When I was 17, I waited tables at Ryan’s Family Steakhouse in the eastern North Carolina city of Greenville. “Where the Folks are Friendly!” was the proper way to answer the restaurant’s phone. In the late 80s, Ryan’s was a harbinger of American excess. Instead of steaks, the successful restaurant chain increasingly put its efforts into the “Mega Bar,” a bottomless trough of abundance for a grateful Southern audience. No visit was complete without a trip to the dessert bar and a “complimentary cup of coffee” from the Ryan’s server.
We were a close-knit crew who had a lot of fun. Some of us were students while others had settled on Ryan’s as their career. Hard workers could make more than $100 in tips on a good day. And even the Mega Bar folks made more than minimum wage.
One day, a server named “Jan” joined the team. She was pleasant and got along with everyone. Jan was tall, pale, about 35 to 40-years-old and had short, bleach-blond hair that stood up in the front sort of like Elvis. She was a hard worker who could handle the ridiculous Friday night crowds. Since customers ordered and paid while standing in line, each us would handle between 10 and 12 tables, frantically delivering their orders, providing free refills and serving our famous yeast rolls. I remember seeing Jan one night during a dinner rush. We each had three pitchers in our hands and were firmly “in the weeds.” Our eyes met but we didn’t say anything, just gave a knowing big-eyed glance. We laughed later and acknowledged that we were so busy we couldn’t even come up with a passing comment.
While making conversation at lunch a couple of months after she arrived, the crew decided to take a look at each other’s drivers licenses, poking fun at bad hair or terrible smiles. When we got to Jan’s we were stunned. Her license showed a woman with long brown hair. “Wow, Jan,” we remarked. “You look totally different.”
“Yeah, guess I was in the mood for a change.”
Months passed, and we got to know Jan a little more. She even brought her boyfriend Ray to eat with us in the corner of the restaurant after a lunch shift. He seemed like a nice enough guy, muscular with a brown mustache, probably the same age as Jan. He gave the impression that he “liked to party” and had strong opinions about most topics of conversation. You could tell that he was a man who liked Budweiser. He drove a sports car and liked to play ZZ Top really loud when he drove into the parking lot.
One night, after Jan had been working with us for a few months, she called me at my house in a frantic voice.
“Matt, I need you to come get me.”
She sounded distraught.
“Ray’s beat me,” she said. “I need to get away from him.”
After getting directions to her place, I sprang into action, without thinking twice about it. She was in trouble and asking for help. My chivalry glands were warming up. I looked around my room for a weapon, woefully unprepared for any type of violence. I headed out to my car and drove to her house with a raquetball racket sitting next to me on the front seat. It was the best I could muster.
When I pulled up to Jan’s street, she came running to the car from behind a bush. She’d been hunkered down there for a half-an-hour waiting for me to arrive. Her face was bloody and starting to bruise. Her blond hair was disheveled and hung down, drooped over her forehead. Jan thanked me and then began to cry.
I tried to calm her down as we drove back to my house. I still lived with my mom, but I had a separate entrance which avoided any questions. We sat in my room and quietly talked for a couple of hours. Jan took some prescription pain pills that I had leftover from my wisdom teeth operation. She went to sleep on the couch in my room.
The next day, Jan called Ryan’s Steakhouse and told the manager what happened. She didn’t feel like she could come to work given her physical condition. Jan decided to quit and go back to her “hometown.”
She asked a co-worker named Vivian to give her a ride down to her mother’s place in Morehead City, a beach town in the southeast corner of the state. Vivian was an attractive, short black woman with straigtened hair and a pretty smile. About 25, I remember us being surprised when she revealed her 5 children who lived with her and her mother. Vivian asked me to join them on the trip after we worked the lunch shift. We went to our manager, Dennis, and explained the situation. He had already talked to Jan. About 40, with dark hair and a mustache, Dennis had reputation for being a good guy. But he could also be firm when he had too. Most of us respected him. He listened, and then — somewhat reluctantly — gave us permission to miss the night shift, so that we could help out our former colleague.
The drive took about 2 hours, and Jan didn’t talk much. She did reveal that Ray had beaten her before and that she knew she had to get away from him. “He’s gonna kill me if I don’t get out,” she said. Going home, she figured, was her best option.
When we arrived at her mom’s house, it was already dark. We stood outside the front door, in the crisp January air. Warmth rushed out of the house, as her mom opened the door. She just stood and stared at Jan. Perhaps she didn’t recognize her, I thought.
After a few awkward moments, the two women hugged. Jan thanked Vivian and me for helping her out. We said good-bye and Jan’s mom closed the door, avoiding any eye contact with us. I never saw Jan again.
Vivian got back in the car with a glum expression.
Before starting the engine, she said, “That did not seem like a mom who was excited to see her daughter.”
We drove back to Greenville in silence.
The next day, I was working the evening shift. The hostess answered the phone and flagged me down between filling up glasses of sweet tea. It was Jan.
“Matt, I need you to come get me,” she said. “Please don’t ask any questions. I’m in jail in Morehead City. You’ll need to bring bail money — about $2,000.”
Once again, I launched into action. My friend Jan was in trouble! I put the phone down and hunted down the manager on call, Dennis.
I recapped the conversation and asked Dennis if I could leave to help Jan.
He thought for a moment and then he gave me an answer that I’ve never forgotten.
“No, Matt, I need you here,” he said. “I can’t do without you. Besides, you’ve done enough.”
I went back to the phone and told Jan that Dennis wouldn’t let me go. I hung up and got back to my tables.
Upon reflection, it all made sense. Jan was on the run from the law. She had left from Morehead City, cut off her hair, bleached it blond, and started to live a new life. The idea that she should, perhaps, change her name or travel more than 2 hours away had eluded her. Nonetheless, when her boyfriend started beating on her, she returned to the only place that made sense.
Either her mom or someone else she knew must’ve tipped off the police. She was arrested and needed help.
She called the only person she thought might would help her — a 17-year-old co-worker that she’d known for only a few months, 2 hours away. The fact that she couldn’t call anyone in her hometown speaks volumes. As for me, I couldn’t help, since I’d already done enough.