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.
Sandi. - October 22, 2019 6:15 am
Sean, friendly suggestion:
Please contact the Cracker Barrel in Pell City and notify Katelin’s manager about your post focusing on her goodness, friendly manner and cheerful attitude. Reading it just might be the bright spot in her week. You could even print out a copy and mail it to the restaurant, including her name on the envelope. It could garner her a pay raise and maybe even another star on her apron! For certain it will make her day and give her such a pleasant remembrance of having you as a customer.
Robert Chiles - October 22, 2019 9:06 am
Amen!! That would be a nice gesture.
Growing up, we always had supper about 8 or 9pm, then my dad would cook breakfast about 11 or 11:30.
Steve - October 22, 2019 10:07 am
Sean, if you read this, I hope it doesn’t bring bad memories or emotions for you. I was just the opposite. I still have my Dad. He’s 85. I didn’t have to search for heroes or need any wings, because he is and remains beautiful” just like your white haired neighbor was. I talk to him every day. I see him almost everyday.. And I know just how rare this is, and how blessed I am for it. I never needed another person to show me the way, my Dad was always there for me. I wish everyone could be so lucky.
Cathi Russell - October 22, 2019 10:27 am
Thank you Sean. Somehow I needed to read this today.
Lou - October 22, 2019 10:57 am
Being KIND and FRIENDLY doesn’t cost us a thing and we never know what effect it may have on someone else! Katelin sounds like a natural and she liked her job!! Hope you left her a nice tip, Sean!!
Karen Crumpton - October 22, 2019 12:05 pm
Good morning read! My husband has a Rhett Butler voice and my neighbors 2 boys love him! So I read these stories out loud to him, he said “ that’s a good one”! 👍🏻👍🏻
Mary - October 22, 2019 12:14 pm
Excellent Sean, thank you, this should be tacked to a wall in every Cracker Barrel. And as a foster plus adoptive parent. I am taking this post of yours today as a vitamin, so will hopefully do the best Ii can for beautiful children.
Kathy Daum - October 22, 2019 1:13 pm
As Anne Lamott says: “I want my tombstone to say, I was a helper, and I danced.”
Steve Maynard - October 22, 2019 1:27 pm
My dad left way too early but what a PAR four he was. We all need to be more like Kaitlyn
Bobby - October 22, 2019 1:56 pm
Sean, your columns are the sugar in my coffee every morning. ❤️
Camilla Stambaugh - October 22, 2019 2:18 pm
Brought tears. Thanks for touching my heart today!
LaVera S. - October 22, 2019 2:30 pm
Loved that, it is real. Helpers are needed in this world and they are a gift! Thanks for sharing!
Janice - October 22, 2019 2:41 pm
I’m new to your blog, but if they are all like this one, you’ve got a new fan!!
Shelton A. - October 22, 2019 3:03 pm
With gratitude to all the PAR-fours in my life. You know who you are.
Dawn Bratcher - October 22, 2019 3:19 pm
This is a good reminder to thank those we still have with us for what they have meant to us. ❤
Linda Moon - October 22, 2019 3:26 pm
My husband and I ate at the same Cracker Barrel in Pell City on our way home from Talladega Sunday. Breakfast for supper is a treat for me, but I had the Apple Cider BBQ Chicken Breast with two country sides….YUM! My beautiful Mother and my Aunt Polly were changed by Alzheimer’s. They both raised me and were good to me. People like them, who help us find our way, deserve our gratitude. Thank you for reminding me of my heroes who’ve inherited the earth. My daddy and his people are buried in the earth at Talladega’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Because of you, Sean, I got to spend some time with them on a beautiful Sunday afternoon! Now, go get some much-needed rest from all your travels!!
susan - October 22, 2019 4:25 pm
All I can do is smile…EVERYONE should be a PAR-four. Period.
Rebecca - October 22, 2019 5:32 pm
Everyone at the Pell Cracker Barrel, including Kaitlin, saw the blog. You clearly made their day and mine with your post.
chip plyler - October 22, 2019 5:39 pm
Thanks for filling in the blanks on the number of stars on the Cracker Barrel waitstaff’s apron…
it reminds me of the line in It’s a Wonderful Life “Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” I wonder what sound you hear when a Cracker Barrel waitstaff gets their PAR-four star….
Michael - October 22, 2019 9:06 pm
Love me some Cracker Barrel, peel city is where my wife was raised and until about 20 years ago lived. I visited several time found it to a nice small town but one in which if you didn’t know someone don’t stay to long . But still a nice place especially on the lake. Thanks for the good words, and oh by the way if that’s all it took to short circuit congress I’d have done it years ago. Don’t really have a high opinion of those clowns. Love ya man!
Edna B. - October 22, 2019 9:22 pm
This is an awesome post! I’m so glad that Kaitlin and all the other employees got to see this post. Thanks for making my day. You have a wonderful evening, hugs, Edna B.
Ala Red Clay Girl - October 23, 2019 1:29 am
We all need a “par four” in our lives at some point or other, and hopefully, we can all be a “par four” for someone else. What a great post today!
Nancy Rogers - October 23, 2019 9:07 am
God bless all the PAR-fours who come into our life when we need them.
Franklin Stebbing - October 23, 2019 6:09 pm
Love this, it gets a Me too,
MyPlace (Sue Tait)... - October 23, 2019 8:02 pm
Hi Sean, Wow, next time you are in Pell City and want to go to Cracker Barrel, give me a call and we will met y’all there, OK? It is our favorite place to eat around here, (along with a couple others). They sure do know how to do ya right, No Question… Thanks for reminding me, I haven’t been there for over a month so it is time to GO~~~! If you are anywhere close enough to meet there, we’ll see y’all later…
Rosalie Paine - October 30, 2019 7:39 pm
This is a beautiful story and it is wonderfully written. Thank you for sharing it.
Gale Smith - November 16, 2019 5:41 am
Sounds like Katelin deserves another star!
Sean, you are definitely a 5-star author.
William A Nichols - November 16, 2019 6:46 am
The day after my wife passed I went to my local Cracker Barrel for food. Hostess asked “How many?”. Reflexively I held up two fingers, quickly correcting that to one finger, explaining that my wife died yesterday. The hostess walked me to my table and sat down with me for 10 minutes, offering comfort and leaving others to do the hosting. I’ll never forget that.