Joe Nichols opened Nichelson’s Diner in the mid-1950s after leaving California. No one knew why he used the name Nichelson instead of Nichols or something else; not even his wife Beverly. When she asked one day, a day in the year she died, Joe just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know. Maybe I just liked more letters.”
Joe hung a picture of Beverly near the cash register by the front door that same year.
He met her while driving a cab in Hollywood after the big war. When asked if he ever picked up any movie stars, Joe would laugh and name Clark Gable. “Ya know, Gable had big ears just like those Warner Bros. cartoons showed,” Joe would say.
Beverly worked at a dry cleaner in West Hollywood. Joe first saw her one day when she walked by a cab stand in front of the Sunset Tower hotel. Joe stood outside with the other cabbies talking and having a smoke, all hoping to get a movie industry type fare or star-struck tourist, and the tip that went with it. The other drivers never gave her a long look, but Joe did.
Beverly walked to work one day a week, always on a Friday. She only had to work afternoons that day. The walk saved her bus fare, coins that she dropped in a glass jar by her bed. Beverly liked to buy herself a new dress every few months if she had enough money.
After a couple of Fridays of noticing her, Joe finally said, “Hi.” She nodded back and smiled but never stopped to talk. Finally, Joe started walking with her down the block making small talk. She walked slowly. One foot dragged a little because of a childhood bout with polio.
During one walk while talking about how Los Angeles was changing, Beverly stumbled. Joe caught her arm. After that he started holding hands with her on the Friday walk, sometimes walking with her the whole length to her job. They’d talk about movies they liked and people they knew who made it through the war. Joe eventually had to move his cab away from the stand when the other cabbies complained of his absence.
After a few months of walks and talks, Joe proposed. Beverly said yes, adding, “I always liked short men.” Joe wasn’t offended. A couple of years after they married, Beverly said she wanted to move away from California. She had a sister in the Midwest. Joe liked California but he loved Beverly. With some savings and a loan from the government, they opened Nichelson’s. Joe cooked; Beverly ran the cash register. Once the business settled in, Beverly and Joe tried to get pregnant. It never happened.
The business grew. Neighborhood people liked the couple, the food was decent, and Joe and Beverly were conscious of what working people could afford. Cops and cabbies got a discount. They hired others like themselves, good people. People others took little notice of. “Background people … extras,” Joe would say, “But strong.”
Jimmy, Beverly’s nephew, came to Nichelson’s to manage the diner after Beverly got sick. Joe mostly stayed with her at their home a few blocks away. By then it was a 24-hour operation, more dining space, with nearly 30 employees. Joe liked having an around-the-clock operation.
When Joe and Beverly lived in LA, they sometimes couldn’t sleep and would go to an all-night diner to people-watch. Every so often, Beverly would see someone dressed really nice and ask, in a low voice, “Do you think that person has it better than us, Joe?”
“Nobody has it better than us, Baby,” Joe would answer.
Joe still came to Nichelson’s after selling out to Jimmy. Every Friday he’d walk to the diner for lunch, pass the other storefronts on the same block, a music club called the Repartee — a word that made Joe wonder if Midwesterners knew its meaning — a liquor store, a bar, and a carryout pizza place. Joe once visited the Repartee, wondering if it was like the big-band dance halls he and Beverly sometimes went to.
Despite her bad leg, Beverly could dance to slow tunes, Joe holding her close and lifting her a little to help them move across the floor. The Repartee was nothing like those LA dance halls. Loud rock n’ roll, strange smelling smoke with the young filled with joy and craziness, moving to music that unleashed all sorts of bodily contortions not bound by rhythm. Joe was momentarily mesmerized, trying to compare it to the ecstatic reactions of people when the end of the war was announced.
Sometimes when Joe was restless thinking of Beverly, he’d walk to Nichelson’s for a bowl of potato and hot dog salad. The dish was popular after the war years and he and Beverly would order a bowl to share at their favorite LA all-night diner during those nights when they couldn’t sleep. In deciding what to offer patrons at their diner, they agreed to add the dish to the menu. For years many of the people Joe and Beverly’s age enjoyed ordering it. “Reminds me of those rationing days,” many would say.
Just before Beverly died, she asked Joe how the dish was selling. “Not that great,” Joe said. “The young people don’t order it.”
“It’s been over thirty years since the war ended,” Beverly said; “Those kids think it’s their parent’s dish.”
“So, what do we do? Drop it from menu?” Beverly shook her head as she coughed. Joe put a wet rag on her forehead and said, “I’ll just drop it. Jimmy wants it out because it takes time to make then sits. Don’t worry about it.”
Beverly waved her hand in front of Joe and coughed into her other hand. Joe watched her, his eyes getting watery. “Change the recipe,” Beverly said in a whisper. Knowing Joe probably didn’t hear her, she said again louder, “Change the recipe.”
“To what?” Joe asked.
“Cut back on the mayo, make the bits of hot dog smaller and add mustard.”
“Okay, I will. We’ll give it a try.” Joe then asked if she was comfortable. Beverly nodded. Looking at her, Joe’s memories drifted toward the walks they had in West Hollywood. Beverly smiled at Joe and closed her eyes. He held her hand, leaned over and kissed her. ‘I love you, Baby. See you in the morning.”
Beverly died that night. The Potato and Hot Dog Salad was modified as Beverly instructed and remained on Nichelson’s menu. Joe always ordered it when he came in for lunch. After Joe died, Jimmy took it off the menu. No one objected.