My dad made us rake leaves at his downtown office each fall. Corner of Spruce and Orange. Never was it not freezing, wet or an early morning Saturday. We were humbled with the hand blisters of wooden rake handles and child labor, rewarded with a big, fat cheeseburger and chocolate malt shake at the Uptown Diner. It was worth every leaf bag.
As young ballerinas of the many Missoula Nutcrackers, we’d get our first taste of young adult freedom and dash across the Higgins Bridge in buns and leotards in between Wilma rehearsals and devour Uptown BLTs. I remember returning to rehearsals with ripped pink tights, torn on an Uptown barstool’s ragged nylon.
After Mom volun-told us we’d be washing dishes at the annual Lenten potluck series at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, we’d moan and wine about being too cool to be seen washing dishes at church. Often, an Uptown shake was promised afterward, and it always tipped the scales.
I skipped class my first time in high school — not to do something illegal — but to sit in an Uptown booth and cry over a heartbreak with my best friend while we pooled our lunch money to split a side of fries and a hot chocolate, extra whip. The grease crackling and the business lunch crowd muted by the old cash register drawer clinging and clinging reminded me life would indeed go on.
My dad took me there for breakfast the day I left for college — giant chocolate-chip pancakes with a side of bacon — and explained that if I came home pierced, tattooed or “cohabiting with a boy,” my tuition indeed would be revoked. Naturally, the waitress knew Dad and added, “I don’t think he’s joking.” He wasn’t.
On the way home from funeral ceremonies, someone always offered, “Let’s go to Uptown.” We’d squeeze into a booth, the waitress reading our dress and hearts, silently filled up coffee mugs with a, “I’ll give you all a few minutes.” The campy posters of Dean, Sinatra, Monroe and Hepburn looking down were comforting us, too.
In graduate school, sitting at a table with big-city MFA students talking way out of their league, one remarked why on earth a restaurant would still use paper tickets and why the wait was so long. The waitress, God love her, replied, “Oh forgive me, I understand you want to be a writer and live in Missoula? And fly fish? You will wait.”
The last time we gathered at Uptown, it was at a back table. I ordered scrambled eggs and perfectly crisp hash browns with my now grown siblings and my graying father. We talked about my brother’s upcoming marriage and laughed at Dad offering to cover the bill of his adult children and that really, none of us had cash on hand anyway. The likely homeless man sitting next to us asked if Dad would cover his bill, too — the waitress chiming in before we could respond with, “Fat chance, Charlie. You sit back down.”
The west booth with the big front window is the best place to watch Missoula go by. After Griz games, a parade, a farmer’s market morning or a day on the Blackfoot. All walks of life have been welcomed by her 1950s charm, mint green rotating door bell, a waitress who’s seen it all, shakes and plates that fed Missoula souls.
She will be sorely missed.