A Valli Memoir, written for this site several years ago.
This was the standard-issue match given by the vending machine distributors; its Scooby-Doo color-scheme and graphics date it to the seventies. The Valli Restaurant and Pub never had matches of its own, which is probably just as well. You can always tell a restaurant is doomed when the custom matches give way to generic items. The Valli started out doomed, and took twenty years to prove it.
The Valli was a restaurant and bar in Dinkytown, a college community hanging on the east flank of the University of Minnesota. The Valli had 3.2 beer, caustic wine and pool downstairs; a full Italian menu plus fish plus breakfast served upstairs 24 hours a day in a woody brown vault two stories tall. It was an echt seventies project: Tiffany lamps, brown banquettes, orange glassware, brown uniforms with white piping, Loverboy pumping from the kitchen after two AM, waitresses giggling cross-eyed in the backroom after inhaling Reddy-Whip propellant.
I started working there in 1977; like most of the staff, I was a student at the U. The day shift was mostly professional waiters, ruled over by a witheringly sarcastic autocrat named Mickey; the night shift belonged to Dan, the model of either quiet professionalism or vast suppressed rage: you couldn't tell. Each presided over a platoon of amateurs, come to confound their perfect restaurant before drifting off to another job. I was probably sized up as another short-termer. I stayed six years.
Upstairs was the money floor. I did my share of five-to-nines, lucrative dinner shifts spent ferrying hot boats of lasagna to the booths and tables. When money was tight I did nine-to-two, where you stoked the drunks with sugar and grease. When life was bad I did eleven to sevens - you came on as the day was over, served the drunks, waved goodbye to the rest of the staff as they slid out the door for warm beds and slumbering mates, and then it was you and the Valli. Since there was a college nearby, there was always a few unshaven sorts filling sheaves with scribbles - chemical symbols, bad poetry, quadratic equations, fiction, good poetry. Sam the cook took his break at three, and would sometimes pass along his latest work. It never disappointed.
Maybe around 3 AM one of the loose atoms that swung around your life would walk through the door and take a seat, fire up a butt and ask for coffee, and you'd talk before they slapped a dollar on the table and headed out, off on a different orbit. Around four you had the place to yourself, and you could hop up on the low wide wall in B section and walk it like a tightrope, shouting and singing to the jukebox downstairs. If someone walked in and saw you, it was no surprise; no one went to the Valli for the food or the quality of the help. You came because it was somewhere to go, and it never closed.
The 11 to 7 shift ended with a frantic dance of slinging breakfast to bright-eyed go-getters and stumble-tongued students fueling for the first class of the day, and then you were relieved. You went home and slept and woke at four in the afternoon, convinced this was the rest of your life.
If you worked there long enough, you chose sides. You were either a brisk pro working the restaurant, or a loose and harried party host who worked the pub. That's where I ended up, and that's where I spent the early 80s: in a sunless bunker of splintery wood and beaten carpet, helping my peers slough off the awful burdens of sobriety. It's astonishing how drunk young people can get on 3.2 beer, but they do. On weekends the place was thick with frat boys, who usually arrived pre-smashed; sorority girls demolishing a liter of wine; late-shift workers slamming back the coffee, refill after refill, extra sugars; loners at the bar working steadily though a pitcher. The loners always had the longest and strongest cigarettes: Marlboro 100s, piled like small logs in the hammered tin ashtrays.) The Pub was dark; it smelled of old beer and dead smoke.
I have breakfast every Sunday with four friends, and we all met at the Valli in the late 70s. Occasionally we wonder about the marginal characters, the bit players: Peter the Bugeyed Brit, a Midwesterner's first clue that an English accent did not necessarily mean a greater sense of sophistication. Smoke-a-bowl Rick the DJ, who would periodically vanish for radio jobs in small towns, then reappear in the Pub months later, freshly fired, ready with new tales of managerial perfidy. Dime-a-time, the cheap tipper with the goaty stink and the gray oily beard; Wandy, who everyone thought was mentally retarded until he took on Angela Davis at Northrup Auditorium; Vern, the Valli's own Elvis, complete with sneer, spitcurl and custom pool cue. Kevin the waiter, for instance, vanished from sight years ago, then resurfaced in a news story: he'd shot an intruder in his house. No charges filed. He was an air traffic controller now. We read about it at Sunday breakfast, and we were proud.
Winner of the Valli waiter who went the farthest: Mehdi Mashad. An Iranian exchange student, dating the blondest and most pneumatic of the Valli waitresses, Terri. Mehdi was thoroughly Westernized, but a man whose could teach an entire college class on the innumerable meanings in a Persian's shrug. He said his first name meant Messiah, and his last name was the place of his birth. It made me wonder what I would have become if I'd been named Jesus Fargo.
One night Mehdi stood at the top of the stairs that joined the pub and the restaurant, a staircase only the wait staff could use. As usual for a Saturday night, someone came staggering up the private stairs.
It was Jackson Browne.
He had given a concert at Northrup Auditorium a few nights; half an hour before his limo had pulled up outside and his entourage had gone to the pub. Jackson Brown. Nothing special. I had waited on the Governor of the state, on David Byrne, Prince. Everyone came to the Valli.
"You cann' come up th' stairs," Mehdi sighed.
Jackson Browne kept walking.
"Hey! You can' come up there."
Jackson Browne stopped, and said the words you never say to a waiter:
"Do you know who I am?"
"I don' give a F*** who you are, you can' come up the stairs."
Mehdi said later he knew exactly who he was. He just enjoyed not showing it.
He went back to Iran after the revolution, and we never heard from him again.
Of the people I meet each day, any of them could be someone who came to the Valli, had a good date or a bad pizza in the pub, shot some awkward pool, got hooting drunk with friends. Any one of them could have come up to me ten years ago and asked for matches; I'd have flipped them the Relaxor, the crowd would have closed around them, and the moment would have slid right through the synapses. My wife went to the Valli all the time. Neither of us recalls the other.
But I know I served her; I served everyone, eventually. The face of nearly everyone under forty makes me pause. Did I pour you coffee? Were the eggs cold? Was I was annoying as I think I was?
(2003 update: survey says . . YES!)