“Ne Pas Mettre Crayons Dan Votre Bouche”, or, “Then and Now”

28 Jan

“Ne Pas Mettre Crayons Dan Votre Bouche”-don’t put crayons in your mouth. That’s what the sign of school rules said. The café this sign hangs in forms a significant part of my college education, especially when it comes to rules.

A little of then.

“Hair, hair.”

Fast & French is the corner café I always wanted, a place that’s got a crowd of regulars, character, and scrumptious ‘noms. Two artist partners founded the café around the philosophy of controversial art which grew with the support of the Charleston community, which kept it from closing in 2005. The owners say this much: “where there is art, there is community-where there is community, there is art.”

How could this not be the best place ever? I now live right around the corner from this simple but fascinating French diner, but that wasn’t always the case.

When my friends and I first started going there, it was a 20-minute walk from our campus dorm. We went one Saturday (see the journal postscript from November 2009). Soon, the definitive Saturdays had rules:

  1. Wake up early and watch Star Trek while waiting on friends
  2. Do not openly admit to watching Star Trek.
  3. After walking for what seems like forever, arrive at Fast and French and sit down at the counter.
  4. Politely nod to the family of three, senior citizen couple, sunken-eyed intellectual that’s cramped next to you. As sleepy college students, you’re just as much of a character to them.
  5. Order french-pressed (and bottomless) coffee and breakfast food.
  6. Drink your coffee. Get refills.
  7. Share stories with your friends, especially sketchy ones. Everyone loves sketchy stories.
  8. Refill.
  9. Politely nod at the staff, whose tattoos and dollar bill ties pair with classic French fare. Better than wine and cheese.
  10. Refill.
  11. Your croissants will have arrived, and you’ll fall in love again with the raisin cream cheese one.
  12. Refill.
  13. After 2 hours and several more refills, you’ll get it in your head that homework can somehow happen that day. Good luck with that. Your pulse is percolating, and your bloodstream is probably tar-colored from the smoky roasted coffee. But, you know, another refill wouldn’t hurt.
  14. Walk home and blaze through the magazine you scored from the front.

This formed just about every Saturday of my freshman year. 4 years and caffeine addiction later, the best things never change. I went back with my roommate this past weekend (who also came with me my first time), and it’s just as prone to stories as ever.

We sat by a sign of different rules (my favorite being the title of this post). It’s as noisy as a classroom in there, with the open kitchen shouting over the cooking soup and music. There’s always wind of three different conversations going on, due to the cramping at the counter. For fine French food, it isn’t fussy, which is why the ironically strict sign was perfect.

Plenty of rule-breaking in this 1854 engraving.

Plenty of rule-breaking in this 1854 engraving.

Our waiter, who actually teaches French at the café, read the list to us while scribbling down our order. He didn’t know a lot of the words, so the classroom rules seemed more like a surreal poem about pencils, headmasters, and raising hands.

He spaced out on the words and a lot of other things. Spoons went missing, the coffee cups were still in the dishwasher, and he fumbled over the French press. He was the class clown in this school metaphor.

“The lunch rush just got here,” he said to the end of his nose, “and I’ve got some spoons, you’re a party of (counts) two….(a pause to make your skin crawl)….what can I get you?”

I got the raisin croissant, which came out with a different server. She was a mind-reader, knowing getting loaded on caffeine is essential to Saturday morning. We decided to work on cover letters and MCAT later (falsely confident with coffee). Every once in a while, we had a classic moment with our waiter, who got the spoon crisis taken care of and was great to talk to. I could have a book of quirky moments shared with the staff, but this is one I had to share, along with my very first one (attached journal entry)

November 2009:

F&F“Ben, Anthony, and I went to French breakfast counter restaurant. I ordered some sourdough toast infamous black currant jelly. I found just grape jelly, but none of that really mattered. Just like the old man, I found myself witnessing a ridiculous show being hosted by the restaurant’s proprietor and some ansty and jealous tourists. The owner had round black glasses as well as a grey comb over whose voice hinted at an accent. He was very meticulous  and a bit of a domineering and stringent stuck up the hiney character. The tourists to our left were so frustrated and the poor waiter hustled and bustled confused out of his mind. He was the genuine one there. He explained he was usually a dishwasher but had risen through the ranks to be a waiter on Saturday, the most busy of days. He has the most responsibility and the manager was not going easy on him-yelling at him for forgetting to ask us about water, giving out menus, serving coffee, entreating me with a small jelly jar that I didn’t mind one bit. After the boss stormed off, the blonde bearded dishwasher muttered some never heard rejoiners [sic] and turned to us to ask if we needed anything else in one of these pseudo polished manners. I really liked him, and his quiet rebellions and appeal to our group made him a hero among us. He stuck it to that stuffy owner every chance he had…”

Regardless of where we all are next year, I hope this whimsical bit of France will still be in Charleston, the Paris of the Southeast.

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2 Responses to ““Ne Pas Mettre Crayons Dan Votre Bouche”, or, “Then and Now””

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How 45 million Americans (and their meals) are on the line | Table Scraps - October 10, 2013

    […] just finished Hunger Action Month, and it’s got me thinking. While I could be writing about my time at French diner or drawing cartoons of shrimp creole, there’s something that’s crowding out everything […]

  2. TBT: The Worst Waiter Ever | - May 29, 2014

    […] Shopsin. I loved being accosted and derided at Chicago’s Weiner Circle. I’m fond of everything about French diner Gaulart et Maliclet, but what I really miss is the anxious and snippy owner, Jean-Marie. The Soup Nazi? He’s one […]

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