Sunday, February 8, 2004

Customers become family
during cancer treatment

"This place is my therapy. I love every crack in the wall and every crumb on the floor."

By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mona Harner
Mona Harner, a fixture at Sugar n' Spice, is back at work, cracking jokes with the regulars. She was diagnosed with breast cancer before Thanksgiving.
(Jeff Swinger/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)
Sugar n' Spice
The sign outside Sugar n' Spice bears words that are repeated often inside. Mona Harner has returned to work after recovering surgeries for breast cancer. This week, she'll learn whether she must undergo chemotherapy.
PADDOCK HILLS - Everybody knows everything about Mona Harner. Including her battle with breast cancer.

She keeps no secrets as she seats diners - "You're up to bat next!" - waits tables - "What'll it be, Sweetie?" - and gives customers a hard time. "You're eating like it's the Last Supper!"

Harner manages the Sugar n' Spice Restaurant. She's in her 16th year at what she calls "the hash house."

The Sugar n' Spice is a fixture in the heart of Paddock Hills. For 64 years, it has served comfort food and acted as a gathering place for three of the city's most integrated neighborhoods, Bond Hill, North Avondale, Paddock Hills.

Harner updates her customers - lawyers reading briefs, plumbers checking blueprints, college students waking up - on her condition. And always manages to throw in a breast joke.

The sign on the restaurant's marquee - "Mona Get Well Soon" - gives customers a clue that she's ailing.

In return, customers give back to her. Money for her medical bills. Shows of concern. Hugs. Tears. Jokes.

Harner appreciates all of the above. But she'd rather just have the jokes.

"No sniffling," she said. "I do that at home."

She wants laughs at work, where she returned Saturday, glasses slipping down her nose and wisecracks at the ready as usual. It was her first full day of waitressing since she had two operations after being diagnosed with breast cancer before Thanksgiving.

"This place is my therapy," she said. "I love every crack in the wall and every crumb on the floor.

"I love the girls and the men I work with. I love my customers."

The feelings are mutual.

While Harner was in the hospital, Elliot Jablonsky, the restaurant's owner, collected customers' donations for her expenses.

He said "it was only right to do this" for the employee whose job is "between a maitre 'd and a warden."

Julie Simon, a director at the Bond Hill Community Center and a restaurant regular, marveled at her abilities "as a great multi-tasker."

At her spot behind the cash register, Harner answers the phone and takes orders while directing the flow of customers. Line up to pay bills here. Stand there for carryout orders. Stay put to be seated for lunch or breakfast. Line jumpers will be prosecuted.

Lately, she's added another duty. Opening envelopes. Addressed to her. Filled with kind words and money.

One customer known only by where she sits, booth No. 2, and what she orders, "The Windy" - a cheeseburger on rye with grilled onions - gave her an envelope holding a $100 bill.

"Another gave me a check for $500," Harner said. "Lots of folks have given a dollar. All of it is important."

Harner views her customers as her support group.

"I don't have much of a real family," she said. "I've been married three times. Been in love 100 times."

She's not very religious. "Although I do have ministers coming in and praying for me."

Prayers are gratefully accepted. Laughter is always welcome.

Tuesday, Harner learns if chemotherapy is in her future. She's determined to beat breast cancer.

"I'm not going anywhere," she said. "I'm not ready to die just yet."

She still has customers to seat. Orders to fill. And jokes to tell.


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