Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Unlikely angels

Every Wednesday for over a year now, nearly without fail, the girls and I walk into Skyline Chili for dinner and kids' night. Hot dogs cooked on long rolling metal tubes, soft shredded cheddar cheese, monkey dishes full of oyster crackers and, best of all, a craft.

Green, pink, and blue plastic beads strung on a purple pipe cleaner make a bracelet. A paper plate face sports a blue pompom nose, gold glitter lips, and red pipe cleaner hair. The pink foam door hanger declares, "Adia Princess," complete with crown, green sparkle glue and a blue frog. Rainbows of construction paper illustrated with short black marker lines and a circular red scribble.

Every week it is the same thing. Adia eats four hot dogs, no bun, cheese on the side with Sierra Mist in a blue paper cup with a plastic lid. Malaika does the same, though she eats only two dogs. Last week they switched to drinking Root Beer. Most weeks we also share a plate of cheese fries. Dessert in the summer: red, white, and blue rocket popsicles. In the winter, it is individually wrapped two-packs of Oreo cookies. I vary my choices. Sometimes it's a small 3-way onion. Other times I prefer a cheese coney with everything and a garden salad. The blue cheese dressing is served in a cracker dish.

We are greeted like everyone who enters: "Hi! Welcome to Skyline!" But sometimes our meals are on the table before we get through the door and across the room. The assistant manager and the cooks have been there longer than we've been going. The servers change periodically, and sometimes they are gone for a while then come back. One night not long ago, a young man came and sat down with me while the girls were at the counter working on their creations. "How are you doing," he asked. "Do you remember me?" I told him I did and commented on not having seen him in a while. He proceeded to tell me about the hiatus he took as an underwear picker for Victoria's Secret. He wanted to pay off his car before starting college in the fall. We had a good laugh about the hog heaven it must have been, surrounded by Victoria's delights all day long, though the work was tedious. He was glad to be back in the kitchen and was looking forward to heading to Miami University (of Ohio) with academic scholarship money.

The assistant manager has worked his way up from cook and was proud to show me his manager's badge when he was promoted. He regularly jokes with and teases the girls, and has taught Malaika the art of the High Five: Up high, down low...too slow. He blows a lot of steam, but it has been fun to watch his transformation since the promotion. He has the face of someone who has spent plenty of wild times and sports a block O tattoo on his shoulder and, up until a few weeks ago, a long ponytail coiled up beneath a blue Skyline cap. After deciding he was serious about making manager, he had his long blonde locks corn-rowed, because he'd always wanted to try it, then he unbraided and cut the length of his hair off leaving a spikey short do in it's place. He seems more confident to me, less volatile and frustrated than when we first started going in. And he handles well the easy socializing that makes for a good manager in a sit-down fast food joint. He always takes a few minutes to sit with me and see how things are going, tell me of his latest misadventures, and chase the girls into peals of laughter.

This is not the place one would expect to find angels. But there they are. A tall lanky high schooler with an attempt at a mustache bends over the counter to help my four year old glue the pieces onto her work of art. The two cooks - strong, silent types - step out from behind the steam tables and chat quietly, if briefly, before returning to scoop huge piles of spaghetti onto plates and cover it with chili piled high with cheese. The pretty, shy girl who never says much but has an infectious laugh calls out, "Now, that's what I like to see!" as the girls giggle when a foam circle launched from a plastic fork by one of the servers bounces off her head. And tonight, showing a little more softening around those hard edges, the assistant manager does me the favor of taking the family portrait that I didn't think I would ever get.

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