Final Push for the Luby’s Tea Cart Ladies
Growing up, nothing was more comforting than dinner at Luby’s. Now Luby’s, for the uninitiated, is a cafeteria chain and apparently a very, very Texas thing. When you’re a kid, the place you call home is the sun and every other place is like another planet, orbiting around you. I just assumed people in other states spent Friday night shuffeling down a line with a green plastic tray, waiting for a lady in a hairnet to fill their plate with the Lu-Ann special– half a piece of chicken, fish or pot roast, two sides, and a hot buttered roll. I thought everyone else bought fresh shrimp from a little trailer in the K-Mart parking lot and pinned enormous mums to their chests for Homecoming. How arrogant we are, the very young.
The food is probably not as special as my memory of it is– how could it be?– but I do recall having some pretty satisfying meals at the Luby’s off 61st Street in Galveston. My typical dinner was the fried fish with a squeeze of lemon or the chicken fried steak, surrounded on all sides by tiny ceramic bowls filled with gluey mac and cheese, waxy green beans that piled on top of one another and squeaked against my teeth, and velvety mashed potatoes, dented with a spoon in the middle and filled with a puddle of thick brown gravy. We’d shove our trays down the line until it was time to pick the final flourishes– a warm cloverleaf roll or a big slab of cornbread (toss-up), a thick piece of gloppy but luscious chocolate cream pie or a glass parfait dish filled with chunks of electric blue jello (pie–always, forever, that’s not even a choice), iced tea or lemonade, or if your parents were feeling generous, fountain soda. (Iced tea, no question).
Dad would foot the bill as dads are wont to do, then we’d carry our trays to the nearest booth and shimmy in, one by one. We’d eat our dinners and chat about our week. Occasionally people we’d recognize would pass our table and say hello– a coworker from dad’s office, a classmate from school, a neighbor, a friend. It was the kind of town where it was often hard not to bump into people. Luby’s, TCBY, Home-cut Donuts, Randall’s grocery– go there, you’re going to run into somebody you know every single time. Maybe that’s why my mother taught me to never leave the house without lipstick. Although I think that might be a strictly Texas thing too.
My brother’s personal tradition was to finish his meal, take a deep breath, then untuck his shirt and unbutton his pants so he could hit the line again and go for round two. Eating dinner at Luby’s was a lot like Thanksgiving; you had to go in hungry and commit to a well-constructed plan. My brother viewed a night at Luby’s as a marathon, not a sprint, and made his preparations accordingly, not only by picking the right outfit, but by harnessing his mental energy to become a strategically mindful eater, choosing just the right dishes to leave him calm and satisfied rather than overstuffed and lethargic, or so bloated and comatose we’d have to haul him out in a wheelbarrow.
While he was gone, one of the tea cart ladies would roll through, offering refills. Wait… you don’t know what a tea cart lady is? Oh. You must be from one of the other planets. Bless your heart.
Iced tea is a big deal in Texas. My mother brewed a glass jar of it weekly on our back porch, under the sizzling beam of a blazing Texas sun. My camp kept it ready and available in the dining hall for us to guzzle throughout the day, huge galvanized pitchers we barely had the strength to lift. And my father, in several restaurants where they know him, is given an entire pitcher of the stuff because he requires more refills than any mere mortal could possibly keep up with. Being a truly Texan chain, Luby’s recognized the importance of free-flowing iced tea, and thus employed a fleet of cordial ladies to circle the restaurant pushing metal carts filled top to bottom with slender glasses pre-filled with our favorite beverage. They wore muddy brown or maroon smocks, tied at the waist with thick, white apron strings and flat, sexless footwear like candy stripers asking, “More tea? More tea?” in lilting Texas accents as they paraded up and down the aisles. The tea cart ladies are long gone now, replaced by people who simply take your order, and come back with your refill. I miss the good old days, I really do.
I spent Halloween in Brooklyn this year, dressed in cowboy boots and a western shirt to match a few members of the great New York family I married into; the family I was born into would not have considered my outfit a costume. Our twin toddler nephews were adorable little cowboys–custom-made baby chaps included– and since I already have a few pieces of Western wear, it was difficult not to oblige the offer to join in the seasonal fun.
We went to Fort Greene Park where hordes of revelers were dressed to the gills. We saw whole families dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, gangs of superheroes, Mister Potato Head, a walking banana. I kept waiting for one of them to dethrone the greatest costume I ever saw, but it’s been 18 years now, and no one has ever come close.
My brother, the same one who used to unbutton his pants and untuck his shirt in preparation for his 2nd dinner at Luby’s, joined a fraternity in college. The year he pledged, the active members made him dress head toe as a wolf–not the scary, threatening kind, but the plush, storybook version you want to cuddle up next to because the fur is so soft. In one of my favorite photos, my brother is unrecognizable in his wolf costume, with his arm around his older sister, adorned in blonde braided pigtails and dressed like Baby Spice. Flanking my other side is one of my best girlfriends, a spunky sorority girl wearing an old prom dress, fake dreadlocks and a sash that reads “Miss Jamaica”. If Facebook had been around back then, she’d have probably made national news.
We clinked our red solo cups and danced the Monster Mash, then halfway through the party, one of the other pledges finally made his appearance. He was at least 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and quads like tree trunks. His furry leg hair was the same color as his frumpy brown dress, and his waist was so thick he could barely tie the apron strings around the back. His hairnet was secured with thick metal pins and his enormous feet barely fit inside his orthopedic shoes. He slowly mingled around the party, pushing an old metal cart across the stained concrete floor. When he finally made his way toward us with his cart full of glasses, I couldn’t help but put down my beer and toss back a Lipton.
Aside from a few out-of-state admissions, we were all a bunch of Texas kids. Many were from Dallas and Houston, while others came from tiny towns no one else had ever heard of– but we’d all grown up grabbing glasses of tea off a traveling cart, all bargained with our parents for the cream pie instead of jello. It was a moment that made every one of us smile and feel nostalgic for our childhoods, even though technically, we were all still in it, albeit the tail end. There was beer on the floor and neon on the walls. Girls were dressed like naughty nurses and guys looked like wild animals. But suddenly, out of nowhere, out fell this little crumb of pure, innocent sweetness.
And oh, what a treat that was.