(Culver City, California 1980)
The tiny diner was empty - and it was a minute past noon!
I walked into the little shop chuckling to myself,
That name! SOUP HERB...hilarious!
In the corner at a small table
a man in a chef's costume sat smoking an unlit cigar, flipping through a daily Racing Form.
"Ah, good day to you, Sir" His mustache drooped as his smile beamed.
"You're my first customer! You eat for Free today - but you must promise to tell all your friends how wonderful we are - (he added with a wink) even if it is lousy- which it never is!"
AN HOUR LATER
By the time I walked out of SOUP HERB...
I had - as Rod Serling might well say, "Witness a man for whom success will never arrive even as his bright dreams slowly die."
Herbert (last name now unremembered ...too many consonants) had not only served me hot soup with fresh rolls and brisk iced tea, he had dumped a platter filled with autobiographical remembrances on my soul as well.
In short, he had come from Serbia - escaping from Kosovar Albanians hellbent on wiping out every living thing from his village. Parents: dead. Friends: dead.
I confessed I knew nothing about Serbs or Albanians.
He was unsurprised.
"Nobody knows - or cares." Then he added, "Why should they?"
He traveled West, joining a crew of sailors heading to America and landed in New York.
He discovered a job in a delicatessen as a short order cook.
Eventually he moved on, learning his trade as a Chef.
He'd saved all his money for the dream: his own business.
He was Catholic. Through his church he made contacts and found a landlord who felt sorry for him and granted one month's free rent. California was paradise - this would be an incredible new life - new beginning for him.
The shop I was sitting in was cobbled together with his own two hands from scratch.
"How'd you come up with the name SOUP HERB", I finally asked - expecting a delicious snippet of genius - a clever story or a shrug of modesty.
"It's easy to make, it's delicious, there is a good profit margin - and - well, my name is Herb."
I thought he was testing me. For a minute, anyway.
"Are you trying to tell me "SUPERB" never entered your mind?"
He stared at me ...
"No - what is that - a word?"
TWO WEEKS LATER
I stopped by again and walked in to find the Chef sitting in the same spot in the corner - no customers around - but no smile this time.
He slowly revealed to me how he had been robbed and the money he was saving for the new month's rent was gone.
"I apologized to the little man with the gun. Yes, I did. I told him I knew how desperate life can make you --and how you'll do anything - no matter how awful - just to escape."
A MONTH LATER
The sign was down and Herb had vanished from the chalk board of dreams.
Chalk dust on fate's eraser.
This isn't a happy story but it's a true one.
Funny thing about it -I can't get rid of it from my memory.
Herb haunts me in quiet moments.
He is a man with big dreams, a tragic past, an iron will to survive and when his chance at success comes - a little man with a pistol snatching it away ...
BUT HE APOLOGIZES to the thief!
I think it is called "empathy".
A LIFETIME LATER
Today, every time I see the word "superb" I stop what I'm doing and feel my heart forming the ghost of a prayer for him...and I think - "No, it's SOUP HERB!"
Heartbreaking and hilarious inside my head.
A Serb named Herb? REALLY???
A diner called "SOUP HERB" - REALLY?
God must have a sense of humor - that's all I can say about it.
Now he's your problem too.