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Quirky characters once hit the Spot

THERE are a few secrets worth knowing and this is one of them: THE best desserts in Charlottesville are at the White Spot.

The best service and the best atmosphere and the best real-live people used to be there, too. Like too many good things, they are fading away.

When I moved to Charlottesville, before I even met my roommate, I met Elvis. Elvis is James Rorak, the short-order cook with muttonchop burns and dark glasses who used to work at the Spot. I first saw him standing outside of Michael's Bistro smoking a cigarette, and he nodded a nervous greeting at my parents and me.

Before classes started that first year, before we even knew it was a tradition, my suitemates and I hit the White Spot, and kept returning. We never learned the name of the personable man behind the counter, the one bellowing orders at Elvis. We knew him as Chef. He treated our first visit to the Spot like it was a bank holiday. He made a scene for us and even poured my ketchup.

We knew his lanky, surly compatriot as Smitty. Smitty alternated between corn-rows and a tangled afro, and was given to impromptu dance performances along with whatever song was on TV. Smitty and Chef put on quite a show, arguing, singing and roguishly charming pretty ladies. They lent the restaurant a special kind of personality. They've been gone for over a year.

We heard that Chef got fired and Smitty quit. Smitty had been an able cook in the Navy, and perhaps found better work at a place with fewer drunken college students. Now Elvis is gone, reportedly fired for sounding off to too many customers.

Elvis sounded off a lot, whether he was explaining the merits of his favorite "Star Trek" episode, detailing some far-out conspiracy theory, or hollering at his patrons to watch their language. When Smitty and the Chef were around, Elvis only cooked, and it seems the delicacies of customer service were beyond the limits of his patience.

I've had but a few constants at this University, and the White Spot is chief among them. I've taken dates there, met with friends there, pushed the limits of revelry there, and even conducted secretive business meetings there. It's not the same now.

I know this because I went down to the Spot last Thursday, as I often do, this time trying to do a little reporting. The place was quiet. There was no chatter and little life, and the mumbled responses I received indicated that my questions ought to pertain only to the menu on the wall.

The White Spot used to be a place to go and forget the world. There would be talking and complaining over work schedules and whistling at pretty passersby and all manner of liveliness. There was no one to talk to last Thursday, no Chef or Smitty or Elvis. I could have cursed a blue streak and no one would have kicked me out.

We all have these traditions, these things and places that in four years' time manage to become part of who we are. There seems to be a University tradition checklist, a scorecard that students run down to make sure they've truly experienced college. The White Spot is on it.

But after this list is gone through, it's the traditions that pertain just to us that matter. It might be where you study or how you spend your Friday nights, or what you do with your friends or where you take your dates. There is something rewarding about having constants, about having things in our lives that don't change too much. There is a soothing quality about things that are our own, that are special to ourselves alone.

Mine is being a regular. I liked having the Spot's menu memorized, liked the vague flicker of recognition in Smitty's eyes when I walked in, liked the honor of one night getting to use the Spot's secret bathroom.

I like that the White Spot is real Charlottesville, that it isn't touched by the pretense and puffery that sometimes overcomes our lives as students. The Spot reminds me of the places I used to eat at in the small, old parts of Iowa. I once foolishly thought myself above those places, but the White Spot made me remember them as good. I remembered my father and grandfather and the old truck stops we'd eat at, where grease is considered vital to food and good for the soul.

There is a world out there that accumulates much more grit than our University realm, and the people who dwell in it know a thing or two about living and what matters and what a good life is.

I found my constant reminder of that world at the White Spot, a place where students and civilians mingled and ate, where culinary offenses could be perpetrated upon the genre of beef and no one would complain. The White Spot provides my balance, even if it throws my stomach off kilter. There are places like that all over Charlottesville, places that remind us of home or where we come from, places that check our tendencies to submerge in school and the somewhat sheltered life we lead.

In some ways, the Spot isn't that different. The Gusburgers still grace the gullet with their favors and the desserts are still superb. It still is the best place to finish any date, and the best way to test any woman. A few constants remain: The same lemon Tastykake still sits on the same shelf, having failed to attract a buyer for over two years.

But like most traditions and most things dear to us, it was not the food or the place so much as the people that mattered. Many are still there, still regulars despite any changes in personnel. But much of the personality is gone, and my favorite tradition is fading away. It's like the Rolling Stones without Keith Richards: You'd still have a main attraction, but it wouldn't be the same.

I'll keep going, by myself, to watch the world as it really is and retain some semblance of constancy in a world that changes and moves. But if they ever sell that Tastykake, I'm switching to littlejohn's.

(Tom Bednar is a Cavalier Daily Opinion editor.)


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