PELL CITY—Cracker Barrel is quiet tonight. There are five or six tables with customers. I am tired. My wife and I have been on the road for three weeks. Five states. One hundred and fifty-two hotels. I need saturated fat.
Our waitress is named Katelin. She is young, all smiles, and wearing a brown apron.
“What can I get y’all?” she asks.
Breakfast. I am in the mood for breakfast. I love eating breakfast at night. This goes back to my childhood. It was a tradition in my house when I was a boy. Once in a blue moon, we would eat breakfast for supper.
My late father would go to great lengths to make pancakes, hash browns, cheese grits, and our house would smell like bacon even though it was almost bedtime. We called it upside-down night.
So I order eggs over easy, bacon, sausage, sliced tomatoes, biscuits, gravy, the works.
Katelin says, “No problem.”
When she leaves, she waits on two more tables with the same chipper spirit. A man and woman, for instance, are seated in Katelin’s section. When she passes their table, she waves to them and offers a hearty greeting.
I can’t hear her words, but I can hear the friendly cadence of them. She’s probably asking something like: “How y’all doin’?” or, “You need a warm-up on coffee?” or, “Want some Coca-Cola cake?”
Katelin arrives back at our table to refill drinks and check on us. I notice that there are four stars on her apron. I’ve seen these on Cracker Barrel waitress aprons before, but I’ve never known what they stand for.
“What do the stars mean?” I ask.
“Oh, these?” she says. “We get stars when we start working here. You start with none, if you’ve been here long enough, you earn four. We call this PAR Four. I’m a PAR-four.”
I ask what being a PAR-four means.
“Well,” she says, “basically it means that I help new employees, like any new waitresses who might, you know, need a friend or something. When I started here, several PAR-fours took me under their wings and encouraged me and helped me figure it all out. Now it’s my turn.”
Well, I’m no Cracker Barrel employee, but I’ve had a lot of PAR-fours in my own life, too. I did all my growing up without a father. He died young, and our early years were rough. I wouldn’t have made it without being taken underneath a wing or two.
I ask what sorts of things a PAR-four does to help new employees.
“Oh,” she says, “It’s simple, really. We pretty much just show’em we care about them, you know? We’re helpers, we look out for each other. Mostly I watch their body-language real close, and I can tell if they’re struggling with something.
“Then I just come up to them and I try to make them feel confident in themselves, let’em know that, ‘Hey, you got this, sweetie.’”
I ask how long Katelin has worked here.
“Long enough to know I really like it,” she says.
Soon, Katelin brings my food to the table. The cooks have done me right. There is enough saturated fat on my plate to short circuit U.S. Congress. Katelin asks if I have everything I need. I give her two thumbs-up.
She tends to other tables, giving everyone the same amount of attention she would give the King of England.
In the dining room are a few younger waitresses. A PAR-one, a PAR-two. Katelin keeps her eye on them. Maybe she is watching their body-language.
Soon, I’m thinking about a man. An elderly man I once knew. He was a Mississippian who, for a time, treated me like his son. He was my neighbor. My friend. He spoke in a voice that sounded like a cross between Rhett Butler and Grandpa Jones, and I worshiped him.
He was a horse-riding man, a tree farmer, and a white-haired Methodist. He took me under his wing and taught me things. He taught me to spit. He taught me to try. How to be a gentleman, and how to treat people with consideration. If I told you he was a good man, it would be a lie. He was more than that. He was beautiful.
But Alzheimer’s has changed him. He doesn’t know who I am anymore. When he hears my name, he searches for a memory, but never finds it. But he was good to me. And I will never forget him for that. Never.
Katelin brings my ticket. She says, “Can I get you anything else?”
“No, I’m alright.”
So she’s off to the kitchen. Maybe to help another young waitress learn the ropes. Maybe to lend a few words to a waiter who has been depressed ever since his girlfriend walked out. Maybe she’s going to offer a ride to a dishwasher whose car broke down.
Or maybe she’s just going to be cheerful, in case someone needs it. I don’t know.
I leave my table. I pay my bill at the register.
“How was everything?” the cashier asks.
“Excellent,” I say.
I’m lost in my own memories tonight. I’m remembering when certain people came into my life to help me find my way. They were heroes who pushed me through adolescence. They gave me the good things they learned, free of charge. They asked for nothing in return. But inherited the earth in the end.
She’ll probably never read this. She’s too busy being a PAR-four and all.
But thanks, Katelin.