So sad that oftentimes it takes beloved city institutions going out of business to make us yearn for how good we had it. Such is the case with Sunday’s closing of Jan’s Restaurant on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles for me.
Jan’s was one of the first places I ever went to in Los Angeles when I moved out from Texas to pursue a career in entertainment, following my college graduation in the summer of 2000. My college professor mom had accompanied me on my road trip out here from Dallas, and we had the mission of finding me an apartment as quickly as possible, before her fall semester commenced. Every morning, we would start the day, fueling up on my dreams and diner grub at Jan’s, a restaurant reminiscent of the diner on Alice, that was eternally and delightfully stuck in a 70s time warp. There, I would order their deliciously unhealthy powdered sugar-slathered French toast (back when I was still able to eat carbs with abandon), and Mom would order their signature spinach salad, even in those early hours of the morning.
Upon Mom’s last day in LA, after 3 weeks of being out here setting up my first real apartment, before returning to Dallas – and leaving her baby for good in Los Angeles – our regular waitress at Jan’s, named Ann, helped ease the transition for us. As we sat in our regular booth, Mom and I were tearful, and a bit shaky, as I could already feel the homesickness creeping up in my throat. Ann came over to our booth and patted me on the back. She told my mom, “Don’t worry, Mommy. I’ll take care of her.” She turned to me, “Whenever you are homesick, honey, you come here and see me!” She then took out a pen from her apron and wrote down some words on the back of our check. It was a Buddhist chant that she felt had changed her life, and she told me to say it to myself whenever I needed help falling asleep at night or when I felt homesick, lonely and far from home: Nam-Myo-Ho-Renge-Kyo.
I think of how many things have changed since those days so long ago at Jan’s as I set out on this new adventure in a new city as a new adult – I’ve had different boyfriends and different jobs, I’ve moved to Nashville and moved back from Nashville, I’ve made two records, lived in four different houses, fallen in love a few times, broken up with those same loves, started a blog, been the voiceover for numerous national commercials, and have achieved my own little corner of sweet success out here in Los Angeles. Yet, one of the constants in my life is that I still say that chant that Ann gave me in times of unrest, when I need calming.
On the next to last day that it would be open, before it becomes a Chipotle, I went to Jan’s. I asked to sit in Ann’s section (there was a wait of course, due to her popularity), ordered the spinach salad, quietly watched her work, and observed the other patrons, who looked as though they were feeling as sad and nostalgic as I was.
I saw elderly men arguing about the bill, an offbeat, artistic-looking mother and daughter team taking in the menu, groups of friends reminiscing in the corner booths, lots of 40-something parents who had brought their little kids to give them one last sip of their own lost youth, and a young man upset that the oatmeal and iced tea had run out. After all, no need to order more when you’re closing up shop the next day.
But, mostly, I saw folks like me – people visiting their memories of yesteryear, housed in this family diner – and trying to taste that last bittersweet bite of nostalgia before every morsel was gone. In the booth across from me, sat a little old lady, armed with a parked walker and a smile. She was eating an Egg Beaters omelet, drowning in picante sauce. She told me that she had come to Jan’s every Saturday and Sunday. When I asked her how long she had been coming, she replied, “Too many years to count!” I have a feeling she’s one of many who would have had that same answer.
As much as it warmed my heart to see all of these patrons who loved Jan’s there, I couldn’t help but think how annoyed the owners and employees must be with us - “If you guys had been loyal and turned out like this all along, we wouldn’t be going out of business.” Sure, I can head over to their sister restaurant, Astro in the valley, for that spinach salad, or to splurge on french toast when the craving hits me, but it’s less about the food and establishment; it’s more about the people who fill the space, run it every day, give it its soul, and make it feel alive…people like Ann.
While it hurts us as individual patrons – and our whole society – that institutions like Jan’s are closing in droves and will be no more, it hurts even more that the figures at the heart center of these institutions will no longer be living in the peripheral vision of our everyday lives. Whenever I went there, it felt like home – as much as anything did, and now the time has come to bid adieu to another home I knew. Another home I loved.
Before I left today, I shared with Ann, that I still have that check with her handwritten chant on it, and have been repeating that chant, almost nightly, for 15 years now. She remembered me, and inquired as to how my mom was. I told her that Mom was fine, but she would sorely miss those spinach salads.
Then, I asked Ann what she would be doing now that Jan’s was closing. She said that after 31 years there, she won’t be relocating to the Astro location. Instead, she’ll be retiring, and then hopefully, moving back to her native Thailand. I can only hope that she gets as much peace in her retirement, as she has given me these past 15 years. I hugged Ann, gave her my business card, she gave me her address in that same familiar handwriting, and said, “Maybe you can come visit me in Thailand!” I left her a $50 tip on a $12 bill.
Somehow, it still doesn’t feel like enough.