“Good morning, sweetheart,” she calls across the room — and she expects an answer.
Joni Chaffin bustles around the North End restaurant, as she has for the past 25 years, greeting strangers and friends equally. Way beyond the breakfasts and lunches that she sets before hungry customers, however, she is equally as profuse in distributing her hugs, admonishments, advice, good-natured banter and a bottomless supply of compassion.
Waitress? Mmm — not just.
She says: “It’s really been my life. Like it says right there: Jim’s Coffee Shop, where love is a natural ingredient.”
(“Meat is ... ? Eggs are ... ? Toast is ... ? Wheat, white, rye, sourdough, muffy?” It’s a litany.)
“I got my job at Jim’s Coffee Shop on Sept. 8, 1987. I have been (here) long enough to see an entire generation go through kindergarten to eighth grade at St. Joe’s, go to Bishop Kelly, graduate, four years of college and this year — one boy … he came and showed me his little girl.
“So many joys.”
(“Cinnamon roll, make it a pair. Scrambled eggs, make them a pair. One of them can have hash browns.”)
Joni grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York, walking miles to school and milking cows afterwards. Her mother left her with her grandparents — Italian immigrants — when Joni was little.
“My grandmother always told me the truth, and my grandma always said, Joni Marie, it’s not who had you, it’s who loved you. … My grandmother was so, so, so full of love.”
And so, so poor, exclaims Joni, remembering. The family didn’t have “things” — but they did have acres of fruit trees, cows, pigs and chickens, which her grandmother shared generously.
“If you don’t give, you don’t get. … My grandma was from the old country. She said, no matter what you have, give it away.”
Sundays were full of Italian food and bocce on the lawn; naps and more food, wine and cheese and then her grandfather would bring out the accordion. It was a different time, and it’s a time that anchors Joni even now.
(“Dick, the usual? OK, Frankie, here you go.”)
To know Joni is to be — not transported back to “Leave it to Beaver” and picket fences, but almost, without knowing it — to be polished and shined and held to measure against the best of those times. But in these times, now, with whatever today might bring.
“I’m kind of like the glue and I want everybody to be happy. And I want people to laugh and I crack jokes and sometimes I say spontaneous things and it’s just a riot, you know. ...
“I try, as one little person, just to give. … ”
About 16 years ago, Joni had a regular customer, a young man who had a diving accident. He was quadriplegic and just learning how to live on his own. When he wondered out loud if Joni could help him find an end table or a lamp, something clicked.
“And all of a sudden, it was like: I’ve got to help him. He’s got another chance at life. So I started putting my fingers out to my customers and anybody who might have this or that. The stuff started coming in; one person would tell another. …
“It’s still coming, 16 years later.”
The young man has long gone his own way, but he’s been replaced by others, whose needs and stories vary as much as the breakfast orders do.
“ … After (people) get to know you and trust you, here come blankets and here come quilts and a set of pots and pans, and the baby’s got to have this and this and this. It’s just been great.”
A network of customers brings in items that someone might need, and a network of customers distributes them back to the community. One couple makes 200 bags a year for the Boys and Girls Club, filled with thrift store, on-sale, garage sale and Jim’s Coffee Shop-donated items. “She makes so many people happy,” says Joni’s boss, cafe owner Dave Fellows.
“There is no one kinder than Dave,” says Joni in return. “He allows me to do these things, you know.”
(“What are you going to have, my dear? Cheddar or Swiss? Anything inside? White, wheat, rye, sourdough?”)
And then Joni started a food drive, from Nov. 1 to Jan. 1. Every year, a sign goes up in the cafe and Joni gets out a notebook and has customers sign up to bring food — good food, no sugary snacks, no siree.
“I’ll say, it would be nice if you brought things and if you don’t bring anything, you can’t eat. I say it with a smile and they all laugh and you know, they’ll bring stuff in. …
“I’ve always had this feeling for somebody who has less than me. You see, I am a millionaire. I have a million dollars in my heart. … I have a lovely home; it’s paid for. I have a job. I have a lot of groceries. I have a lovely little vehicle, I have a garden, I have health. So what more do you want?
“And you take these kids (in the community), parents are split, they get pulled in different directions; the foreclosures, kids who have lost their homes, their toys. They’ve lost so much.
“I can’t explain to people how it makes you feel when you help somebody else. To me, it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
(She plops a kiss on top of a youngster’s head. “Don’t wipe it off,” she admonishes him.)
“I always tell them, make sure you say one nice thing to somebody today. Even the one you had a fight with yesterday. They’re wonderful kids (from St. Joseph’s school). They call me Grandma Little.
“And I honor it.”
(On top of a Styrofoam to-go box for a customer’s daughter, she writes, “Gram Little loves you.”)
“My life lesson is: You don’t find happiness. You make it. You don’t go out looking for it; it isn’t in a lottery ticket, or ‘I’m going to work like hell until I get $10,000 in the bank and then I’ll be happy’; or ‘I’m going to go out and get a Porsche.’
“(That’s) acquiring; you’re not making happiness. Happiness comes from inside. Happiness comes from giving of yourself to put a smile on somebody else’s face.”
(“Look at me,” she commands an elderly man sitting at the counter. Joni just learned that his wife died; she gives him a kiss on the cheek. “This is for her.”)
“I never worked a Monday in my life. Tuesdays are slow. Wednesday is meatloaf day — it’s hump day. Thursday we get fired up, and Friday, it’s nuts. … I love Fridays. (When school is in session, students from St. Joseph often come with their parents for breakfast).
“Sometimes the kids get up: ‘Miss Joni, you want me to pour coffee?’ ‘Miss Joni, you want me to clear the table?’ They don’t even think twice. And the parents get up and it’s so magical and everybody flows. …
“You see, it’s like home. So much love.”
(“Listen up, everybody. We’re going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to our favorite Mexican.” It’s Luis Lozano, owner of another restaurant, who comes every week. “I call her Mom,” he says.)
Not that Joni’s life is always happy. Most recently, her husband of 29 years, Darwin, has gone to live in a nursing home because he has severe dementia.
“I don’t say much because, like I say, you can’t change what you can’t fix.
“ … Because everyone has a hurt and nobody’s exempt. You stop and think of that young man who went into that theater and killed all those people — my husband’s in a safe place. He has no mind, but he’s not hurting. And he wasn’t shot, but you take all those people and all their pain and what they’re going through with that tragedy.
“And so mine is just a drop in the bucket. Big to me, but not in comparison to them, the other world.
“ … But you have to let go of all things. I did it as I was growing up and I’ve done the very best since my Dar went into the nursing home in January.
“ … What are you going to do? Poor, pitiful me and bawl? But every once in a while, if you come across a memory or something that makes you laugh, it’s OK to cry. It’s OK. But my grandmother, she said — you have to love everybody.”
(To the widower: “OK, sweetheart, you’re $6.40. Remember, it’s one day at a time.”)
“You’re not put here on this Earth for yourself. Everybody has a purpose. I don’t care if you’re a farmer and you have to milk cows, or you’re Big Dave and you own a restaurant.
“ … Always give of yourself to somebody else, because no matter what you give, it’s going to come back.
“(Her voice changes to stern.) But don’t wait for it and don’t look for it. That isn’t how life works. You give, you do, you let go.
“Some people call it religion, believing in the Lord; some call it karma; some people have the adage ‘what goes around comes around,’ but I think it’s just the way life evolves. You just give. … ”
A giant of a young man with dreadlocks comes behind the counter to say goodbye. He leans down gently; Joni stands on her tiptoes up for a farewell hug and kiss. “Bye, dear. See you next week.”
Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email email@example.com.