Space Available

I live in South Carolina. I have worked in downtown Columbia since May of 1990. It’s nuts to see that thirty years have passed since May 29th of that year. A lot has changed. I’ve gotten older, gotten married, raised two kids, released fourteen books and had over 200 stories published in various online and print publications. I’ve blown out my knee, had pneumonia, had a heart scare and a few other things that could be considered life altering events. I’ve lost many friends and some relatives to the eternal sleep. I’ve had some good times and I’ve had some bad times. That is the way of life.

On that Tuesday in 1990, my boss at the time, a young woman named Sheri who was not much older than my twenty years, told me, and I quote: “Go across the street and tell them you want a short, sweet blonde.”

I smiled because, in truth, I really did want a short, sweet blonde. Or, really, any blonde. But that is besides the point.

I left the office, went across the street and stepped into the little mom and pop cafe known as The Lunch Box (established in 1980). When I walked in, I saw two small tables with two chairs each, one directly to the left of the door and one directly in front of me along the wall. A glass refrigerator stood behind the table in front of me. Inside were various salads, banana pudding, and boiled eggs. To the left of the refrigerator was the entrance to the cooking area. That opening wasn’t but maybe thirty inches wide. A counter spanned from there and formed an L that ran the entire left side of the area just beyond the table directly to my left. 

Behind the counter was a short, round woman. Her name was Vickie. She was pleasant and funny, but also a no-nonsense woman. Making sandwiches was another woman, Eleanor. It turned out, they were sisters and they were the owners of The Lunch Box. Next to her was a young man named, Todd. 

I walked up to the counter. There was a young woman in front of me who had just ordered her food. Two people walked in after me and stood in line behind me. 

“Can I help you?” Vicki asked.

“I hope so,” I said. “I need a short, sweet blonde.”

The girl who ordered before me smiled, almost embarrassingly, for me. Vickie also smiled in amusement. I probably should have phrased my request differently. 

“A small coffee, with cream and sugar,” Vickie said and rung up my order. She gave me the coffee shortly after, and she was still smiling when she did so.

That was the first time I had stepped foot in The Lunch Box. Over the next twenty-nine years of my life, I would go there quite often for my breakfasts and lunches. I loved their chili cheeseburgers before switching to their hotdogs with chili and cheese and mustard, no onions, please. 

I got to know Eleanor and one of her sons. I became friends with Vickie and was even treated to her one of a kind creation, The Vickie Special. 

For almost forty years, The Lunch Box had been a mainstay on Lady Street in downtown Columbia. During that time period, Vickie passed away from cancer but Eleanor remained, running the place with a welcoming smile and a conversation. 

In early April of this year, as places all across the world were closing their doors temporarily due to the coronavirus, The Lunch Box did the same. I must admit, I was concerned that the doors would remained closed. 

Today, I walked to the post office on Marion Street. On the way back, I walked down Lady Street and went right by The Lunch Box. The front door had been busted out during the race riots in May. There was a piece of board where the glass had been. On the window to the left was a sign that simply said, Space Available.

I stood there for about thirty seconds looking at the sign. I shook my head, saddened by the absolute realization that The Lunch Box would not be coming back. I last ate a couple of hotdogs from there about a week before they closed the doors. This was a sad moment for me, and I’m sure many people in the area will be as saddened.

I think back to Vickie’s amused smile when I told her I was looking for a short, sweet blonde and I can’t help but feel a piece of my life—one thirty years in size—is now gone forever. I think about Eleanor and her asking how I was doing, then how my marriage was going, then how my kids were doing, then how my writing is going. I’m going to miss that place, it’s friendly atmosphere and people.

To Eleanor, to Vickie, to Todd, to all of those who have worked there and brought us good food that wasn’t expensive, as well as smiles and real conversations, thank you for all the great years you gave us. God bless you all. I’m sure I can speak for all of downtown Columbia, you will be missed greatly.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.