The Cracker Barrel: Josie's Cafe
On a recent trip to the little town in Illinois where I grew up, a particular building caught my eye and triggered a cascade of boyhood memories.
Situated in the center of town, across Main Street from the train station, the building is built of red brick and once housed two places of business. One was a shoe store. The other was Josie's Cafe, which opened the year I turned 11.
Josie, we soon learned, was an attractive lady with dark hair and dark eyes and an intriguing accent who cooked a variety of simple but tasty dishes and who brooked no misbehavior on the part of spirited young gentlemen such as ourselves. At the first hint of roughhousing she would raise her voice and point toward the door. "You go out then!"
With her accent, which we learned was Czechoslovakian, coupled with her decisive command, she was impossible to disobey, and we immediately stopped being disruptive. Like other adults in our town, she did not hesitate to express her praise ("You good boy!") or, more commonly, her disapproval ("You yoouvenial delinkvent!").
But somehow we never doubted that she liked us all and was happy to have us as customers.
Over the next few years, Josie's Cafe became a fixed part of our young lives. We'd order a hamburger or hot dog, a malt or Coke or shake, a piece of pie or a dish of ice cream, or sometimes on a Saturday morning fried eggs and hash browns. I doubt any of us ever spent more than 50 cents on any one order, but our patronage was steady.
Josie's became our hangout, a place to sit and talk and exchange ideas while sipping a cold glass of pop or, in the winter, a cup of hot chocolate. Later, as teens, we would insert quarters to play songs on the jukebox and sit around telling jokes and talking about cars and girls and deciding which movies we might want to see.
As most youngsters do, we paid little attention to anyone but our own close circle of friends, and took Josie and her cafe completely for granted. Over time the cafe became as much a part of our lives as a tree or a sidewalk; a fixture that you knew was there, but rarely required commentary or even notice.
The only exception to that was when, briefly, a rumor arose that Josie, being an immigrant, might also be a Communist. She did, after all, come from a part of the world controlled by the Soviet Union. Had she been sent here to persuade us young folk to forsake American values and join the Communist Party? Was she trying to subvert the capitalistic system by deliberately keeping her prices low and thus coax us into socialism?
What about her personal life? Nobody seemed to know where she lived, or if she was married or engaged (she wore no ring), or what she did on her time off. For a few weeks talk swirled about town, and then gradually died out.
Had the rumors about her taken root a few years later, during the John Birch mania that gripped the country, Josie might have been in serious trouble, purely because of our near-uniform ignorance about her and the propensity of distrust and hatred to fill the vacuum such ignorance creates.
But, as things turned out, she was spared the humiliation and damage such occasional witch hunts inflict, and life rolled along with our habits and enjoyments intact.
For which, over half a century later, I offer silent thanks.