My premier sortie on Chicago’s restaurant industry was through the heavy oak door of a Mexican cantina-cum-eatery located in the eastern recess of Water Tower Place’s sixth floor. The staff, an assemblage of mostly Latin-Americans, is my sentimental favorite to this day. Abel, our burdensomely-cheeked and perpetually-smiling dishwasher, was available to inscribe Spanish translations for items like “fork” and “spoon” onto my green, lined waiter’s notepad. Kathy, our quick-witted, sisterly lead waitress, would collect all of us after the workday like we were a disorganized deck of cards and shuffle us together again over margaritas. And Ann, our boyish, outspoken head bartender, could blend, shake, and pour mixed beverages with an unmatched cyclonic intensity. It was here that I not only met these remarkable people, but assisted my first icon, Kenny Rogers, Nashville’s “Gambler” and Dolly’s duet partner in the 1983 #1 hit, “Islands in the Stream”.
He was seated at a walnut-stained table for four along with three companions, one of whom I believe was Travis Tritt, his concert opener. The room, vacant except for the musicians and their guests, was au centre of the restaurant, yet private. A wall separated it from the maize-hued front room, where hacienda windows stood ajar, exposing an outside shopping area. As they got comfortable in my assigned zone, I began formulating what has become my defense against starry eyes and stuttered phrases. Their aim for being in the restaurant was the same as mine would be, I reasoned, to fulfill the human function of adding fuel to the tank. I quickly studied this new thought, inhaled, then set out for my first celebrity encounter.
To shorten the tale, it wasn’t long before a platter of cheese enchiladas in ranchero sauce, served with arros y frijoles refritos, was placed in front of my famous guest. While he conversed, laughed, and flirted with his friends, I busied myself with closing sidework, and poked my head in every once in a while to make assessments, refill diet colas, and replenish molecajetes of salsa.
I was there when Mr. Rogers pushed his quarter-eaten entrée away. Wondering about his satisfaction, I asked if everything were alright. He nodded in assent.
“Would you like that wrapped up, then?”
“No,” he responded,” I was just nibbling.”
Then, I slid the turquoise Fiesta Dinnerware plate off the table and into the crook of my left arm, followed by the other dishes. While doing this, I realized this was Kenny Roger’s unfinished dinner at the bottom of the heap. Reflecting on the potential existence of a Hall of Fame for the Leftovers of the Rich and Famous or a special food pantry for aspiring country singers, I decided that, assuredly, no, neither existed.
I headed back for the trash receptacle in the kitchen.