Inverness is a picturesque little town on the west coast of Florida about 50 miles south of Gainesville and 25 miles of Ocala. It’s a short drive from the Gulf of Mexico and within a few hours of Tampa, Saint Petersburg, and Sarasota.
It borders on the spectacular 46 mile long Withlacoochee Bike Trail, and there are many trails for bicycling, horse back riding, or hiking in the immediate area. Other attractions include The Withlacoochee State Forest, Apopka Lake, The Withlacoochee River, and several national wildlife refuges.
Inverness is charming. In the center of town is a Courthouse that occupies its own square. Many years ago Elvis Presley filmed his movie Follow That Dream in this courthouse and you can still buy tee shirts, post cards, and even videos commemorating the event. In adjacent streets are pubs, cafes, good restaurants, bistros, bars, and an ice cream parlor.
There are several shopping centers: one can find a laundromat, drugstores, supermarkets, post office branches, auto accessory stores, veterinarians, doctors, dentists, and all the familiar fast food franchises. Several years ago, a local mechanic did a fine job of diagnosing and replacing a damaged wheel bearing on a 2005 Honda Civic for a cyclist from New Jersey; he did so at a reasonable price.
The restaurants, bars, bistros, and fast food franchises provide physically demanding, low wage jobs for waiters and waitresses; however, the demands of the job assure a high turnover.
The Rustic Ranch is a restaurant and diner. When you enter, you’re in the diner, which houses about a dozen booths. There’s an adjacent room with tables and ambience of a restaurant. The Rustic Ranch has a liquor license and offers a decent assortment of wines, beers, whisky, and mixed drinks.
It caught my attention the first time I visited Inverness. I stopped in for a quick breakfast before a long bike ride and immediately discovered that the coffee was superb: full-bodied, full flavored, and tasting as good as roasted coffee smells. The oatmeal was prepared from scratch and was topped with bananas, strawberries, and granola. The young woman who attended me was not the generic waitress who called customers “Hon” or “Sweetheart”: she was a statuesque beauty with purple-blue eyes named April, who moved quickly and with the grace of a ballet dancer. She was not unfriendly; nor was she intrusive or cloying.
I liked April, and she soon recognized me and knew my name. I teased her about lumbering about like a linebacker, and she “gently” ran into me the next time I came in. Her intention was to be gentle, but she had to grab me before I was sent careening into a table. My friends John and Vicky, who were dining with me, laughed and immediately guessed that this was the charismatic April of whom I had spoken.
I am not the only customer enamored of April. She is popular because of her intelligence and competence. She had a good memory for names and preferred beverages--mine was pink lemonade. There is a star quality about her. It is not difficult to imagine her hanging out with the coolest girls in her high school.
Although we became friendly, the demands of April’s job limit the time she can spend chatting with even the customers she knows well. Sometimes, besides handing out menus, taking orders, bringing the food to the tables, and handing customers their bill when they’re done, April must occasionally also do the cooking. One morning, when I praised the oatmeal, she told me she had prepared it herself.
“You’re kidding, right?”
There are mornings when she runs the place; her responsibilities may include seating customers as they come in, answering the phone, and managing the cash register, as well as the tasks already enumerated.
Her job is not easy. It is physically demanding. April is strong and agile: she must be in order to carry overladen trays and avoid collisions with other quick moving waitresses and careless customers. She has stamina. I mentioned that the demands of the job create huge turnovers; as a result, April occasionally must work double shifts, train new hires in the nuances of waitressing while fulfilling her other responsibilities, and occasionally give up her day off.
Two years ago, I learned that April had been injured in a car accident while going to her second job. The idea that this hardworking young woman needed a second job and was physically capable of meeting its demands after a day at The Rustic Ranch astonished me. When I asked about the accident, April was parsimonious with the details. She’s not given to feeling sorry for herself or having anyone else feel sorry for her.
April is 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs 138 pounds. She looks like a runner, basketball player, or a dancer, but says she was a weight lifter. She must provide for herself and her three-year old. She’s from Florida but is tired of Florida’s climate. She says the heat wears her out. She’s laconic, stoical, resourceful and independent. If April had been given the opportunity, she could be a teacher, an attorney, a mechanic, a nurse, or a doctor, and she’d be good at it.
Rachel was the go-to person when I began frequenting the Rustic Ranch. She was the manager and problem solver. Her temperament was perfect for the task: she doesn’t seem to get upset about anything.
Rachel had a career as a Title One teacher. She worked with “educationally at-risk students”--those in danger of not meeting required standards in reading. She left the job because in Florida teachers are not paid very well: she had three children and knew she could earn more in the restaurant business.
Like April, Rachel is beautiful. She has high cheekbones, a sensuous mouth, soft, brown, mellow intelligent eyes. I heard her joking once about all the boys in high school whose hearts she had broken and could easily believe her. Her figure belies her 34 years. In the high school cafeteria, Rachel would probably have sat at a table among other Alpha females joking about the males whose hearts and spirits they crushed. If April were a little older, she would have been at the same table.
Rachel has mellowed with time, but while sitting and talking with her at a table in The Rustic Ranch, I could see how she could unsettle the male psyche and metabolism. Although her forte is management, and she is not physically imposing, Rachel is capable of doing all the work demanded of a waitress. She too has run the place by herself.
She occasionally talks about leaving The Rustic Ranch. “This act is getting tired,” she confesses. When an out-of-towner with a vague ambition of establishing a charter school in the area inquired if she would be interested in working as director, the answer was a cautious yes. Rachel could run a school; or a city; or a state.
Ashton looks about 15 or 16; however, she is reliable and competent enough that the owners of the Rustic Ranch have made her the weekend manager. “I know you and everyone else are in love with April, but I’m good too,” she told me once when she noticed me scanning the place for my favorite waitress who was not there at the time.
Ashton is petite, and, like April and Rachel, she is also very attractive. Perhaps she is still in high school. Perhaps in college. Maybe she has a boyfriend. Or two or three.
She is, like the other two women, capable, quick and professional when dealing with customers. Like the others, she seems proud of her job and the extra responsibilities she’s been given. If she is 16, 17, or 18, she’s more grown up than I was or most of my friends were at 26, 27, or 28.
Ashton looks vaguely Hispanic: cinnamon skin, dark hair, and very dark eyes. I was often tempted to say something to her in Spanish, but was restrained by my phobia of making a fool of myself.
When I had finished my meal and Ashton had brought me the check, she asked with flirtatious mischievousness, “Was everything OK?”
She knew damn well it was, but wanted to hear me say so.
Nancy is a large, gregarious woman with a contagious smile. She often sports a pink tee shirt in support of fighting breast cancer. She also sports a large protective cast on left hand.
“What’s that cast about?”
“Oh, I broke my thumb. The cast is to protect it while I work.”
“Wouldn’t it be wise to take a few weeks off?”
“With five kids, I can’t afford it.”
Like the other three women, Nancy is trusted by management and consequently has extra responsibilities. Her thumb hasn’t impaired her efficacy, but I noticed that some of the minor tasks seemed a challenge--like refilling salt-shakers and pepper-shakers, or operating the cash register. However, Nancy is of a positive temperament, and the difficulty of doing things with a broken thumb impels her to try harder rather than frustrating her.
Although Nancy is large framed, she is as agile and as athletic as anyone else in the Rustic Ranch. She’s a bicyclist and has ridden the entire length of the Withlacoochee Bike Trail, and I am impressed by this feat. She’s from the area and can tell you anything you want to know about the trail or Citrus County.
I thought of asking how an intelligent young woman with a limited income can wind up with five kids, but decided not to go there. She doesn’t seem unhappy about it.
The Rustic Ranch was the creation of a married couple. Later, they split up and he went on to create another restaurant, Dillion’s Cinnamon Sticks. Dillion’s Cinnamon Sticks is along side The Central Motel where I stay when I go to Inverness to ride The Withlacoochee Bike Trail.
Cinnamon Sticks, which is open six days a week for breakfast and lunch, is very good. But the Rustic Ranch is better. It’s menu is more extensive and it has April, Rachel, Nancy, and Ashton.
The Rustic Ranch is open six days a week from 7:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m.. Sundays it closes an hour earlier at 8:00 p.m. There are other waitresses and one or two waiters who work there besides the four I’ve written about. There are among them two or three whose stories I would tell if I knew them better. For example, there’s Tanya. Tanya is in her late thirties. Her good looks and options are beginning to fade. Tanya is the mother, perhaps the single mother, of at least one (male) child whom I met once while having lunch. Tanya is a loving indulgent mother and is working hard to survive at the Rustic Ranch. She lacks the toughness of April, Rachel, Nancy, and Ashton, but perhaps this toughness can be acquired over time. I hope so. I want Tanya to make it. She needs the job.
I surreptitiously watch April fill salt-shakers, pepper-shakers, and sugar containers; wipe down tables; run over to answer the phone. I fantasize about being young, good-looking, successful, and rich, and taking her away from all of this. This is a pathetic daydream. April needs a man to take care of her about as desperately as does Katniss, the heroine of The Hunger Games. She can fend for herself.
Moreover, her work and her success at The Rustic Ranch have contributed to forging April into the woman she is.
As I write about April and her companions, I recall Denise Levertov’s poem about working as a army nurse during World War II, “The Malice of Innocence”:
But I loved the power
of our ordered nights,
gleaming surfaces I’d help to polish
making patterns in the shipshape
the knowing what to do, and doing it,
list of tasks getting shorter
hour by hour.
The power that comes from knowing what to do and doing it well. The resilient warriors of the Rustic Ranch would understand these lines.