There is a little park on Avenue D in Killeen, Texas. It doesn’t amount to much, just about three quarters of a lot, not even a commercial lot, about fifty, or sixty feet wide, planted with trees, a little entry way, and some benches here and there. It’s not a park that you’d turn your children loose in, more of a meditation kind of thing, only the people who frequent that part of town don’t meditate much, indeed, if they sat too long there it would almost certainly lead to imperial implications.
The park sits on a lot formally occupied by the Blue Bonnet Café, owned and operated by Mr. Joseph Safady. “Mr. Joe,” as he was known, had cafes and dry goods all over Killeen. The Blue Bonnet was a “greasy spoon” restaurant. I never saw any greasy spoons, but I did see the pitted concrete floor in the kitchen. Billy Joe was the cook, and Crazy Sarah, a Comanche, was the dishwasher. Sarah would carry bus tubs and a Lucky Strike at the same time.
Mr. Joe was a Syrian immigrant, not a refugee, and Mr. Joe believed in America! He believed in America so much that he joined the army and fought for America in the trenches of World War I. When he returned he eventually found his way to Killeen and started a café. I was told that he had coins Scotch Taped to a piece of cardboard with the denominations in Arabic so he could make change. By the time I met him he had cafes all over town. There was the Blue Bonnet, and of course his flagship, the Venus, down on Highway 190. The Venus had three huge dining rooms and served the GIs after the clubs closed at two A. M.
Billy Joe could never show up on time for work. He was supposed to be there at seven, but he was always twenty minutes late. That was because he had to pick up a beer on the way in, and sales of beer began at seven. Mr. Joe struck me a deal. At fifteen, I was charged with prepping the grill. While my mother counted the register, I put on the coffee, and lit the grill, lining it with sausage and bacon. For my labor I got a free breakfast before school. On weekends I got a ham and cheese sandwich.
Mr. Joe began to bring relatives over from the old country. They weren’t refugees either. He’d get them here, put them in school to get citizenship, and set them up in a café, pool hall, or rentals. Being a vet, he knew the soldiers liked clubs, and food. He provided both. I remember at three in the morning it was standing room only, as the GIs waited for tables to eat from Mr. Joe’s, “greasy spoon.”
We didn’t have homeless back in the sixties, we had old drunks, and out of work construction people. More than a few found their way to the back of the kitchens of Mr. Joe’s cafes for a free meal, or a little work cleaning up the area. I remember a commercial back then from Lay’s Potato Chips. In it there were gangsters sitting around contemplating counterfeiting the Lay’s chip bag and stuffing it with their own chips. An old Don asked, “Who buy counterfeit potato chip bag?” Then, he sampled the chips, made a face and they all got up to leave. That was Mr. Joe to a “T.”
He went back to the old country for a visit years later. As he saw the children running around dirty and sick he was so moved that he built a hospital in Syria. I don’t know if it’s still there. He came back to Texas, and was running his businesses. One day, he eased out only Highway 190, and got slammed by a guy speeding through the light. We all said goodbye to Mr. Joe three days later.
I found myself at the place where the Blue Bonnet once stood the other day. I sat on one of the benches and looked at Avenue D. I didn’t hear the rattle of pots and pans, or Billy Joe yelling, “Order up!” Pat Anderson’s head shop across the street was long gone, and the block is decorated by all those little black fences the city of Killeen put up, along with Victorian lamps, pretending it is Salado. I don’t know why the city bulldozed the Blue Bonnet, and put the little park there, but I’m glad it did, because for me, it is a monument to Mr. Joe.