The Breakfast Bunch, Warwick Restaurant, Newport News, Va.
" Another Home with the Breakfast Bunch"
audio slide show by Aubrey Kosa
The Breakfast Bunch
by Aubrey Kosa
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I thought. What are the odds that after not being to the restaurant for an entire week—the Warwick Restaurant in Newport News, Va.—that both of the ATMs on campus would be “temporarily unavailable to process my transaction?” I walked out of the library doors, frustrated with the inability of the universityi ATMs to provide me with cash for my breakfast at the Warwick. This was serious.
I thought back on my trip home to Northern Virginia the week before. One of my closest friends, already having been stationed in Okinawa for a year, was now being deployed to Afghanistan. Of course I made the decision to make the trip home by any means necessary when I found out that his trip would include a two-hour layover in Dulles airport. The train ticket had been necessary. I could not have gone to the restaurant and spent the remainder of my semester’s spending money not knowing whether or not I would be forced to buy a train ticket back to school as well. No, my weeklong absence at the restaurant had been well warranted. Nevertheless, the frustration continued and threatened to bubble over when I discovered that not only were CNU’s ATMs broken, but I was also unable to withdraw money from the gas station across the street because of “insufficient funds.”
I stood there in front of the gas station ATM for a moment, debating whether to make the trek across the parking lot to the Warwick, whether it was even worth it at this point. Then I remembered the phone call that I received the day before:
“Aubrey, Hi it’s AC from the Warwick. We hadn’t seen you in a week. They kept telling me to give you a call and make sure you were okay but I kept saying that I would wait one more day until finally it had been a week. How are you?”
That call was reason enough for me to show up that morning, even if I had to pay with my debit card. I had told AC that I would. More than that, I had actually promised him that I would be there that morning. And I never break promises. So I turned around, still fed up with my helplessness to obtain cash, and headed out into the cloudy morning to the Warwick. There is a car pulled up close to the front door, brake lights on, clearly stopped to let its passenger out. I see the cane emerge from the passenger door first and then the signature baseball cap and slightly hunched figure that I recognized as belonging to Billy Castelow. He was here. He was out of the hospital. Relief, surprise, and joy simply washed over me, far more of a reaction than I would have ever expected to experience after only spending an hour with this man. But one of my greatest fears as I noted Billy’s absence week after week was that he would be the next of the bunch to pass away, before he even got a chance to see the sound slide that he narrated. That cloud was lifted as I greeted him and held the door open so that he could join the breakfast for the first time that I had seen in weeks.
We walk in, past Dave and Tommy. The smell of breakfast is delightful every time you even open the doors of the restaurant in the mornings, of eggs and biscuits and waffles cooking and the coffee brewing in the back. George’s back is to the front door, but his wife, Rhonda, catches my eye, smiles, and waves. I slide into the booth across from AC, but Billy walks on, into the back room, to the three or four tables that are pushed together ever Tuesday morning for the ‘Breakfast Bunch’, as they like to call themselves. I can hear the din of their greetings, chaotic and energetic as always. I can’t even help the smile that creeps onto my face as I attempt to focus my attentions back to AC now that I’ve absorbed the fact that Billy is no longer in the hospital. I, of course, must explain my absence, to him and everyone else. But I don’t mind one bit. They missed me.
Fred walks by the booth as I am catching up with AC. He stops and asks how the project is going, as he always does. Then he pushes AC over so that he can sit in the booth. He wants to thank me for what I did for him a few weeks ago and extends a ten-dollar bill across the table to me. I helped him write a letter to the insurance company asking about his father’s life insurance. Not even that. All I did was look over the letter that he had already written. I tried to tell him that it was completely unnecessary and that I didn’t need it, but he insisted, and I graciously accepted (a grand feat considering that I usually throw a fit when anyone attempts to pay for me in any form or fashion). How is it that on the day when I most need it, money is provided? And not only money, but cash. Enough to pay for my breakfast for two days. Is there any way he can ever know how much this means to me?
I sat across from AC and Fred, soaking it all in. AC got his GPS from his car to show Fred what a GPS even was, and then show him how it works. Two heads, wise from old age, bent over this device that our generation takes for granted, brows wrinkled as they navigate its many functions, one teacher, one student. Rhonda and George sit in their usual booth, Rhonda with her beautiful, curly white hair. George sitting in the warmth of her smile. Rhonda (waitress) going back and forth across the restaurant, taking trays of food back to the ‘Breakfast Bunch’, smiling when she catches my eye. I am content in that moment. That moment is beautiful. It feels as if I am a puzzle piece that clicked into my place. The Warwick is mine too.
The spell only lasts a few moments however. AC finishes his GPS lesson, Fred heads off to wherever he goes when he leaves the Warwick in the mornings. AC gets ready to return home and make his wife’s morning coffee for her before his doctor’s appointment. When he hands Rhonda his payment, he asks if it will cover everything and it is twice the amount that I know his breakfast costs every single morning. There’s no way… Rhonda doesn’t bring me my check. AC gets up, takes his paper and his GPS and as he is walking away, he turns around as if it is an afterthought and says, “You’re covered for the rest of the week.” I of course immediately protest, hoping that the truthful relation of my tight financial situation had not prompted him to pay for my breakfast or that it had came across as a plea for funds. Those were not my intentions. I had only been trying to share my life with them as honestly as they had shared theirs with me.
After my moments of analyzing the causes for his generosity, my heart just melted. He wants me here. They all want me here. He is willing and able to offer to pay for my breakfast for almost an entire week. While that may only be twenty dollars to him, it is the world to me. Already moved beyond any expression, I bid a goodbye to the ‘Breakfast Bunch’, and then went to let Rhonda know that I was leaving. She tells me that I should have called if I knew I wasn’t going to be there and when I point out that I don’t have her phone number, she gives it to me and tells me that I need to call her the next time that I’ll be gone so that she doesn’t worry. Why does this woman who has only known me for four months care so much whether or not I am absent for a week? I had started to lose hope that places like the Warwick still existed: places that assume trust until you break it, immediately drawing you into their circle, embracing you, encircling you with their love just like a family. If I hadn’t already, I came to the conclusion that the end of my documentary class would come long before the end of my mornings at the Warwick. I couldn’t tear myself away from that place and those people even if I wanted to. I found another home. ◊
I love these people: one of the most frequent phrases to escape Rhonda’s lips when she talks about her customers.
by Aubrey Kosa
She looks around the restaurant, at AC getting up from his side booth, slipping into his jacket, at the remainders of Dave and Tommy’s breakfast in their usual booth right inside the front door. She softens as she takes in the morning at the Warwick Restaurant, Newport News, Va., the place whose familiarity is second only to her own home.
After serving me only one time, Rhonda remembered my order. My second morning at the Warwick restaurant, she asked me if I would like to have the same thing as I did the day before. Surprised at her sharp observance and accurate memory of a customer whom she had only served once before, I said yes almost without knowing what I was saying, still trying to process the fact that she remembered. I now know that I no longer have to ask her for a thing. She knows like the back of her hand what every single one of her customers is going to order. I come in and she already has the coffeepot in hand, coffee mug waiting in my spot, pouring my coffee before I can even shed my jacket. She doesn’t bother to bring me the customary saucer of half and half and spoon; she knows that I drink my coffee black, and that I also don’t want the glass of water normally served with a coffee.
I walk in one morning after an absence of two days or so and sit down, not thinking twice about whether or not my breakfast would be there shortly. The coffee is there as usual, but after a solid fifteen minutes, my scrambled egg biscuit is still not in front of me. Had she forgotten? Was this some sort of reluctance to bring it due to my absence? How could I ask her for it? To ask her would be to insult her memory and competence as a waitress. Of course, my fears were completely ridiculous. She brought my scrambled egg biscuit out just as she always does and always will. One soft, crumbly, homemade biscuit sandwiching what has to be the fluffiest scrambled egg in the world. How could I ever doubt her?
Rhonda stops by my booth in the midst of her coffee rounds, leaning in close to disclose yet another story about one of her customers in hushed tones. She stands with her back to the customers who just sat down that are not part of the regular crowd (wouldn’t want them knowing all the restaurant’s secrets on their first day). She stands right at the edge of my booth, not a foot away from me as she chuckles, sharing stories about her ‘family’. I’ve been included.
My children, my husband, everybody, “We can’t go anywhere without you knowing somebody.” I mean I know all kinds of people from being in here. We can go to the grocery store, I can go to the airport, I can go anywhere, I can even be on a connecting flight from another city and customers will be on the plane coming here. And my husband’s like, “I cannot believe this.” He said, “Only you would know somebody in another state when we go to it.” We even went one time and were going to New York, stopped at a rest stop on the way and ran into customers there.
Whenever Rhonda is working, the country music radio plays, the sound spilling out from the “Employees Only” section of the restaurant (not that the sign prevents the regulars from venturing back). While some of the older regulars may not recognize the songs that play, Rhonda knows them all, half singing along. Not so loud as to be heard, but just loud enough so that if you are familiar enough with her voice, you catch snippets of a song sang softly.
What was it… three years ago, I had a bout with cancer, and if it wasn’t for my customers, I would be in debt big time. They took really good care of me. They collected money and kept sending it to me… I mean they’ve really taken good care of me. I mean I just love these people. That’s one reason I tell everybody I stay here… It’s because of the customers… I love it. ◊
Aubrey Kosa is a Christopher Newport University student. She is an English major with a leadership minor, aspiring to be a journalist when she graduates. She grew up all over the country, being a ‘military brat’. She enjoys her daily morning run, as well as the color yellow and sunshine.
See behind the scenes at the "Breakfast Bunch"
Every Tuesday morning, a group of retirees trickle into the Warwick restaurant over the course of the hour or so between seven- and eight o'clock. Greeting each other warmly, they reminisce about the old times and catch up on the new. It’s not the same ones every Tuesday, but it’s a group. They have been meeting every single Tuesday since 1995. Same restaurant. Same waitress: their beloved Rhonda, who includes pages and pages of Tuesday morning pictures in her scrapbooks. One particular morning, Billy Castelow sits alone at the table, waiting for the rest of the ‘Breakfast Bunch’ to show up. When I walk up and introduce myself, I find that Rhonda has already explained my documentary project to him. Without a single prompt from me, he begins telling me their story, the story of the ‘Breakfast Bunch’. Since that morning, Billy has been back in and out of the hospital. Every Tuesday morning, I hope to see him back at the table with the rest of the guys.
—Special Thanks To: Billy Castelow, ‘The Breakfast Bunch,’ & Rhonda Hicks
SoundSlide Show: "Tuesday Mornings with the Breakfast Bunch"
"Tuesdays Mornings with the Breakfast Bunch" (8:34)