This creative nonfiction piece comes from senior Matthew Lukach, a student in Prof. Lisa Page’s 182 Special Topics class.
In high school I worked one night a week—Saturday—bussing tables at a small diner-type place on Broadway and Twenty First Ave. in Nashville, Tennessee called Noshville. The place posed as a New York Jewish delicatessen—serving potato pancakes, sweet pickles, reubens, patty melts, dogs with kraut, matzah ball soup with matzah balls the size of your head—however to my knowledge nobody who worked or ate there was Jewish or from New York.
Noshville made its debut in Nashville in the spring of 1956. Today, inside the place, there’s a peculiar feeling of nostalgia, a certain longing that’s found on the walls and in the row of red swivel chairs at the counter or the ancient Pacific Rim jukebox in the corner next to the gumball dispenser. These things place upon you the sense that you’re out of synch with the current world, so when I worked there I’d often dream up what Nashville was like in ’56.
I imagined Governor Buford Ellington coming through the doors and taking a table by the window with his staff, all snappy-looking men donning dark wool suits and mustaches. I could even hear him ordering sweet tea in his slow Mississippi accent. Ellington would remain governor until 1968, and in the same year he would mobilize the National Guard to maintain law and order around the state in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Hank Williams, with his Drifting Cowboys Band, graced the stage of the Grand Ole Opry—formerly the WSM Barn Dance—in 1956 and released their song, “Jambalaya.”
A customer of Noshville could enjoy a hot meal and then ride the city streetcar from the riverfront on Church Street all the way down West End Avenue to Centennial Park for a nickel, smelling the rising heat from the virgin asphalt all the way down.
Nashville was a burgeoning urban space in ’56. Approximately 175,000 people called it home, and in an impressive gesture the Nashville Parthenon was constructed, an exact replica of the Greek structure earning Nashville the nickname “Athens of the South”. I would go on to attend my high school senior prom at the Parthenon. I still have the photo of my date and me, pinned corsage and all, wrapped in rented elegance and stiff shoes, smiling widely for the man behind the black curtain.
Exactly forty-six years after its opening I took up employment at Noshville, a place known for its “We Dare Ya” breakfast—three eggs, three sausages, three strips of bacon, and three griddle cakes—something I would never touch now but enjoyed quite a number of times as a flowering young man.
The front of the house—servers, bussers, runners, take-out counters, hosts—were all white, while the back of the house—cooks, hot line preps, cold line preps, stockers, dish washers—were all black. The swinging doors of the kitchen separated two worlds from each other, taunting the other each time its hinges swung back and forth. Everything about these two worlds was different—the smells, the looks, the jargon, the jokes—and as a busser I was the only one in the place who crossed the threshold a million times each night, carrying dirtied dishes in tubs from the floor to the pit, as it was called. Even the music on the radios was different. Sinatra sang about women up front while “Jimmy Mack” by Martha Reeves and The Vandellas blazed the kitchen walls each week.
Frank, the dishwasher, a small wiry black man in his early thirties, called me nigga by name without exception every time we talked. He’d go, look nigga it’s about time you quit bringing these dishes back here to the pit so I can go home and see my wife and kids. Frank would say this, or something like it, every week and a month into the job I learned he didn’t even have a wife or kids. One day we were talking back there by the pit about the Titans and McNair’s hurt shoulder when I just flat out asked him. I said, Frank I’m not black so why do you call me nigga? When I said the word it sounded so obtrusively different than when Frank said it all the time. When it came out of my mouth I immediately wished it hadn’t because I didn’t feel entitled to it. It felt like I had cracked a dirty joke in church. Frank said, We’re friends right? I said, Yeah, Frank we’re friends. He said, Then don’t worry about it nigga.
So I didn’t. Things continued per usual around the place and the worlds never collided. Customers continued to order ten-dollar slices of Carnegie’s Chocolate Mouse Pie or our Seven Layer Vanilla Cream Cake. The same old man continued to sit at the same table, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and read Rolling Stone magazine, making notes in the margins with a blue pen. His waiter, Julie Ann, who was beautiful and wore cat-eye glasses, continued to switch him to decaf after ten pm on the sly. The twenty-something artist at the counter continued to come in high and order a grilled cheese and a milkshake. Waiters continued to cut lemons slices. Hosts continued to sweep the entranceway. My boss, Tim, continued to worry.
I carried on and rid the plates of Vanderbilt surgeons, country music song writers, politicians, school teachers, single women with kids, families of ten, first dates, fiftieth dates, break ups, make ups, and Frank, back in the pit, continued to wash them all. I’d slop the plates, glasses, coffee cups, forks, spoons, sundae dishes and knives into big blue plastic tubs and whisk them back to Frank where he’d smile and say, thanks nigga.