A Tribe Called Us

I got a call recently about a memorial wake for a fellow industry worker who had died unexpectedly while working at a city he’d moved to out west. The man who died wasn’t elderly, but he had been feeling poorly in the weeks leading up to his death. He didn’t seek medical help because he didn’t have health insurance.

As many of you know, I’m on the board of APRON, Inc., a local, nonprofit 5013c charity. The mission of APRON is to provide temporary, limited financial relief to professional food and beverage industry workers in the Louisville Metro area who work at locally-owned establishments and are experiencing financial distress due to illness, injury or other issues.

When I got the call, at first I misunderstood and thought the family needed help with funeral expenses (not something we’re normally able to assist with), but I quickly came to realize the family wanted to direct memorial funds toward APRON — even though the deceased had never availed himself of our services. His family had heard about APRON and decided they’d like to help spread the word about our mission in the metro area.

My husband-to-be had instantly agreed to attend the wake at a popular downtown restaurant with me when we first heard about it, but unfortunately he was sidelined by a stomach bug, so I set out on my own. I figured — even though I’d never met the guy who’d passed away — I’d know many of the memorial attendees through industry networking, so I wouldn’t be lonely or feel awkward.

Well, I didn’t feel lonely or awkward. I arrived before most of the guests had filtered in from the memorial service. There was a private room set up with a silent charity auction. I shook hands with the ladies who set up the room, introduced myself and let them know I was there to answer any questions about APRON. Rather than staking out a table in the room, I wandered down the hallway to what was obviously the servers’ area, where they kept their coats, backpacks and purses. Sat down, carved myself out a little space on a table. Servers came and went, retrieving their phones and replacing their cigarette packs. Nobody looked askance at me. I firmly believe they could tell I was a member of the restaurant tribe.

You see, we can pick each other out of a crowd. I can usually tell someone’s a cook or server, even if she is simply walking down the sidewalk. It’s a certain way of carrying oneself. So, even though, as it turns out, I knew only one person personally in a group of over 100 people, I felt at home.

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Cooks and servers came and went, viewing the photo collages of the deceased that his family and friends had set up. They stood chatting, cocktails or soft drinks in hand, hipshot, due to the heavy pots and trays they carry all shift each work day. Earnest line-cooks in their slicked-back hair and rarely-worn suits, feet placed like Clydesdales as they walk because they don’t trust the slick soles of their fancy shoes. Ties obviously stored pre-knotted on a hanger. Hanger-marks on the shoulders of their sport jackets. They wore dress clothes and shoes, pulled out of the closet only for weddings and funerals.

And yet I was comfortable. I gave and received a dozen hugs. The parents of the deceased were lovely and interested in APRON to a degree I found astonishing, and they spoke to me about it at length. A family member who owns a restaurant in another city was very excited about the possibility of starting a version of APRON in his metro area, and asked for my help.

I poked my head in the kitchen and asked the dishwasher if I would be OK to get back in if I went outside to make a phone call. He casually said, “Yeah, just do a soft close and you’ll be OK.” A soft close is going out the back door and letting the door just go to the frame without latching. Sometimes if there’s a really strong closer installed on the door you have to put a Sharpie between the door and frame, or a kitchen towel at the bottom corner. Every restaurant employee knows this trick, and he knew I’d know what he meant.

We see each other even when we don’t know each other yet. We are our own tribe. •

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.

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