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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When It's 4 a.m., Go to Eat-Rite Diner for a Slinger -- or a Reason to Love St. Louis Again

Posted By on Wed, Jun 24, 2015 at 7:30 AM

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Kevin Hadley (left) and Pat Fell. When the two co-workers have opposite shifts, they call each other to compare sales - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS PHILLIPS
  • Photo by Nicholas Phillips
  • Kevin Hadley (left) and Pat Fell. When the two co-workers have opposite shifts, they call each other to compare sales

It's common for Eat-Rite customers to pay for strangers, whether out of drunkenness or late-night camaraderie. Fell claims there's a clutch of regulars who, as a matter of routine, treats half the counter.

(This counterbalances jerks like the dude in the Hawaiian shirt who ran up a $20 tab earlier that night and ditched without paying.)

Regulars also have their "usuals." The staff knows them without being reminded. For many it's just a coffee or cup of ice, though one guy always gets ten orders of bacon, four orders of sausage and ten scrambled eggs. He recently tacked on a sirloin dinner. He's called "The Bacon Man." He's kind of a legend.

As the crowd thins out, eyes grow bloodshot, and lids get heavy. Fell reports that on rare occasions, he's found pot (and even heroin) in the parking lot. The guests tonight are basically holding it together. Sometimes they don't.

He has seen folks passed out face-down in slingers. Once, a man tumbled off his stool three times and smacked his head on the candy machine all three times. On this particular weekend, a young woman tries to walk out of the jukebox, then corrects herself and stumbles out the door.

Fell remembers one gal who climbed atop the counter and flashed Hadley — prompting him to drop whatever he was holding. Another came clad in only fishnet stockings from the waist down. A different lady once asked the male patrons if they believed in aliens, then offered each a blow-job in exchange for a cheeseburger. (All declined.)

Then there was the drunk woman who entered and threw a tantrum, snatching up cups and sugar shakers to chuck across the room. Before Fell could even react, customers pushed her back outside. She bolted, leaving behind a shoe and a hair weave.

The darkest moment at Eat-Rite in recent years occurred on August 16, 2009. A customer named Deangelo Tate got into a squabble with his friend Shevette Chambers at the counter. They adjourned to the parking lot, where Tate shot Chambers four times, killing her. In 2011 a jury convicted him of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

But those episodes are the exception.

"People say St. Louis is fucked up," says Dave Jones, one of the last to dine before dawn breaks on Sunday. "But I ain't never come in here and met anybody whose vibe was anything less than admirable. Or respectable. I'm using a lot of the wrong words right now, but it's true!"

The shirt says it all. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Photo by Kelly Glueck
  • The shirt says it all.

Late Sunday evening an unkempt black gentleman in a baseball cap shuffles into Eat-Rite and drops himself on a stool. He sprinkles coins on the counter. Pat Fell, the cook, asks for his order. The man stares at his coins. Fell says, "Do you want a bowl of chili?" The man nods. Fell ladles him up a bowl. He eats it, thanks the cook, and ambles out.

Fell pays for it himself. But he doesn't do that for everyone.

"If you have enough to get drunk," he explains, "you have enough to eat."

Nor does he do it for gamblers. Earlier that evening, a portly blond guy with a flushed face came in, asking Fell to spot him $20 because he'd just lost big at the casino. Fell balked. So the man retrieved a crate from his car and tried to sell Fell Aerosmith and Nickelback CDs for cash. Again, Fell declined.

He's not made of money. He works odd jobs on his days off. At Eat-Rite, Fell earns minimum wage plus tips — that's not a lot, but it's better than most restaurants, which pay servers less than minimum wage knowing they'll make it up in gratuity.

There's a bill right now in the St. Louis Board of Aldermen that would raise the minimum wage to $15, but Fell knows it won't help him even if it passes. It exempts places like Eat-Rite that have fewer than fifteen employees. Still, he was tickled to spy one of his regulars on KSDK (Channel 5) speaking out in favor the bill.

"Hey, you're famous!" Fell says when the guy walks into Eat-Rite for a burger on Monday night. It's Mikey Carrasco, owner of the new restaurant Taco Circus in Bevo Mill.

"It'll get negotiated down," Carrasco tells Fell as he takes a stool. "A lot of people are up in arms about it. But if somebody's working full-time, they should be able to afford the basic shit they need!" A girl in a Wendy's shirt overhears Carrasco as she waits for her carryout order. She nods her head.

It's about an hour later when 21-year-old James Harrison walks in.

"An old woman came in here looking for you," Fell teases him. "Said you were late on child support."

"Why you gotta do me like that, Pat?" Harrison says. Fell serves him a slinger. Pouring sugar on it, the young man explains that two years earlier, he'd been homeless. He would drop into Eat-Rite and Fell would feed him. Harrison found his way into a jobs program and is now a line cook at Angry Beaver on South Broadway (he proudly shows off his kitchen clogs). Some nights, Harrison hangs out for hours at Eat-Rite after work, waiting to catch the first bus back to Walnut Park.

"Pat's a cool guy," Harrison says. "He watches out for me."

Fell says he almost quit Eat-Rite late last year. The tension from Ferguson poisoned the diner. Some black patrons copped an aggressive attitude with him.

"It got really bad," he says. "For a week they called us racists and demanded I give them free stuff. When I said no, they kept saying 'Michael Brown, Michael Brown.' I said, 'What the heck does Michael Brown have to do with cheeseburgers?'"

At one point, Fell says, six customers came behind the counter and physically threatened him. He pulled out his .45 handgun and warded them off. That week, Fell says, he started saying a little prayer each day before going into work.

One youth got bold during that period and tried to steal the diner's Pot O'Silver coin game. It was too heavy to budge, so he gave up and ran out the door. The next day, the same kid returned to order food. They recognized him, but they served him anyway.

Those patrons and that atmosphere gradually fell away, though. Fell isn't bitter about what happened during that time.

"That kind of stuff," Fell explains, "it could turn you into a racist. Or you just learn to flow with it."

As he stands there, with dawn glowing blue behind the Arch, a semi-trailer roars south on Seventh street. The whole diner trembles, but only for a brief moment, then steadies itself.

See also: Who's at Eat-Rite in the Middle of the Night?

See also: St. Louis' Most Hangover-Friendly Diners

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