Buckhead Tales: In the Presence of Greatness

Anyone who knew my mother knew she liked to arrive early, especially if food was involved. If a restaurant offered a discount for the “Early Bird” special starting at 4:30 pm you could bet she would be in the parking lot at 4:20 tapping her toe and checking her watch. It was this protocol that caused my brother and I to be with her at 10:50 one morning waiting for the doors at the Davis Brother’s Cafeteria to open for lunch. “Got to beat the crowds” was her mantra. “They might run out of tomato aspic.”

I grew up in Atlanta where cafeteria culture probably reached its refined zenith. My dad worked downtown for over 30 years and ate at the same cafeteria at least 3 time a week. On Sundays, with the final dirge of the Baptist organ still hanging in the air, we would rush to our car and speed to Lenox Square to “beat the crowds” to the S&W cafeteria. I always ate the same thing. Country fried steak, green beans, mashed potatoes, corn bread, sweet tea. The tea had to be sweet, but not too sweet. The corn bread better not have any sugar in it at all. Moving down the line we would issue our reverent requests to the staff and watch as it was lovingly placed on the plate. Finally, at the end of the line, the plate would be passed over the counter to us. This was a sacred moment, like receiving communion from the Pope. Even now, over 50 years later, when I see a sign along the interstate advertising a cafeteria I must fight the urge to immediately take the next exit and proceed as rapidly as possible to claim my place in line. After all, you have to beat the crowds. My family laughs at me whenever I suggest eating at a cafeteria and I play along as if it is a joke, but I am not joking. If I found myself on Death Row, and could order my last meal, you damn better know what it would be. And there better not be any sugar in the cornbread.

OK, so back to the parking lot at the Davis Brother’s Cafeteria waiting for the doors to open. This was in the early 1960s and there had been some type of merger between the Davis Brothers and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’m foggy on the details and it really doesn’t matter but rest assured there was some connection there. As the opening time grew closer a few other cars had pulled into the parking lot and my mom started getting antsy. Finally, at the stroke of 11, we could see through the glass doors an employee approaching to unlock the door. That was the sign mom was waiting for. She bolted from the car shouting, “Move out”. My brother and I took advantage of her down field blocking to assure we would be first in line. A few elbows were thrown by other early birds, but mom really had no competition when it came to being first in line. First in line in a cafeteria, there is nothing else like it in this weary world. Mounds of steaming potatoes, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and other delights graced our view as far as the eye could see. It was a pristine setting. Nothing had yet been disturbed by the giant spoons and ladles that would soon be used to dip into the vats of wonder. All the staff behind the gleaming counter looked at us with quiet anticipation. It was a moment of holiness before the sacrament was offered to us on the heavy white plates of benediction.

It was then, in that brief instant between action and non-action, that mom whispered, “Look”. There he stood, the Great One. It was Colonel Sanders himself. He seemed 8 feet tall and appeared to be surround by a blue aura. I swear I heard Beethoven begin to play in the background. There was a certain lightness to his being and in a moment of grace he turned and smiled at me. I felt a gentle summer breeze flow over me even though we were indoors. I knew I was in the presence of greatness. He stepped forward, looked directly at me, and placed his hand on my shoulder. It was then he uttered those immortal words I shall never forget. “Don’t eat any of that god-dammed gravy, it tastes like wallpaper paste”. I later learned that was his pet peeve. He hated what the corporations had done to his gravy. It was the first time I heard anyone speaking truth to power. For the rest of his days he railed against those who would pollute his vision. Thank you, Colonel, for showing up and standing up. Who says our generations didn’t have heroes? God bless Colonel Sanders and God bless the USA.