If you've ever lived in a small town, you know who "the regulars" are.
The Regulars are the people who give a place character. Most small towns have their town-oddball, their groups of politicos and critics, their helpful ladies.
When I was a kid, my now-city was a fairly small town. We lived close to the outskirts which is now considered middle-of-town. My dad was a local radio reporter, which I believe may have, in part, determined the location of our Sunday morning breakfast.
We weren't aware of these background workings, but we did know that every Sunday morning, we'd get up, get dressed, and walk what seemed forever but was less than a mile to the Tallahassee Diningroom.
This was the establishment where commissioners and businessmen and the mayor and various other important personages would gather on Sunday mornings over coffee, scrambled eggs and the newspaper to decide the fate of our town on an informal basis. And included in that group was a local radio reporter and his five (at the time) children.
Luckily for us, TDR was a very relaxed atmosphere, owned by a husband and wife who employed members of their own families to wait tables, cook and wash dishes. They encouraged the patrons to hang out and drink endless cups of coffee and talk until the lunch crowd began to drift in from the numerous churches in the area. So our whole mornings were spent in that restaurant, it seemed.
Another thing that small towns have in common is the local curmudgeon. In our case, this guy never smiled. At anything. Our ventures to breakfast were considerably enlivened by the staff's efforts to get OUR curmudgeon to crack a smile. Sometimes we joined in. Sometimes we just sat in our chairs and laughed. One morning, the curmudgeon asked for a cup of coffee and some Sweet-n-Low. Deliberately mis-hearing, Mike the waiter brought him a cup of coffee and a sweet roll. "I didn't order this," growled the curmudgeon.
To everyone's surprise, Mike jumped up on the table (nearly knocking over the empty coffee cup) and stamped his feet meeting one glare with another, yelled, "You ordered that sweet roll and now you're going to eat it!!!!"
The Curmudgeon looked at the crazy waiter on his table, picked up his sweet roll and ate it. Mike got down and was about to turn away when the curmudgeon said, "I still need some sweet-n-low." That final line brought the house down. And he STILL never cracked a smile.
So it was with this childhood memory that I drove north on Monday morning to meet my parents and my son for breakfast (he'd spent the night with them). Tallahassee is not a small town anymore. Nowhere close. But just to the north, my parents found themselves another small town to live in.
We met at the Mainstreet Grill and as my father walked in and greeted the waitress by name, sat at his "usual" table and had coffee put down in front of him before he'd even adjusted his chair, I realized that my father was one of The Regulars.
He eats there fairly often, conducting this or that business in the company of the breakfast buffet and whoever he's talking to that day. He knows about the train track across the street and the train that stops there everyday. It's crew comes across the street, eats brunch, then goes back across the street and continues on down the track. He's back in the radio business, doing local public affairs programs and digging up dirt wherever he can find it. He takes up his table by the door where he can see who comes and goes and who sits at the "Liar's Table" - old men in full grump, with their pants pulled up to their armpits, arguing the pros and cons of whatever the government, locally or nationally, is doing that day. On occasion, he sits there himself.
It was an odd thing to realize. My father is an old man. He must be if he's one of The Regulars. His hair is silver; he moves a little slower but just as purposefully as before. He loves a good discussion, no matter what it is about. He's pushing 70. That's not as old as it used to be, but in my mind, Dad is still in his 40s. Even when confronted by the physical evidence, I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that he is getting older.
Perhaps that's the real purpose of The Regulars. A standard for a young mind to fix, like being old enough to drive a car or old enough to vote - if you are old enough to be A Regular, your children have to adjust their thinking and perhaps let in the possibility that one day, they too will be one of The Regulars.