Monday, March 10, 2008

Molly's La Casita

When I graduated from college in 1995, I was a little, OK a lot, directionless. My parents were going through a divorce after 20+ years of marriage. I had recently broken up with my boyfriend of five years, the one I was supposed to marry after graduation. I had no real idea of what I wanted to do and I had not applied to graduate school, which would at least have given me some buffer time. I went home to
Nashville that summer, spent a couple of miserable months, and promptly moved back to Memphis where I could bide some time hanging out with friends and getting my groove on.

I initially got a job waiting tables at a hoity-toity French restaurant. They never should have hired me in the first place. I was way out of my league and quit almost immediately. Several doors down the street was and still is a small, independently owned Mexican restaurant, Molly's La Casita. The food is OK, some dishes better than others, and the margaritas are strong. I walked in one afternoon, sat at the bar, and asked for an application.

As I filled out the application, I tried to scope out the place. I noticed the waitstaff had on shorts and t-shirts. That was a plus. One was smoking a cigarette and talking with a customer. They all seemed happy. Everything was very laid back. There would be no pretentious winelist nonsense here and no starched white aprons. I I thought it looked like a good place for me.

After I handed over the application, the owner, Robert Chapman, came out to speak to me. He was warm and friendly and made a joke about my being a graduate of the high falutin' college a few blocks away. I liked him immediately. He hired me on the spot and I started work the next day.

I worked at Molly's for about five years, a long time in the restaurant business. Of all my non-teaching jobs, it was the best job I have ever had, much in spite of itself. I didn't make a ton of money; I could have made much more elsewhere. Waiting tables itself is hard, sometimes demoralizing work and there were quite a few nights when I thought I couldn't wait to throw in my apron. I went home every night half covered in salsa and smelling like an enchilada. I suffered rude customers and an occasional lousy tip or walk-out. Once night a drag queen almost hit me. By closing, I was always exhausted and would sometimes go home and have nightmares about being in the weeds. Despite all this, it really was a great job.

What made Molly's so special was that it became a family to me when my own family was in so much turmoil. The owner, Robert, and manager, Kelly, were half-friend, half-parent figures to me, always ready to give advice or offer help if needed. The staff was a small, close-knit group who spent most of their free time together and with other area restaurant staff. We had a core group of regular customers who were as much a part of our life as we were of theirs. We were invited to their parties and they to ours. People cared about one another.

Even the kitchen staff, often a totally separate entity in a restaurant, were friends with everyone. One of the cooks was nicknamed Pig. I used to make little pig figures out of the chip basket and frill picks and set it on the line for him. He'd just laugh and keep slinging tacos. I used to drive Prentis home some nights and he'd have me drop him off just before the railroad tracks, just on the edge of his hood because he didn't want to put me in danger.

Another of my favorite employees, Traveler, was mentally retarded but had been taken in by Molly's and given a job which could have been done better by someone else, but remained his out of love for him. Kelly even helped him find housing and manage his money. The kindness with which Traveler was treated is indicative of the type of place Molly's was and I am sure, still is.

I have not been to Molly's in years, but if I close my eyes, I can still conjure up the smell of the chips, the sound of the dishroom door banging as Traveler barreled through it, a bin of dishes in his hands, and the feel of the hot and humid Memphis air blowing through the open front door. I can hear Kelly calling someone a nimrod and Pig, barking out orders in the kitchen, tickets piling up on the line, his gold-rimmed glasses perched on his nose and his face shining with sweat. The down ramp to the lower level dining room made a certain sound every time you walked on it and the tile floors were impossible to sweep clean. I can taste my favorite shrimp quesadilla or the burger, which, oddly, was one of the best in town. I can feel the icy headache from a maragrita downed too quicky and Butch, the bartender's slightly diabolical laugh as he posted his latest top 10 list. The old computers were the type where you had to enter a numerical code to modify an order and I can still remember some of the PLU's. I can tell you the table numbers and recite most of the menu. I still have my tray that I had marked my own with a lizard and which, when I left, was signed by everyone and given to me as a gift.

My time at Molly's will always remain one of the best times of my life. The other day, I was reading a Memphis blog and read that Robert, the owner, had a stroke some time ago. He survived, but I don't think he is actively a part of the restaurant's day to day life anymore. This makes me very sad. I know Molly's is still open, and I hope it remains as it was, a welcoming and oddly nuturing way station for those who need it. It is much loved.


jennifer h said...

All the details were wonderful. It sounds like you found a family at a time when you needed one. You should go back there to visit.

Don Mills Diva said...

Loved this post and I really felt it. I waitressed for many years and it made me who I am today - it prepares you for life like no other job I think. I wouldn't want to do it again but boy I have some wonderful memories...

Missybw said...

Heck, I want to go too! It sounds just like my kind of place... good mex dives with nonpariel Martinis are exactly what I adore most. Oh yeah, there's that whole bob thing too, but mex and ritas come first! Another thing to see when I finally make it to Memphis to see "the king".

Rima said...

Hey, I graduated in '95, too. And I have similar fond memories of the restaurant I worked at the summer before my junior year.

Mr Lady said...

I worked at a restaurant like that, too. I loved it, and i totally miss it. I hear you!

Mamma said...

You can just tell by your description how much you loved that experience and the people you worked with.

What a terrific post.