Nice People

Her smile makes me smile. Which makes my wife smile. Which makes Tamba smile. Which makes me grin so hard my cheeks are sore.

CALERA, ALABAMA—the Cracker Barrel off I-65 is busy this morning. There are people in the dining room from every walk of life. Lots of noise.

An elderly man with military patches on his ball cap. A young couple with loud children who test the limits of the known sound barrier. An old man in a cowboy hat, sitting with his grandkids.

My waitress is Tamba. She is pretty, middle-aged, with cropped black hair, and a smile that sets the room on fire.

“How y’all today?” she says.

Her smile makes me smile. Which makes my wife smile. Which makes Tamba smile. Which makes me grin so hard my cheeks are sore.

She fills my coffee mug. She takes my order. And there’s that smile again.

My cheek muscles will never recover.

I watch her weave through the chaotic dining room like a ballerina. She takes orders from grumpy parents, over-caffeinated children, and flat-faced out-of-towners who woke up on the wrong side of the hotel bed.

She greets each customer with sugary words and that patented cheek-crippling grin.

She takes orders by memory. She listens when picky eaters specify exactly how they want their eggs. Before she leaves tables, she recites orders to her customers without flaw.

And I sincerely hope that John Q. Customer notices how remarkable she is. Her personality is brilliant, her sense of humor is refreshing, and her memory is the Eighth Wonder of the World.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet she could memorize the Jefferson County phonebook in one sitting and recite it with her eyes closed.

On her way to the kitchen, people flag her down.

“I need mayo!” hollers a man.

She’s got it covered.

“Ma’am!” says an impatient woman from the back. “I NEED some pepper sauce.”

Pepper sauce. Check.

“Ma’am, can I get some more biscuits?” says a little boy.

On it.

“‘Scuse me, Miss?” says a woman. “We’re outta ketchup.”

Coming right up.

Our heroine emerges from the kitchen holding a one-hundred-pound tray over her head. She delivers pepper sauce for the weary, coffee refills for the downtrodden, and more biscuits for the tired and heavy laden. And she does it with a smile that can only be measured with a light meter.

My food arrives. She places it before me and asks: “You got any big plans for today?”

She looks me in the eye when she says it.

Now here is a woman, I am thinking, with an entire dining room that wants a piece of her. A room she’s been servicing since her early shift started. But right now, she’s asking about my day.

We talk briefly. More smiling. And she’s back to work.

I eat my meal, but I’m still watching her. She zips through clusters of chairs, calming the impatient, winking at babies, and making people laugh.

Finally, she brings my check. She also brings me a to-go coffee in a foam cup.

She tells me: “Drive safe, sugar.”

And this might not sound like much to untrained ears, but in our part of the world, “drive safe” is code for: “I care about you.” And it’s hard to find people who care in this world.

I say goodbye. I wander through the gift shop, looking at trinkets and toys for my niece. Then, after purchasing some black licorice and a pair of toddler-sized cowboy boots, I pay my bill.

I reach for my wallet, and I see her.

Tamba is jogging through the dining room with a foam cup in her hands.

“Sir!” she’s saying. “You forgot your coffee!”

She hands it to me. I thank her.

Then, she nails me.

She hugs me. Hard. I am taken off guard because this is not your run-of-the-mill hug. This is the real variety. The kind of hug you get from church ladies; or Sunday school teachers; or cousins; or childhood friends; or from your aunt Eulah. This is a true slice of affection.

“You drive safe, now,” she says.

And she disappears.

Sometimes I wonder about this world. I wonder where it’s going. Another day, another tragedy. If you want heartache, flip on the news. You’ll find mankind has lost his ever-loving mind and he can’t seem to find it.

Somewhere along the way, people quit trusting one another. Hatred sells at clearance prices. People are angry with things they can’t even name. But that’s not the case here in Calera. Not this morning. At least not here.

In this restaurant there is only sunshine. Her name is Tamba. And if you are ever fortunate enough to meet this woman, your cheeks will be sore for days.

Drive safe.


  1. Cathi Russell - October 11, 2019 6:08 am

    I can’t wait to meet Tamba. People who grin…really smile…are my very favorite kind & bring the sunshine with them.

  2. Elizabeth - October 11, 2019 10:26 am

    We need more Tamba.

  3. Sharon - October 11, 2019 11:01 am

    And Tamba leaves her little piece of the world better than she found it. My Mother had the same quality.

  4. Debbie - October 11, 2019 11:07 am

    What a treasure Tamba is….spreading that Southern charm to those who are fortunate enough to enter her world.

  5. LeAnne - October 11, 2019 11:59 am

    I love this. And I love people like Tamba. Thank you!

  6. Darlene Vale - October 11, 2019 12:03 pm

    I’m looking up Calera, AL right now and putting a visit to see her on my bucket list. I need a hug lime that! Sweet story right here. Love your words, you draw great pictures in my head, every single time.

  7. Jan - October 11, 2019 12:31 pm

    Love this! Love that you see all these details and the real person behind the brilliant smile! Love that you have the words to express what you see and make it visible to all of us! Thank you!

  8. Emily - October 11, 2019 12:33 pm

    My son works at this Cracker Barrel. I asked him to show this to Tamba.

  9. Edna B. - October 11, 2019 12:41 pm

    Oh what a wonderfully happy story! Tamba sounds like an awesome lady. We could use a lot more like her. Thank you for taking me along on this breakfast stop. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

  10. Debra - October 11, 2019 12:42 pm

    Calera is my hometown. I LOVE this place! Looks, age, bad manners don’t exist here. We love and are loved. Just try going to the local Sav-Mor for a gallon of milk. You won’t leave for an hour because you get to see half the town and they all ask how you are and tell you to drive safe. Glad you stopped by! Y’all come back again, ya hear?!?

  11. Jeanne Butler - October 11, 2019 12:44 pm

    Sad to say you only find that down South. Not in the North where I live. I should move before I die. I’ll be 75 in December and I’m sick of hateful people. Love you Sean. You bring light to my dark days

  12. Janis - October 11, 2019 12:52 pm

    Thank you for writing about Tamba. We needed to be reminded that Tamba-energy exists and that many, most, (all?, maybe) of us have a little of that … and we can remember to pull it out and use it too. Thank heavens for Tamba, and for you for catching her using her lovely heart so freely. <3

  13. Jennie Stultz - October 11, 2019 1:03 pm

    Love this. It felt like a big hug!

  14. Phil S. - October 11, 2019 1:17 pm

    Right you are, O Great Sage of the South. Goodness and really good people are all around us in this broken and bleeding world. Although we should be constantly looking for them, often we don’t have to – they just jump out us, like your encounter with Tamba. They are like that brightly colored Easter egg that was right in front of our eyes, but we didn’t at first see it. Then we happily grab it and put it in our basket. Please, God, let that basket never get full.

  15. Gary Farmer - October 11, 2019 1:20 pm

    I hope that after all the rays of sunshine you received from Tamba, you left her a raise with a big tip.

  16. Wendy Kurtz - October 11, 2019 1:29 pm

    I have been busy sharing your wonderful blog with my fellow Cracker Barrel employees all morning. Thank you for sharing your visit with Tamba! And reminding us that there is always good in the world if you stop to find it!

  17. Connie Havard Ryland - October 11, 2019 2:01 pm

    And you passed her smile on to the rest of us. Thank you. Drive safe yourself. Love and hugs.

  18. Michele - October 11, 2019 2:12 pm

    Sean, you make my day!!!! Such insight, such lessons on how we are to treat others. THANK YOU.

  19. Harriet - October 11, 2019 2:17 pm

    What a sweetheart that Tamba is. I am smiling too right now. I’d love to meet her one day.

  20. Chuck - October 11, 2019 2:39 pm

    Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer Tambas in the world. (I have encountered a few in my life) But it was nice to read about her – and thanks for this column today. It reminded me of what the world USE to be like, and on those rare occasions, still is.

  21. Linda Moon - October 11, 2019 4:00 pm

    Grins that are contagious and cheek-crippling are the best kind. You possess both of those varieties. You’re a good hugger, too. I think I’ll make a drive down to Calera mainly to meet Tamba and get some biscuits while I’m there. Drive Safe, Sean…. I care about you!

  22. Dawn A Bratcher - October 11, 2019 4:24 pm

    Lovely story, Sean. I am warmed by her hug & genuine affection to a stranger. Ms. Tamba is a jewel and a prize employee, at that! She has an incredible memory, can do 10 things at a time, lift heavy loads, calm down any situation, handle every need, AND make you feel loved and cared for, all at the same time!
    Not everyone can be as fantastic as Tamba, but they can be kind, caring, and look you in the eye when conversing with you. A genuine smile goes a long way!

  23. Bill - October 11, 2019 4:53 pm

    Sean, Thank you for bringing some Southern sunshine to all your readers! I loved Tamba, and so many other “Tambas” in other walks of life. I met a bunch Wednesday when I went with my son for his chemo infusion. There were LOTS of “Tambas” there with hugs for all! We are blessed to live in the South, and blessed to have so many people who love others, really LOVE their neighbors, as Christ admonished us all to do.

  24. Dee Cullen - October 11, 2019 4:54 pm

    Love this!

  25. Jackie - October 11, 2019 5:26 pm

    I normally tip 15 – 20 percent. If the service and food is above average I tip 25 percent. For waiters and waitresses like Tamba I tip 40 -50 percent.

  26. Ann Marie Bouchet - October 11, 2019 5:38 pm

    To think I might meet you someday in a Cracker Barrel!!! That would tickle me to death. I don’t have a schedule of your appearances, so a restaurant would be great.

  27. throughmyeyesusa - October 11, 2019 6:33 pm

    “Sometimes I wonder about this world […….] People are angry with things they can’t even name.“

    Your topics, generally, are so uplifting and you write with such love and optimism that sometimes I have wondered if you noticed, or what you thought, of the state the country is in today.

    That says it all. So sadly true. So frightening that the American personality of the past has all but disappeared.

    Thank God for Tamba and thank God for the blessing of your daily words of encouragement.

  28. Becky - October 11, 2019 7:07 pm

    Thanks for the smiles you gave to me today, Sean.

  29. Pat - October 11, 2019 7:48 pm

    I also think of “Drive Safe” as a prayer!

  30. Thomas - October 11, 2019 9:22 pm

    Made my heart sing!

  31. DONNA Blair - October 11, 2019 9:30 pm

    Made me smile, Sean!

  32. Brian - October 11, 2019 10:06 pm

    God bless you Tamba. You have no idea how many lives you have touched.

  33. Ann - October 11, 2019 10:54 pm


  34. Patricia Gibson - October 11, 2019 11:17 pm

    Bless you for your uplifting stories!

  35. Susan Kennedy - October 12, 2019 1:22 am

    I could feel that hug from here!💙

  36. Estelle - October 12, 2019 5:53 am

    Sunshine and joy dispensed in one person. We are lucky to meet people like her.

  37. Nancy M - October 12, 2019 12:07 pm

    Emily, that’s wonderful! I was hoping that she would see it!

  38. Nancy M - October 12, 2019 12:18 pm

    I hope Tamba becomes more famous than Brad’s wife!

  39. Suzanne Mattson - October 12, 2019 4:40 pm

    Hope you tipped her well! 20% is the standard now, you know…..sounds like she’s more the 25% kinda girl….

  40. Suzanne Mattson - October 12, 2019 4:41 pm

    Totally agree!!

  41. Landa - October 13, 2019 4:00 pm

    Love this one. We should all publicly recognize those who give cheerful, good service. Thanks for using your platform to do just that.

  42. Landa - October 13, 2019 4:02 pm

    Great! And, give her boss a copy.

  43. Shelton A. - October 13, 2019 7:27 pm

    You drive safe because you always seem to be on the road…best to Jamie.

  44. Susan Patterson - November 5, 2019 6:03 am

    Dang I’m so glad you pointed out this Cracker Barrel! I’ll ask for her next time I’m there, doing genealogy research! Thanks, Sean.

  45. Cathy W. - November 5, 2019 1:54 pm

    Thank you, Sean! ❤️ We need to turn off our bad news feed and go find joy at the closest Cracker Barrel.

  46. suebee - July 7, 2021 1:35 am

    I think Jamie has all that smile and more. XOXO


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