In a year that has presented itself to myself and many close friends like a roller coaster with more highest ups, lowest downs, and the most unforeseeable, unbelievably crazy loop-D-loops than one could only imagine possible in several lifetimes, this past weekend was truly one for the ages and highest highs for all involved. I guess the best thing for me to do for you to vicariously experience what I was so fortunate to be a small part of would be to just give the play by play and let you enjoy it all for yourself.
The basic idea for what you are about to read came to me just after we decided to open East Side Story in August. I knew that if I was going to open an all-local bookstore, it would need to be a heck of a lot more than just selling paper on shelves. In fact, more importantly, it would have to be more than simply selling anything at all. The best ideas are the ones that pay things forward and keep on giving (regardless of the time of year). That said, I knew a few good people to make this idea below happen.
First, I lined up Santa Claus. Lucky for me, my parent’s are good, life-long friends with Nick Wilkins from my hometown of Bowling Green, KY. I mention Nick, because on top of being an amazing professional magician known around the world by the name of “Broadway The Clown,” proprietor of the Balloon-A-Gram Company (located 1135 US 31W Bypass in Bowling Green), and one of the best guys you’ll ever meet, everyone in KY knows that he also has a direct line to the North Pole to THE Santa Claus. It is definitely one of the best things about my hometown- growing up knowing someone who knows THE Santa Claus. Don’t believe me? I’ve even met Rusty the Elf a time or two as he was Christmas Caroling off of your shelf and on Garvin Lane … and I have witnesses galore! Anyways, getting away from the point of this story, I called Nick to see if he could help me out with an idea and he got on the phone right away to line that part of the special occasion up.
Second, I called my good friends Cara Graham and Hal Holden-Bache, two of the brains and hearts behind the latest and most lovely restaurant in East Nashville called Lockeland Table. I asked them if they would like to throw together a nice meal for some nice people who need a nice family meal more than most (we all need a nice family meal every now and then although we forget it sometimes). Before I even finished my idea, they agreed and said to let them know whatever was needed. So the idea was set in motion.
Third, I called a contact that works with the Angel Tree program at The Salvation Army Nashville and told them what we had lined up. I asked what would be the best way to make it most special, and Amanda at The Salvation Army Nashville told me what to do from there. We set the dates for Saturday, December 15th, and Sunday, December 16th and we all held in our excitement as if it was Christmas Eve 1989 again (speaking from experience of course).
Before we knew it, it was Saturday, December 15th. I met Cara, Hal, Brad Belanger (close friend and professional photographer/videographer who gladly dropped everything he was busy with to donate his time for both days), and The Jeremy Taylor family at Lockeland Table at 11 am. Hal set up the kitchen, Cara set the table, and they both told us what to do in order to properly prepare a Lockeland Table meal. A good friend, Debbie Hupp, had taken care of the transportation by arranging two local taxi vans to pick up the two special familes of the weekend and they arrived at the front door at noon as happy as any kids, big and small, on any Christmas ever (FACT). I opened the door, we all introduced ourselves, and the guests of honor took their seats at the communal table in the front.
It was my first time ever serving, and luckily I was donating my time or else I probably would have been fired on the spot. I forgot a drink order or two right off the bat … but nobody cared. Both of the families could have cared less what we had forgotten as far as food and drinks went. There were laughs all around. Everyone in the kitchen was smiling, all of us serving were laughing at each other, and the guests were both laughing at/with us and tickled pink to be served some of the best food around at that time. Hal put together some excellent house salads to start things off. Several of the little ones didn’t take to the lettuce like others. They knew the real goods were coming up next.
One of the smallest girls with the biggest spunk and smile I’ve ever seen, had the following conversation with me:
girl- When is the food coming out? I’m huuuuungry.
me- Well, it will be right out in a minute. Do you like spaghetti?
girl- No (shaking her head).
me- Do you like meatballs?
girl- No (shaking her head).
me- Well, have you ever had Hal’s famous spaghetti and meatballs?
girl- YES (still shaking her head NO)
Those close to the conversation laughed with me and before long the spaghetti and meatballs were fresh and on the table. Hal walked over to the table while they were eating, after they took a moment to say thankful prayers for the meal to themselves, and he went right into a soulful speech about Lockeland Table. I can’t write verbatim from memory here, but it was a very moving speech about what Lockeland Table and the communal table where they were sitting … basically what it all means to him and what he and Cara are trying to accomplish with their restaurant (much like the bookstore, to do much more than just sell good food). It was all about being and supporting things and people locally and taking the time to really get to know people for who they are and who they want to become.
The moms had endearing smiles after the speech and the kids looked right through Hal. They looked right through him because we were behind him bringing in the homemade cookies that Hal had prepared halfway. I say halfway because they were plain on a big plate. On the side plate, we also brought to the table sprinkles and frosting to decorate said cookies. Everyone was smiling from ear to ear. One of the little boys was so excited about the cookies that he had already eaten two plain cookies by the time he saw the frosting. It was perfect all around.
Like any good meal, one of the best things that happened other than the food was the talk we had afterwards as we waited for the food to digest and the taxis to return. We all talked about what are favorite holiday movies are, which ones we planned to watch this next week, and what other gifts we were going to ask for if we ever saw Santa Claus. Oh, we also pulled out the regular Lockeland Table menus so the kids who asked could see what other things Hal and Cara make that makes the place so special. Everyone mapped out the next course they would take and have the next time around.
Just about that time, the taxis returned and we all took pictures to commemorate the special occasion for everyone. Before they left, I asked them if they wanted to come visit me and a very special friend the next day at East Side Story. They said “YES!” and it was done. Well, not done or finished just yet. All of us helped to clean up, wash some dishes, and re-set the tables as if we hadn’t been there. But we had been there. That was the point. Hal was so touched that he said he was down to do it again next year for sure. Cara agreed and gave her son a big hug as he walked in as I was leaving. It was perfect all around.
Fast-forward through a great Saturday day and night that followed our tremendous meal at Lockeland Table, and I found myself waking up Sunday to a call from my father saying that he was nearly in Nashville with his RV. Yes, that’s right, we were going all Cousin Eddie style on the transportation to pick up the kids for the East Side Story trip. My dad, my wife, and I moved several things around the bookstore to get ready for the show, and we even borrowed a great couch from our friends at Hello Boys to really make it special for everyone. My dad and Brad rode with me to pick the kids up and they were still beaming with the same smiles they had the last time I had seen them the day before. We all took our seats in the RV and many had never been in one before. It was quite a sight for them and us to behold. To see your ordinary world through the eyes that see it as extra ordinary, extraordinary is definitely the word that captures the beauty of life at that moment. Everyone was happy as all get out, especially when they found out that Brad normally takes pictures of famous musicians and the sort. I had to tell them because he wasn’t going to say anything. We were all humbled throughout the weekend.
We got to the bookstore and you would have thought East Side Story was Toys R’ Us … for real. They were amazed by all of the handmade books, diaries, book art, and locally written books and shirts all around them. They were acting on the outside exactly how I felt the first time I opened the doors to the store on the inside. Did I mention it was perfect all around? Just when they calmed their excitement a second to the beat of the holiday music blaring from my wife’s cell phone, they heard bells ringing outside. Nick, the Bowling Green Saint Nick, had delivered with his contacts. He had called the Santa express and got THE Santa Claus to make a trip to East Side Story!
The kids, their parents, and I (I won’t lie) about went nuts like Beatlemania about who entered the store doors. We’ll call it Santamania! The smallest girl made a b-line to the couch because she felt and knew somehow that is where he was going. She wasn’t wrong. She was the first one to sit on his lap to tell him everything she wanted for Christmas. Santa gave her a candy cane and she got up dancing and singing the songs from the cell phone that she could hear. Literally, she ran over to the phone, looked at my wife, and said, “I can hear it! I can hear it!” The little cookie boy jumped up next and was speechless. The smallest girl ran back over to the couch and asked if he was the real Santa and it blew her away when SANTA CLAUS said, “YES, but of course I am.” The little cookie speechless boy, after that was said, got up and started dancing to the music as the next in line jumped up and took their seat by the big guy. It didn’t take long for word to get around The Row at The Idea Hatchery that THE Santa Claus was in town. Several little kids stopped by and got pictures and candy canes. Several parents who’s kids were scared of Santa got pictures and candy canes. Several people who didn’t even have kids with them got pictures and candy canes with Santa (Emily, myself, and Brad included). Heck, even Bret and Meg came over from Art & Invention for the fun. It was truly magical.
After everyone there got pictures, Santa broke into singing Christmas carols. The kids sang, even when they didn’t know the exact words, and it was just perfect (theme of the weekend). And before you knew it, Santa had another place to go to back North I suppose. He said his goodbyes, at least for another week, and the smallest two kids watched him around the corner of the store as he walked to his sleigh parked in the back alley. Before we left, everyone in the store got their very own East Side Story t-shirt to commemorate their day and go along with the candy canes in tow. Hey, I give what I got 🙂
On the way home, the RV music that played on the radio changed to the NFL Red Zone network on the television because nothing say Christmas like NFL football- so said the mom that sat in the front as my Dad’s copilot on the ride home (did I mention this group of people and weekend were perfect yet?). Before you could say two first downs in a row, it was time to part each other for the day. The families jumped out of the RV with bags of presents that Santa had brought with him via sleigh to give to them on this very special day and they were off to watch the list of holiday movies we had talked about at Lockeland Table.
Before we left, each one of them hugged us … I should say we hugged each other because it was a perfect first and second meeting and entire weekend of feeling thankful and blessed all around. In the end, I don’t think I was alone when feeling that we were the ones who were blessed from the smiles and moments we were given from these two very extraordinary families.
To the families, and everyone mentioned above that helped make this past weekend possible, THANK YOU! You are amazing and living proof that life is love and love is life. Thank YOU and I can’t wait for next year already, but alas … we shall.
Happy holidays to one and all!
PS- When he wasn’t capturing the fun on camera, Brad took a moment or two to get his hands dirty and the plates and his soul clean behind the scenes at Lockeland Table. See proof below on my own photo- B-rad on the B-roll: so fresh and so clean.