Thomas Irvin finished his fries, Coke and kid-size burger at Joe's Cafe in Benson the week before last and asked the waitress for his check. After a few moments, the waitress told him not to worry about it, that the slim man sitting down the counter from Irvin had taken care of it. Surprised, Irvin asked why. A few days before, the waitress explained, a customer had forgotten her wallet. She ran home to get it, but in the meantime, a man sitting at a booth in the corner had paid for her. She returned and paid the bill of another diner. A few transactions later, Irvin's bill was paid, too.
Irvin left Joe's in a better mood than when he had arrived. He hadn't been having the best day before that. He posted on Facebook about his experience in the small cafe with orange booths, paneled walls painted red and a long, old-fashioned lunch counter, and resolved to return and buy a stranger's meal.
“It really did kind of change my day,” he said.
As it turns out, his experience wasn't so unusual, at least not at Joe's.
“That's kind of a regular thing here,” said Clarice Morrow, who waits tables there three days and one night each week. “People here just do that all the time.”
It was true, she said, that a woman had forgotten her wallet and that a man sitting at a booth in the corner paid her tab. It was true that those whose tabs had been paid had returned to pay for other customers.
But a lot of things can result in a meal at Joe's — a good conversation, a shared connection, a good game of horseshoes in the pit behind the parking lot.
Morrow has been on the receiving end of this sort of treatment. She moved to Omaha from Portland a year ago and didn't know a soul. She stopped at Joe's to have a cup of coffee and to read the “help wanted” section of the newspaper. Instead, she noticed a sign seeking a waitress. She got the job and rented an apartment a few blocks away.
Even though they barely knew her, the men and women whose orders she took and whose coffee cups she filled asked how she was getting settled. They offered her dishes, pots and pans, furniture. If she missed work, they called to make sure she was OK.
“Absolutely, this was a blessing,” she said. “I just have like a little built-in family here.”
When a regular named Howard died, all the other regulars went in to buy flowers for his funeral, she said.
A few days after the stranger paid for Irvin's meal, Merwyn “Red” Ludwig sat at the end of the same counter where Irvin had enjoyed his lunch, chatting over coffee with Marc Glessman and Jerry Clements. A few minutes before, Ludwig had bought breakfast for a friend who was in a hurry to get to Lincoln.
“Spread it around,” Ludwig said.
Like many guys who frequent neighborhood diners, Glessman, Clements and Ludwig see each other most days — first for coffee in the morning, and maybe again for lunch or to play horseshoes. They sit in the same spots each day, near the left end of the counter, and they have their own coffee cups brought from home. They know what's going on here, and in Benson generally, which Ludwig believes is one of the three best neighborhoods in town (Dundee and Florence are the others, in his opinion). The recent rebirth of Benson's business district is a popular topic of conversation at Joe's, though Ludwig appreciates that Joe's, which at 6564 Maple St. is a few blocks west of the major development, is still quiet, that parking is still plentiful.
“This is the other end of Benson,” Ludwig said. “You don't get people coming down here wanting to talk to us.”
Ludwig and Glessman live right in the neighborhood, but Clements drives from Florence each day. If the weather is bad, he stops and picks up Ludwig.
“See, it's so good he comes all the way over here,” Ludwig said.
Clements, 71, and Ludwig, 65, are retired. Glessman, 41, oversees a fellowship of churches in Africa and also does landscaping, construction and other odd jobs. He remembers stopping at Joe's in kindergarten to buy candy on his way to school.
It's changed hands a few times since then, and a space that used to serve as living quarters was opened up into a back dining room. Otherwise, when Glessman returned around 2005, it hadn't changed all that much. At first he met a few clients for coffee there. He returned because he liked it. Eventually, he joined the frequent games of horseshoes.
“I watched them for a while and one day they asked me to play and I've been playing it ever since,” he said.
“They don't like my style very much,” he said.
That's because he's good, Ludwig said.
Glessman doesn't comes back so often just for horseshoes, though.
“You can be yourself,” he said.
“You don't have to be Mr. Business,” Ludwig added.
Andy Anderson, another regular, has come to Joe's for a decade.
Anderson, 57, lives all the way in Elkhorn, and he used to work in Carter Lake. He'd drive to work on Maple Street, and he'd stop for breakfast at Joe's.
“And after you're here about two times, everybody knows everybody's name,” he said.
So now it's his spot.
He, like about everyone there, has been on the giving and receiving end of paid tabs and gentle barbs.
Morrow gets a bit of flak, too, sometimes about her refusal to deliver their orders to the horseshoe pit.
But she feels like she's found her place in this unassuming cafe, which has retained enough of its charm throughout the years that visitors sometimes take photographs inside.
“It's like a little town in a town,” she said.