Imagine a restaurant where your every whim is catered to, your every want satisfied, your every request granted without hesitation. The people on the staff live to please you. They hover anxiously as you sample your selection, waiting for your judgment. Your pleasure is their delight, your dissatisfaction their dismay.
Lou's isn't that kind of place.
At Lou's Kosy Korner Koffee Shop, the mock abuse flows like a cup of spilled Folgers. Customers are yelled at, lectured, blamed, mocked, teased, and ignored. They pay for the privilege of pouring their own coffee and scrambling their own eggs. As in a fond but dysfunctional family, Lou displays his affection through criticism and insults, and his customers respond in kind. If Lou's had a slogan, it might be, “If I'm polite to you, ask yourself what's wrong.”
Lou's is one of three breakfast joints located in the business district of a small mid-Atlantic town. The county courthouse is nearby, supplying a steady stream of lawyers, jurors, and office workers looking for a bite to eat. A local trucking firm also provides Lou with customers as its drivers come and go in town. Lou's is on the corner. Beside it is a jewelry shop (“In Business Since 1946—Watch Repairs Our Speciality”) and an upscale home accessories store that features bonsai trees and hand-painted birdhouses in its window. There's a bus stop in front of Lou's. Lou himself has been known to storm out onto the sidewalk to shoo away people who've dismounted from the bus and lingered too long on the corner.
The sign on Lou's front door says “Open 7 a.m.–3 p.m.” But by 6:40 on a brisk spring morning, the restaurant's lights are on, the door is unlocked, and Lou is settled in the booth nearest the door, with the Philadelphia Inquirer spread over the table. Lou is sunk deep into the booth's brown vinyl seat, its rips neatly mended with silver duct tape. He is studying the box scores from the night before as a would-be customer pauses on the sidewalk, unsure whether to believe the sign or her own eyes. She opens the door enough to stick her head in.
“Are you open?” she asks.
Without lifting his eyes from the paper, Lou answers. “I'm here, aren't I?”
Unsure how to interpret this remark, the woman enters and sits at a booth. Lou keeps studying the paper. He begins to hum under his breath. The woman starts tracing a pattern on the glass-topped table with her fingernail. She pulls out her checkbook and pretends to balance it. After a few long minutes, Lou apparently reaches a stopping point in his reading. He rises, his eyes still on the folded newspaper he carries with him. His humming breaks into low-volume song as he trudges behind the counter. “Maaaaaaaake someone happy … Make-make-maaaaaake someone happy,” he croons as he lifts the steaming pot that has infused the room with the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee. He carries it to the woman's table, fills her cup, and drops two single-serving containers of half-and-half nearby. He then peers over the tops of his reading glasses at his customer. “You want anything else, dear?” he asks, his bushy gray eyebrows rising with the question.
She shakes her head. “I'm meeting someone. I'll order when he gets here.”
Lou nods absently, his eyes back on his paper. As he shuffles back to his seat, he mutters over his shoulder, “Hope he shows up before three. I close then.”
Lou reads his paper; the woman drinks her coffee and gazes around the room. It's a small restaurant: just an eight-seat counter and seven padded booths. A grill, coffeepots, and a huge stainless-steel refrigerator line the wall behind the counter. Under the glass top of the tables is the breakfast menu: it offers eggs, pancakes, home fries, bacon, and sausage. A wall rack holds Kellogg's Jumbo Packs of single-serving cereals: smiling toucans and cheerful tigers offer Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes.
Two poster-size photographs hang side by side at the far wall. One is of Lou and his wife on their wedding day. They appear to be in their midtwenties. He is slim, dark-haired, beaming; his arm circles the shoulders of his fair-haired bride. The other photo shows the same couple in an identical pose—only in this one, Lou looks much as he is today. His short white hair is parted at the side; a cropped white beard emphasizes his prominent red mouth. His formerly slim figure now expands to take up much of the photograph. But the smile is the same as he embraces his silver-haired wife.
The bell at the door tinkles; two sleepy-eyed men in flannel shirts, work boots, and oil-company caps walk in. Lou glances up and grunts at them; they nod. One picks up an Inquirer from the display stand and leaves two quarters on the cash register. They drop onto seats at the counter, simultaneously swivel to look at the woman in the booth behind them, and then turn back. For a few minutes, they flip through the sports section. Lou doesn't move. One man rises from his seat and wanders behind the counter to find cups and the coffeepot. He fills the cups, returns to his seat, and immerses himself in the paper. There is no noise but the occasional slurping of men sipping hot coffee.
Minutes pass. Finally one of the men speaks. “Lou,” he says. “Can I maybe get some breakfast?”
“I'm reading the paper,” says Lou. “Eggs are in the refrigerator.”
The man sighs and lumbers behind the counter again. “In some restaurants, they actually cook for ya,” he says, selecting eggs from the carton.
Lou doesn't raise his eyes. “In some restaurants, they wouldn't let a guy with a face like yours in.”
The room falls silent again, except for the splatter of grease on the grill and the scrape of the spatula as the customer scrambles his eggs. He heaps them onto his plate, prepares some toast, and returns to his seat. The bell at the door begins tinkling as the breakfast rush begins—men, mostly, about half in work clothes and the rest in suits. They pour in on a wave of talk and laughter. Lou reluctantly rises and goes to work behind the counter, volleying comments with the regulars:
“Three eggs, Lou,” says one.
“Three eggs. One heart attack wasn't enough for you? You want some bacon grease on top of that?”
A large red-haired man in blue jeans and a faded denim shirt walks in with a newspaper, which he reads as he waits for his cup of takeout coffee. “Anything good in the paper, Dan?” Lou asks.
“Not a thing,” drawls Dan. “Not a damn thing. The only good thing is that the machine down the street got my fifty cents instead of you.”
Lou flips pancakes as the restaurant fills to capacity. The hum of voices fills the room as the aromas of coffee, bacon, eggs, and toasting bread mingle in the air. A group of suits* from the nearby courthouse slide into the final empty booth. After a moment one rises, goes behind the counter, and rummages in a drawer.
“Whatcha need, Ben?” Lou asks, pouring more batter.
“Rag,” Ben answers. He finds one, returns to the booth, and wipes crumbs off the tabletop. A minute later he is back to drop a slice of ham on the hot grill. He and Lou stand side by side attending to their cooking, as comfortable in their silence as an old married couple. When the ham is sizzling and its rich fragrance reaches the far corners of the room, Ben slides it onto a plate and returns to his booth.
Filled plate in hand, Lou approaches a woman sitting at the counter. Her golden hair contrasts with her sunken cheeks and her wrinkled lips sucking an unfiltered Camel. “You wanna I put this food in your ashtray, or are you gonna move it?” Lou growls. The woman moves the ashtray aside.
“Sorry, Lou,” she says.
“I'm not really yelling at you, dear,” he answers.
“I know,” says the woman. “I'm glad you're here this morning.” She lowers her voice. “That girl you've got working here sometimes, Lou—she doesn't like me.” Lou rolls his eyes, apparently at the poor taste of the waitress, and moves down to the cash register. As he rings up a bill, a teenage girl enters and walks by silently. Lou glares after her. “Start the day with a ‘Good morning,’ please,” he instructs.
“Good morning, Lou,” she replies obediently.
“Very nice,” he mutters, still punching the cash-register buttons. “Thank you so much for your concern. I get up at the crack of dawn to make your breakfast, but don't bother saying ‘good morning’ to me.”
The day's earliest arrival, the woman in the booth, has been joined by a companion. They order eggs and hash browns. As Lou slides the filled plates before them, he reverts briefly to the conventional manners he saves for first-timers. “Enjoy your meal,” he says.
“Thank you,” says the woman. “May I have some hot sauce?”
Lou's reserve of politeness is instantly exhausted. “Hot sauce. Jeez. She wants hot sauce!” he announces to the room at large. “Anything else? Some caviar on the side, maybe?” He disappears behind the counter, reemerging with an enormous red bottle. “Here you are. It's a new bottle. Don't use it all, please. I'd like to save a little for other customers. Hey, on second thought, use it all if you want. Then I'll know you'll like my chili.” Laughing loudly at his own joke, he refills the woman's coffee cup without being asked. Golden-brown coffee splashes into her saucer. Lou ignores it.
Lou's waitress, Stacy, has arrived, and begins taking orders and delivering meals. Lou alternates between working the grill and clearing tables. Mid-stride, he halts before the golden-haired woman at the counter, who has pushed her plate aside and is lighting another cigarette. “What? What is this?” he demands.
“Looouuu …” she begins soothingly, a stream of smoke jetting from her mouth with the word.
“Don't ‘Lou’ me,” he retorts. “You don't eat your toast, you don't eat your potatoes, you barely touch your eggs. Whatcha gonna live on? Camels?”
“Awww, Lou,” she says, but she pulls her plate back and eats a few more bites.
As the rush of customers slows to a trickle, Lou returns to the register, making change and conversation, talking Phillies and the weather. One of the flannel-shirted men rises from his counter seat and heads for the door, dropping his money on the counter. “'Bye, Stacy,” he says to the waitress. “Have a nice day.”
“Bye, Mel,” she replies. “You too.”
“What about me?” Lou calls after Mel.
Mel doesn't pause. “Who cares what kind of a day you have?”
Mel disappears into the morning sunshine; the Camel lady pulls a crossword puzzle out of her purse and taps an unlit cigarette rapidly against the counter. Stacy wipes the tables and empties a wastebasket of its load of dark, wet coffee grounds. Lou butters a piece of toast and returns to his favorite booth. He spreads out his newspaper again, then glances up to catch the eye of the hot-sauce woman. “Where's your friend?” he asks.
“He left,” she replies.
“He left you, eh?” Lou asks.
“No, he didn't leave me. He just had to go to work …”
“Dump him,” Lou responds automatically. “And now, if you don't mind very much, I would like to finish my newspaper.”