to pass a few words with a customer, but those breaks were short and seldom. I don’t know how old she was, but even a younger person would find it hard to be on your feet as many hours as she was.

Where was Cape’s “Mom”

I’d nominate Wayne’s Grill’s Dorothy for a “Mom.”

The Colonial Tavern/Inn was Dad’s favorite morning coffee stop.

Copyright © Ken Steinhoff. All rights reserved.