The old man looked up into the rainy sky before he stepped out of the alcove and onto the sidewalk and jogged across the wet street and ducked into the cafeteria. His suit was dark wool and did not show the rain that had doused him even in those few, quick steps outside. The cafeteria, as always, smelled wonderful. The hot bread, the steaming soup, the coffee. Even the worn oak floors, now wet from recent traffic, gave up a faint, clean scent. He felt at home here and wondered how it had lasted so long. In the decades he had worked here on Winter Street, downtown, every business nearby had changed hands, some multiple times, but Jefferson’s Cafeteria had kept right on going. He could not understand how. Businessmen and office workers in his day had cared and were not ashamed to admit that they cared about getting value for their dollar and in the cafeteria, you could be sure of that. You saw what you were getting and you saw how much before you ordered or made any commitment.
In his day, some four decades ago, on a rainy noontime like this, Jefferson’s Cafeteria would have been packed. He would have had to wait in a long slow line that might have gone all the way out the door where patrons would have struggled to stay dry under the green canvas awning. Then he would have waited, listening to the piano player and the soft clink of glasses and fork and knife and the shuffle and murmer of the office workers, all in shirts and ties. But today, even though the counters, as always, were brimming with food, there was no line and he took a tray from the stack and utensils from the metal wells and laid the tray on the horizontal metal bars that ran parallel to the food counter and slid it along, past the salads and to the soup urn where he ladled cream of mushroom into a white bowl. He got himself a hard roll and a glass of tea witha scoopful of the old-fashioned crushed ice and found a seat at an empty table in the long, uncrowded room.
This is the last of it, he thought. The last of my day.