Thursday, March 28, 2002

Time stands still at Spare-Time Grill

Starting at 5 a.m., regular customers eat and drink amid comforting and familiar chatter

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        At 5:04 a.m., when few vehicles motor along U.S. 27 in Alexandria, a red pickup pulls into the empty parking lot of a dark diner.

        Tom Schultz, a 50-year-old street maintenance worker, sits in the truck, waiting. Raised on a farm, he became accustomed to rising early. No sense changing now.

(Steven M. Herppich photos)
        Another set of headlights soon appears. “Here's Martha,” Tom says.

        Martha Walton unlocks the door of the Spare-Time Grill and flips a switch. A red neon light pierces the darkness, and the diner begins a new day.

        Weekdays, Martha and Tom are first in the door. The rest will be coming. Dennis and Gene and Bob and Brien; the owner, Tony; and later, Rosco and Jack and the others.

        The Spare-Time is like a morning cup or three of coffee; some people can't start their day without it.

        The talk this March morning will be about NCAA basketball brackets. And grass that needs a first mowing. And roads that need fixing. And a dearly departed grandpa who didn't believe men walked on the moon. And a hundred other topics.

        Is it all just small talk? Does any of it matter?

        Well, yes.

        The theme song to the TV show Cheers got it right. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they're always glad you came.

        The Spare-Time Grill is that kind of place.

        “Everybody's like family around here,” Martha says. She smiles, and crinkles form in the corners of her friendly eyes. She's been rising early to open Spare-Time for 16 years.

        First thing, Martha turns on the grill and doughnut machine. Tom, meanwhile, steps behind the counter to start the coffee and fill the creamers. Helping out, as usual.

5:20 a.m.

        Bacon strips are sizzling on the grill when Dennis Rauch enters at 5:20, turns left, and slides into a corner seat.

        “Mornin', Dennis.”

        “Say, Martha.”

        Dennis, who is 40, does concrete work for a paving company. He's quiet this morning, with his face buried in a newspaper. But that's the thing about Spare-Time. Regulars aren't always engaged in conversation. Sometimes, it's important to just be there.

        And if Dennis wasn't at Spare-Time by 6, folks would start to wonder. He's been a regular since he was a kid.

        At 5:30, Tom sees another familiar face through the diner's big glass windows. He fills a cup with ice and Coke and sets it at the spot on the counter where Gene Cloyd will sit.

        Gene, who is 32, runs Alexandria Auto Repair. Some mornings he eats. Some mornings he drinks a Coke. Either way, he hangs around for an hour, enjoying a favorite Spare-Time pastime: “shooting the bull.”

        That's what keeps Tom at the Spare-Time for an hour and a half each morning. That, and puttering around refilling everyone's coffee cups.

        “These guys, their wives kick 'em out in the morning and they got nowhere to go, so we take 'em in,” jokes Tony Alford, the Spare-Time's owner.

        His grandfather, Chester, built the place in 1958. He retired, and Tony's dad, Roy, took over. Roy retired in 1990, and Tony took over.

        “My 12-year-old says he wants it next,” says Tony, a single parent who lives in Alexandria.

        In 1958, horses grazed across the road from the diner. Now a Burger King and Thriftway occupy that spot. A lot changes in 44 years.

        But not the Spare-Time.

        There are still just two tables for two, and 15 round stools at a long counter. Nineteen seats in all. The counter's wood-grain plastic finish has worn away in places where countless customers have leaned against it.

        “We're not too fancy,” Tony says. “I ain't got money to make it any different,” he adds, and his customers laugh.

6 a.m.

        That's fine with Bob Strong, who arrives just after 6 with his son, Brien. Bob is general manager for a construction company, and his son has started learning the business.

        Bob's usual spot is the table seat closest to the door. He's here every day, Saturdays included. Sometimes Sundays. His wife wonders why he gets up at 5:30 on a weekend to come to Spare-Time.

        “The guys are expecting me,” he says.

        Most of them don't spend much time thinking about what brings them in every day. They just come. Because they always have. Because of the people.

        “It's the comfort of knowing that when you walk in, there's a friend in here and you can talk,” Bob says. “If you got problems, if something's going on and you're upset, you come in here and hold court about it.

        “When my dad died, a couple of these guys showed up at the funeral, and they sent flowers. If somebody finds out it's your birthday, Martha will fix a doughnut up with a candle and throw some sprinkles on it.”

9 a.m.

        As the morning wears on, the cast changes. People leave for work. A few night shift folks stop by after work. Retired folks come in.

        After 9, Rosco Hornsby, Jack Bellm, Jeffrey Withrow and Larry Fahlbush engage in a discussion about, uh, a lot of things.

        “If you want to live a long life, get in bed the same day you got up,” Larry says, quoting from his late grandfather, who lived into his 90s.

        The men listening have spent thousands of mornings at Spare-Time.

        They'll tell you it was time well spent.


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