GRASS VALLEY – She didn't call me "Hon." This was disappointing. All waitresses of a certain age and sunny dispositions use that sobriquet with diners. It's in the job description, isn't it?
But 14 months ago, when I first met Shirley Tellam, who was working the morning shift at the venerable Humpty Dumpty Kitchen in Grass Valley, she explained that she hoards her "Hons," reserves them for special cases.
Is it, I wondered, that she fears the endearing term will lose impact with overuse? Or maybe it'll just reduce her to a sitcom cliché?
Well, if you must know the truth, Shirley said she only uses "Hon" when she can't remember a regular's name. Which, much to her sheepish chagrin, is happening more often these days.
"But, really," she said, leaning over the counter and speaking sotto voce, "I've never been too good with names."
Everybody at the Humpty Dumpty, a Grass Valley staple since 1961, knows peppy Shirley. And these past 14 months, they've had suffered from something of a Shirley withdrawal. The Humpty Dumpty, you see, burned to the ground on Jan. 7, 2012, taking with it 50 years of memories for a woman who has never worked anywhere else.
A new, sleeker Humpty Dumpty has risen from the ashes of the fire, deemed accidental by the Grass Valley Fire Department – less '50s diner and more trendy cafe with snazzy exposed wood beams and floors.
Links to the past remain, however, most notably in the form of Shirley scurrying around the dining room, holding pen to order pad. Yup, the new Humpty Dumpty still employs good old Shirley.
"When I came to work this morning," she said during her first shift after the joint reopened in early March, "I felt like I was a brand-new employee, not someone who's been here 51 years. In a few months, I'll be OK with the changes. But right now, yes, I kind of miss the old place."
Heck, she can be forgiven for being sentimental. As a 16-year-old high school junior, she first flipped burgers and fashioned frosty cones at the place locals lovingly call The Dump, before eventually moving into the dining room taking orders.
Now 68, she's down to working just two days a week (Mondays and Wednesdays) and hopes to keep punching the clock "as long as they'll have me."
Who, in these transient and fleeting days, even stays in the same job five years, let alone 50?
But Shirley never thought to stray, never was tempted by the new. She found a job she liked, and she stuck with it. That's all. She never was in dire need of money; husband Joe worked in the lumber mills and now has a carpet-cleaning business. Shirley just felt an affinity for the Humpty Dumpty. Loyalty like that is now hard to find, from employee and boss.
"She's been here forever," said Randy Hodges, Humpty Dumpty's owner. "A lot of our older costumers are really close to her. Shirley's our famous waitress."
Such talk makes her blush. She'll be the first to tell you she's just an ordinary "old lady" with permed hair like cotton candy. But to watch her toil during the breakfast rush is to observe someone entirely enthralled with the task at hand.
There she is, filling pepper shakers while laughing with a longtime customer. Then she's off to greet two men who slid into a booth, peering over her pad and saying, by way of greeting, "The usual 'special,' right, two eggs over easy with bacon?" Her walk is purposeful, a brisk canter, carriage erect, arms swinging. She wears shiny black Nike running shoes with her black uniform to remain fleet of foot. Her glasses sometimes slide down her nose when busy. She can carry three plates of steaming pancakes up to her left elbow, another entree in her right hand, and still hand someone their check.
"I've never liked to sit down," she said. "My daughter (Sherry) calls me the Energizer Bunny. I wouldn't be a good desk person. That's what's kept me going all this time, walking and being with people. You should see this place sometimes. It can get wild."
The joint's motif used to be more Mayberry than "Mad Men." The wide booths that formerly had Naugahyde that squeaked when your keister slid into place have been replaced by austere black chairs. The floors, once carpeted, now are trendy "distressed" wooden planks. At the cashier's counter, where once there was a '60s-era glass case stocked with candy, now there's a lovely stained-glass Humpty Dumpty likeness, a creation of Camptonville artist and Dumpty regular Albert Krebs.
Atmosphere, however, has never been what makes the Dumpty special. It's the neighborliness.
Back in 2008, regular customer Valerie Conter went into a panic in the restaurant when she noticed her diamond engagement ring was missing. Customers and staff scoured the place for the ring; somebody eventually found it in the parking lot. Michael McGowen, of Nevada City, remembers dining there once and being told that an anonymous woman picked up the tab for the entire clientele.
"The place was pretty busy, too," he recalled. "That's what I like about the Humpty Dumpty. You gotta be doing something right to be open as long as they've been."
The reason is simple: continuity.
People come to the Humpty Dumpty secure in knowing they'll get a heaping amount of "comfort" food served up by the likes of Shirley Tellam. She has her good and bad days, for sure. For every big tipper, there's some rude costumer who stiffs her. Some diners are demanding and try even her zenlike patience.
"The nicer you are to them, it will disarm them," she said of the grumpsters. "Don't ever be nasty back to them. Maybe they just don't realize how hard it is being a waitress."
But she adores her job and missed it something awful during the 14-month hiatus. Shirley spent her idle days volunteering at the school where her daughter teaches and also cleaning neglected graves at the local cemetery. And, in the six weeks before the Dumpty's reopening, she and other waitresses even helped sand the beams and floors and spiff up the place.
Now, it's back to what she does best – food service with a smile.
After she finished talking to me at the counter, she hustled over to take an order, but not before she turned, pen in hand and waved, saying, "Have a good day!"
Do note, however, that she did not say "Hon."
THE HUMPTY DUMPTY KITCHEN
Where: 1711 E. Main St., Grass Valley.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m; Sunday 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Drive-thru hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., daily.
Information: (530) 272-2251
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.