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Columnist for a Day: Comfort food with a slice of life

It is 11 o’clock when my husband and I enter the Parkside Café in downtown Medford, where the late breakfast and early lunch crowds are merging.

We choose a booth where an old car radiator hangs on the wall. I ask Phil, a car guy, if self-driving cars have a radiator. The waitress brings cups to the table while carrying a hot pot of coffee; she chews her gum as she pours.

“Well, hello,” she says “where have you guys been, haven’t seen you for a while?” Before Phil finishes ordering, she remembers he likes pancakes. Eyebrows raised, she waits.

As I sip my coffee I look around at the kitschy décor and the community of diners. There is a room divider where a huge Champion spark plug cleaner sits on top, a couple sitting below it have finished their meal. The woman’s upswept blonde hair sits neatly on her crown, makeup is perfect, multiple rings adorn her manicured fingers, her wrists hold a range of silver bracelets that tumble up and down her forearm as she drinks her coffee.

She tries to engage the man. He looks bored. He is inattentive, with his chair pushed back from the table, angled away from her. He holds a coffee cup in his lap while one ankle rests on the levied knee across from it. He really is not present to her, if you know what I mean.

A man sits alone sipping soup at a window table. Soon, another man carries his coffee cup across the room and joins him. They talk and laugh like old neighbors, or maybe they are members of the local Moose Lodge.

On a shelf above the window there is an oil can with a long, skinny spout, one that might have been used by my father in our Shell gas station in the 1940s. Dad didn’t belong to a Moose group but he had a long membership in the Elk’s club, where he and mom often went for weekend buffets and dancing.

As a child I liked to watch mom put on her makeup while she was getting ready. She was a pretty woman with an easy laugh. Her name, Rita Veronica, fit her with her dark hair and red lipstick. Dad was good-humored and handsome in a taller-Frank Sinatra way.

Phil’s pancakes and eggs and my hashbrowns and eggs arrive. As our waitress leans in and pours me more coffee, she says she really likes my glasses.

Across from us are two ladies — I overheard they were sisters celebrating a birthday — ordering the senior breakfast with ham. In times past they could be my mother and her sister Evelyn stirring cream in their coffee while reviewing family members.

Their table is near another space divider that has, among other paraphernalia on top of it, a vintage fishing creel, the kind that might be mistaken for a bicycle basket. My father would fill his creel with trout, sling it over his shoulder with a weathered leather strap like this one and carry his gear and fishing pole back to his green Buick.

Before long a couple come in and take the first booth along the wall. A waitress asks if they want their usual.

“Yep,” says the man, who is barely over 100 pounds, neat and clean in his pressed Levi’s. The brim of his black felt cowboy hat is twice the width of his head, his silver belt buckle nearly as wide as his body. His wife wears a pink rain jacket that complements her white hair. Before he sits down, he recognizes the two men at the window table and walks over to greet them. They cajole and laugh — I mean really laugh — at something he says.

I appreciate the café’s homeyness and hospitality; the waitresses know what you eat, know a little bit about you, and let you go out the door with a smile and no further commitment. While we pay at the counter I buy four chocolate mints that are 3 for 25 cents, they often give the fourth one free.

More than food comforted, I place my hand in Phil’s with intimate pressure as we walk away.

Judith Ticehurst lives in Medford.