For good or for bad - one of the first decisions that I made when I decided on going to college in Bellingham, Washington was that I would not live in a college dorm. Myself and 2 high school buddies, and a guy we met shortly after high school graduation, were all going to Western Washington State College (it wouldn’t become Western Washington University until 1977) - so the four of use decided to rent a house off-campus. It proved to be a splendid idea, especially if you wanted to have a party every night whether you wanted to or not - but that’s not what this post is about.
No - this post is about 4 guys thinking that they knew how to cook and that we would eat just fine. Now to be certain, we all knew a few tricks - but as far as actual meal planning and shopping appropriately it was pretty piss-poor. It was easier to live on chips, cheap beer, and fast food - then I “discovered” Pauline’s Cafe.
I believe it was early winter of 1975 that I first stumbled into Pauline’s - I have no clear recollection of what urged me to go through the door that first time other than the advertisement for the Daily Dinner Special - which was just over a dollar - I think it was $1.15 and the fact that I’ve had a lifelong love affair with little “mom and pop” cafes. As I pushed open that door for the first time little did I know the world I was entering - Rod Serling should have been standing to one side saying something along the lines of “a hungry college student looking for a decent meal had little idea that he had just entered the Twilight Zone.”.
It was a tiny place - the whole thing was about as wide as a hallway - on the left as you entered was an L-shaped counter with about 8-10 stools that encircled the kitchen which consisted of a flat top grill, a regular stove top and a couple of ovens - this was way before microwaves were in common use nor can I imagine that Pauline would have ever used one. To the right there were about four booths - supposedly for 4 people each - one learned very quickly two things - Pauline’s Cafe was not the kind of place to go as a group and that one of those booths was totally and always reserved for Pauline and Jack - don’t even try to sit there - even though there was no signage to alert you to such. It was where they took their meals and where Pauline mixed up stuff like sheet cake batter. You also quickly learned that the real show was only available from the counter anyway - that was the vantage point from which you needed to observe Jack and Pauline in all their glory - Jack with his “Fred Mertz” trousers pulled halfway up his abdomen, white short-sleeved shirt buttoned all the way to his chin and Pauline in a white blouse and skirt and always wearing an apron. Names embroidered in red above on their shirts as if you might get them confused.
As I pushed through that door for the first time and spied an open seat at the counter, about half of me wanted to flee and go on down the street to the Horseshoe Cafe - a legendary greasy spoon - but slightly more than half of me wanted to stay and see what this place was all about. Thus began my affair with Jack and Pauline - one that would last for nearly a decade - and while I probably wouldn’t have actually starved to death without them, I did eat there 3-4 times a week.
It was simple fare. There were no menus - just one of those reader boards with the little plastic letters. For breakfast there was the standard bacon and eggs with hash browns and toast - some dry cereal - maybe a donut or two and a pot of oatmeal that I never did try. Lunch options were standard and limited - burgers and potato chips or fries - grilled cheese sandwiches and usually some egg salad or turkey salad or whatever.
The real star though - at least for me was the daily dinner - always a three course affair - soup, a choice of two different entrees which were different kinds of meat (e.g. on Thursdays it was roast turkey or meatloaf), some style of potatoes, and always some steamed vegetables. Dessert was a piece of frosted sheet cake with some soft serve vanilla ice cream if Pauline thought you warranted it. Everything was homemade - and that doesn’t mean they opened the cans themselves - nope - it was genuine, old fashioned home cooking - the kind of stuff your mom made - the kind of stuff that was easy to miss.
Pauline ran the place with an absolute iron fist - the epitome of “my way or the highway” and there were a few simple rules - don’t show up drunk or high - she would refuse to serve you. Finish everything on your plate and for God’s sake EAT YOUR VEGETABLES - all of them - there was absolutely no negotiation on any of that. Jack shuffled around in the background - avoiding Pauline’s wrath - running the flat top and doing all the short order kind of stuff. Pauline did all of the baking and most of the waitressing. She also freely dispensed unwanted advice - cracked herself up constantly as she would cackle at her own jokes - and monitor ever morsel of food on your plate to make damn sure you ate it. To say she had a short fuse is trite - she had no discernible fuse and could explode in a moments notice - and that was one of her charming traits - we regulars knew that deep down she really did like us - she really did care about us - and she knew that for a lot of us it was the only real meal we would have that day.
Piecing together their history was a challenge - they didn’t talk about themselves much - I do know that Pauline was a World War II era mail-order bride from France, arriving in Canada sometime in the 1940s. Jack was from Canada - I want to say Nova Scotia but I could be wrong. They migrated west to Vancouver, British Columbia and then immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s landing in Bellingham. I don’t know what they did before opening the cafe in about 1965 and it closed upon their retirement sometime in the early 2000s. Sadly - I don’t even remember what their last name was and I’m guessing that both of them have gone to their rewards on the other side.
Thank you Pauline and Jack - you made a difference.
peace be with you - Hendo.