Mama’s Royal Cafe
on November 18, 2009
Pull up a wooden chair at the front counter of Mama’s Café Royal, close your eyes, and this is what you’ll hear:
The bubbling rise and fall of dozens of conversations. The slam of the register. Staff calling hellos to familiar customers. The sizzle of fat in the kitchen. The swoosh and creak of swinging doors. And Etta James, occasionally eclipsed by crashing plates, singing “At Last.”
It’s Wednesday morning, 9 a.m. The hump of the rush is nearly over, though customers still trickle in for coffee poured out of the pot near the register. To sit at the red topped, metal-rimmed counter is to give up the right to remain silent. The unspoken social rules that keep people quiet—those rules have no place at this counter.
Within seconds, Mary, the manager, will most certainly call you “Hon.”
Everyone knows everyone and those that don’t will. Benjamin, a young server with a red baseball hat, starts in immediately.
“Hi—hey, nice car. What model is it?”
It’s an Audi S4.
Benjamin, it seems, doesn’t miss a thing. “I know that model—I used to work in a car shop. That’s one of the most popular. Is it Tiptronic or six-speed?”
As Benjamin reveals an impressive depth of car knowledge, the restaurant buzzes around him. The front door opens and closes, servers swoop by so fast they generate air turbulence, customers in the corner signal for the check.
Coffee is poured and coffee is poured and coffee is poured.
After a few minutes, Benjamin is at the end of his car talk and customers along the line turn to each other. It’s a friendly, open conversation—the kind of snapshot biographies strangers exchange on planes.
“I’ve been coming here for 32 years,” says an older woman with a blue silk scarf around her head. “I’ve seen it through all the owners. Mary,” she says, pointing at the manager, “I’ve known Mary since she was this high.” She places her hand just above hip height. Mama’s is convenient, she says, because she works at a laundromat just down the block.
“I keep trying to retire from that darn laundromat, but they just won’t let me,” she says laughing. “That’s where we met.”
She motions the young man next to her into the conversation. He’s in his twenties, slim, large honey-brown eyes. “Yeah, I used to work for her, but I’m going to Boalt Law School now,” he says, shaking his head.
“Oh man. You KNOW it is. I never see anyone anymore.”
The older woman nods.
It’s 9:20 now and the high of the rush is shouldering. The air lightens, almost like a long exhale. The swinging of the kitchen doors lingers longer, servers at the counter lean on one elbow while taking orders, Benjamin takes some sips out of a coffee cup. Etta, suddenly louder, fills the room.
Snippets of conversation separate from the background and become distinct:
“I was nearly hit on my bike this morning by a lady driving on her cell phone. She didn’t see me at all.”
“Stanford looks like it’s trying to be legit this year.”
“I’m a taxi driver.” “Where?” “San Francisco.”
Servers in black long-sleeve shirts glide through the café. The juice machine squeezes oranges into liquid in the corner.
At 9:40 a middle-aged woman with curly hair rises from the counter and roller skates to the register. She pays and glides out into the bright blue day.
Benjamin talks to everyone. “I used to work in the military,” he says, “and I’m trained as a cook. But I’d rather make minimum wage here where I can talk to people, chat up the customers, relax and enjoy myself than make $16 and hour someplace where everyone has egos and I have to be stiff.”
A tall male customer down the counter agrees. He’s wearing red and blue flannel and shoes splattered with paint.
“I worked a six-figure salary when I was younger,” he says, “but you know what it got me? The same stuff—only more expensive. And then you have to hire people to watch your stuff. Naw. I don’t need that.”
The customer shakes his head and then stares out the broad plate glass window for a several minutes before finishing his coffee. A server gets some food from the kitchen, sits at the end of the counter, and begins eating. More people now leave through the front door than come in.
By 10:00, empty seats at the counter end the jubilant exchange. Customers withdraw inward: They eat, drink, pay, and, with a wave, leave. Staff turn their attention to each other, standing in bunches quietly talking and glancing occasionally out to their tables. A couple of servers still circle, coffee pots in hand, topping off the few customers seated at tables in the back of the restaurant.
The man in the red flannel is the only one left at the counter. Soon he too pays and exits.
The kitchen doors stand still now and Etta, growing ever more bold, croons “Sunday Kind of Love” to a field of empty chairs and tables topped with crumpled sections of the Chronicle. At just past 10, even the persistent clamor of the kitchen dies down, the last to surrender to the gravity of late morning.
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