Another Helping of Grief
The Bright Star lives on without Jimmy
As days go, yesterday was a pretty grim one for my home town of Bessemer, Alabama. The Auburn Tigers staged a comeback against Georgia but fell seven points short on an errant pass. The Alabama Crimson Tide defeated Mississippi State, but lost its starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, for the season. His Bama career is over.
More poignantly and heartbreakingly, Bessemer lost native son Jimmy Koikos, co-owner of The Bright Star, the iconic restaurant that is the oldest, continuously serving restaurant in the state. Jimmy died of cancer, and many of us knew when he received his prognosis just a couple of months ago that he wouldn’t last long.
I have written so many times about enjoying meals at The Bright Star. My family and I have dined there all my life. Just three weeks ago, as we were in town for Bama’s homecoming game against Arkansas, we ate at the Star twice, and still it wasn’t enough. Jimmy wasn’t on the premises either night, and so I knew his time here was drawing to a close.
It’s a strange thing to walk through a place — a restaurant, a home, a formerly busy city street — and not to see the person who’s made that place beloved to you.
Everywhere I looked outside and inside the Star, I saw Jimmy, or expected to see, hear, him as we were seated, or as we ordered, ate, and then decided on dessert.
I expected him to come to the table and ask how we were, to ask about my brother who couldn’t be with us that weekend. To reminisce about my mother who first introduced me to the Star and to the Koikos family — Jimmy’s parents and his brother Nicky.
Jimmy’s father, Mr. Bill, used to hand me a chocolate mint each time my parents paid the bill. I associate chocolate mints with Mr. Bill, and never turn one down today, in his memory.
I expected Jimmy to spend a few minutes at our table, going over Alabama’s remaining games, its chances to make the playoffs again (sorry Jimmy, those chances are so very dim now). I know that Jimmy loved the Crimson Tide as much as I, my late father, and my daughter Pari ever have. I know he was just as anxious as any of us when a big game loomed.
On this last night at the Star, our party sat in the recently anointed “Nick Saban” room, which joins the Bear Bryant room and Shug Jordan room as tributes to those Alabama and Auburn giants. Nicky greeted us on this night and attended to all our needs (though he could do nothing to improve on my plate of Snapper Throats Greek style!). I asked about Jimmy, and told Nicky to give Jimmy our love.
He said he would, though messages aren’t the same as a direct look in the eye, a handshake, or a loving hug.
Things I can’t get or have now.
There are too many Bright Star memories to put on this page. I have friends who remember that their first trip to the Star came when our family took them. These are some of the greatest memories of my life — that we introduced so many people to Jimmy, Nicky, and the Star.
But two other, more recent memories stand out.
Two Christmases ago, I was in Bessemer attending to my mother, who had gone through a cancer biopsy and then developed pneumonia in the biopsied lung. She was recovering, and able to go to the Star on the night before she’d travel back to South Carolina with me for the holidays.
As we were sitting with all our friends at a long table, Jimmy noticed me. I had already written several stories about the Star in my books and in other magazines, making sure to send Jimmy and Nicky copies. I looked up from my cup of gumbo and saw Jimmy heading my way. He held out a card to me.
A Bright Star gift card.
I won’t say how much it was for, because I was taught long ago not to show off one’s rewards.
But I didn’t consider this a reward.
It was a gift of love.
Jimmy put his arm around my shoulder,
“Thank you Buddy, for all you’ve done for us,” he said.
“Oh God, Jimmy, it’s what you’ve done for all of us!”
As my friend Fred said a while back, you can eat in the finest, or humblest, places in Italy or New York or Paris, but if you’re from Bessemer or Birmingham, nothing can compare to a piece of fresh Gulf snapper served at the Bright Star. It’s what you’ll always long for (fried or broiled).
I did use the gift card to treat my family on the occasion of my mother’s 85th birthday. Sadly, her last birthday. Even in grief, though, I find that occasion and how it transpired, a fitting ending for our Bright Star life together.
And the other memory.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “He would give you the shirt off his back.”
A year or so before my mother got so sick, she was eating in the Star with some friends. Jimmy came to her table, and she noticed he was wearing a beautiful shirt with a red elephant on the front pocket (I don’t have to say Red Elephants are for Alabama, right?).
“Oh Jimmy,” Mom said. “Where did you get that shirt? It’s beautiful. My son would just love it and I’d like to get him one.”
Jimmy smiled and thanked her for the compliment, but didn’t say much else about the shirt.
A week later, Mom returned to the Star for Sunday lunch (the Methodists still get out early to beat the Baptists to lunch), and Jimmy walked over to her.
He was carrying a freshly dry cleaned bag with not only that shirt, but the tie he had been wearing that night, too, in the bag.
“This is for your son,” he said. “I had it cleaned.”
I have the shirt, still in its bag. I’m one of those guys who wants to preserve his gifts for as long as he can. We lose so much, after all, and I don’t want anything to happen to this shirt, this loving memory.
Last night, as we grieved in our own ways, my wife, brother, and I re-watched the first episode of True South, a show usually aired on the SEC network, written and hosted by the Southern Foodways Alliance’s John T. Edge. That first show focused on Birmingham, on its Greek immigrants who founded many of the city’s most lasting and loved restaurants.
The first half of the show, of course, featured The Bright Star.
There walking through the restaurant’s aisles was Jimmy. Sure, he looked a bit frail, but as he stood peering over the rows of booths at his family of customers eating their tenderloin of beef, or baked stuffed shrimp, or lobster/crabmeat au gratin, I saw how happy he was.
I know he knew how loved he was.
I just wish I could tell him one more time.
I turned to my brother, and I know he realizes this, but I said it anyway.
“Can you believe that in Bessemer, Alabama, with all its problems, with its sadness, its bad name and depressed, decaying city blocks, a restaurant like The Bright Star ever existed? That it’s still there, and that we were lucky enough to have it all our lives?”
“I know,” my brother said. “Like Alabama and Auburn football.”
So, we grieve what we’ve lost, knowing that our grief is commensurate with our love.
I keep learning this lesson, and it always hurts.
Which, I think, is a good sign.
A Bright Star.