The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Where Students, Tourists, & Townpeople Meet

I think it was the fourth cup of coffee that finally gave me the courage to introduce myself. For the past 45 minutes I had been sitting on my broken bar stool - waiting, hoping some- one else would make the first move. But, after downing the last drop of my unusually strong coffee, I finally had realized that if anything was going to happen, I'd have to start it myself.

After three years at the University, I've probably gone to The Tavern 20 or 30 times. I typically go with two or three friends the morning after a very late night. We keep to ourselves and conversations often don't get much farther than "pass me some more water."

But this time I went to The Tavern with a different purpose. Today I was going to be a student looking to meet some of those tourists and "townpeople" that the sign on the roof said were going to be there. I was determined to find out why this place was such an attraction for such diverse clientele.

I knew from the moment I woke up that this was going to be no easy task. The drizzling rain outside my window and my pounding headache almost convinced me to forget the idea entirely. When I finally got to The Tavern and saw the long lines of people extending out of both entrances, I sat in the car for a minute and pondered whether I'd be better off picking up an Egg McMuffin and some Advil and heading back to my warm, comfortable bed.

But I persevered. During the half hour wait, which felt like an eternity, I recognized other bleary eyed University students. Some were in sweatpants and T-shirts, some still were dressed in what they had been wearing the night before, and most, like me, were dying to sit down and drink a carafe full of water.

When I finally got seated, I immediately decided to procrastinate. I told myself I'd eat first and make my move after breakfast. As I waited for my waitress I took a peek at the Omelet of the Day and quickly decided my stomach wasn't going to be able to handle the new Pizza omelet, an interesting-looking combination of eggs, tomato sauce, pepperoni, black olives, Italian sausage, peppers and mozzarella cheese.

Three groups converge

Throughout my meal I scanned the morning's clientele and indeed all three social groups seemed to be represented. At the table beneath the mounted deer and buffalo heads sat a group of girls wearing shirts and jackets with sorority letters on them. Over at the bar, drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette, was a man who seemed to be on a first name basis with the guy cooking the pancakes behind the counter. At the table near the cash register there was a family with two children. The younger boy, who looked to be about 6 years old, played with a red toy truck and wore a shirt that said Virginia Beach on it.

After breakfast I went over to the bar, figuring that would be the best place to meet and mingle. But for 45 minutes I sat there, uncomfortably silent while my waitress faithfully kept my coffee cup filled. I kept thinking to myself, "Meeting people shouldn't be this hard."

But then, I finally found my salvation in the most unusual place, the world of championship putt putting.

On the television that hung over the bar, NBC was showing the highlights of this week's championship putt putting match between two overweight old guys named Ken and Vince.

The fact that this was even on television was ridiculous to begin with, but the cheering crowds and slow motion instant replays almost begged to be made fun of.

After hole nine, when Ken missed an easy bounce shot and left himself in a tough lie behind a white cone-looking thing, I turned to the guy sitting at the bar next to me and, with a bit of hesitation, said, "So it doesn't look like Ken has his game face on today."

A moment of silence followed that felt like an hour.

Then he began to laugh. "Yeah. I agree. So do you think these guys get caddies to carry their club for them?" he said.

"I don't imagine they'd get much of a paycheck," said another guy two stools down who had overheard our exchange.

And for the next 15 minutes the three of us continued to watch the match and chat, united in our utter disbelief that miniature golf was being broadcast on network television. Both men apparently were from around Charlottesville and I told them that I was a student at the University.

By the time Vince finally put Ken away with a perfect hole in one, the two guys had finished their meals and stood up to leave. We nodded to each other cordially and as they left I suddenly realized that spending the afternoon meeting people wouldn't be that bad.

Shot of confidence

With renewed confidence I decided to go right to the top. I asked my waitress to point out The Tavern's owner, whose name I found out was Shelly Gordon. When he came by I stopped him and told him that I loved coming to his restaurant and was interested in knowing when the place was built.

With people still lined up out the doors and orders piled up on the counter, Gordon leaned against the counter, and launched into a history of The Tavern.

The restaurant originally was built in 1954, he told me. It was called Gus's, after its first owner, and became popular in part because it had a drive-through window service.

In the early 1960s Gus's came under new ownership and, as such, got a new name, Tony's. "It became very popular because it was one of the few places a woman could come and get a beer and not be harassed," Gordon said, as he wiped up a spot of coffee that I had spilled on the counter.

Since Gordon took the restaurant over 21 years ago he has added his own distinct touch to the interior.

Fifteen years ago he painted the ceiling orange and blue, and every year or so he puts new Virginia sports posters up on the walls. He also created the odd collage on the back wall that contains numerous different pieces of Cavalier sports equipment - and one coconut monkey head.

After a while, we got on to the subject of the relationship between the University and the Charlottesville community.

Gordon said he loves his student clientele. "They are usually great customers. Ninety-five percent of them are friendly, the only ones I have a problem with are the guys that are trying to show off for their girlfriends."

Chatting with the King

As I was talking to Gordon, I saw a man who was carrying plates from the dish room who caught my attention. With his distinct haircut, massive sideburns and huge tattoo of "The King" on his right arm, I immediately recognized him as the guy that used to work at the White Spot that everyone called "Elvis." Gordon was more than happy to introduce me to the man who once worked at one of my favorite burger joints in the world and so often made me a Gus Burger when I stumbled home from Rugby Road as a first year.

Elvis' real name is James Roark. After introducing myself, my curiosity got the best of me and I asked him about his unique fashion. Roark apparently has been a huge Elvis fan since 1977. He used to impersonate Elvis for a band called "Hillbilly Werewolf" and, for a time, traveled up and down the East Coast doing shows. Roark even got his enormous Elvis tattoo on the 24th anniversary of Elvis' death.

In Roark's opinion, University students are "alright, but kind of crazy." He talked about a time he was working the late night shift at the White Spot when a drunken student came in and got belligerent over his midnight snack. The student got so upset he threw a salt shaker, which hit Roark in the forehead, and then threw a glass sugar dispenser, which hit him in the hand and broke two bones.

Roark and I talked for a while, then suddenly I looked up at the clock and it was 2:30 in the afternoon, and all the employees were getting ready to close the restaurant in half an hour. With customers thinning out, and my spirits riding high after actually talking to "Elvis," I began meeting everyone.

Staying past closing time

Helen Cady is the head waitress at The Tavern. She has worked at four different pancake houses and has been at The Tavern since 1978, when it was called Sarge's.

"Oh, I love the students that come here. They are the nicest, most friendly customers I have," Cady said. "Most of the time they are hung over, but I don't mind because most of the time I am too," she said laughing.

She was so positive about her student customers that I asked her if she thought it was unusual for the community and the students to get along so well in a college town. Cady said that there was something unique about the University and the people that go here. "I've always wondered about that," she said, trying to put her finger on the exact reason why.

After meeting Cady, the afternoon became a blur. She introduced me to some of The Tavern's other staff members and before I knew it I was sitting at a table with Carol, Tabetha and Gail, three other waitresses, telling them crazy stories about my first-year roommate while they folded silverware into napkins.

All three ladies were as equally taken with University students as Cady.

"We sympathize with them being so far from home," said Tabetha.

"It's funny, you can always tell when students aren't feeling too well in the mornings because they always ask for lots of water," Carol said. "It's really funny when you get to the table with food and they forget what they ordered."

I stayed past closing time, chatting with my new friends from The Tavern. When I left they all told me to come back when school starts up again in the fall and visit them.

Leaving The Tavern that afternoon it was still raining, but my headache was gone and I was in a great mood. I looked up at those words painted on the roof that I had passed so many times in my three years here.

"Where Students, Tourists, & Townpeople Meet."

It had been tough at first, but I finally had done it.

And for a second I had a flashback to arriving at school in the fall of my first year. I remember attending those "mandatory" orientation programs, wishing someone else would make the first move and introduce themselves to me. I remember distinctly a few uncomfortable silences, where I was just wishing I was back home, tucked safely and comfortably in my own bed. Looking back, I realized that it wasn't until I reached out, made a few jokes, took the chance and opened up, that I started making new friends. I learned that lesson first year and I guess I forgot it. After my trip to The Tavern, I don't think I'll forget it again.

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