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Up South: Memories of Steve's Cafe

 

Steve Castanis holds his granddaughter, Maria Castanis, in this photograph made in 1975. Castanis owned and ran Steve's Cafe located in the Princess Theater. The cafe operated from 1941 until 1994, first under management of Steve and then his son Christ, who with his wife, Katina, ran the cafe until it closed in 1994. Maria, one of Christ and Katina's three daughters, worked in the cafe, as did her sisters.

Steve Castanis holds his granddaughter, Maria Castanis, in this photograph made in 1975. Castanis owned and ran Steve's Cafe located in the Princess Theater. The cafe operated from 1941 until 1994, first under management of Steve and then his son Christ, who with his wife, Katina, ran the cafe until it closed in 1994. Maria, one of Christ and Katina's three daughters, worked in the cafe, as did her sisters. Photo by: Birney Imes/Dispatch Staff

 

Marion Whitley

 

 

Market Street, from the Princess Theatre to the Magnolia Bowl. I knew it well, in the soles of my feet. Steve's Cafe was there, next to the Princess, where it belonged.  

 

My social lifelines were tethered to Bob's Place across the bridge after the Friday night game, and to Roy's Drugs at the corner of Main and Market after school at Lee High. It was years later, when my mother had died, that my ties were to Steve's Cafe, which had become a steadying lifeline for my father. 

 

When the emptiness and loneliness of the house on Waterworks Road was unbearable, he'd get in his car and head for the only relief he knew. 

 

"Reckon I'll go up to Steve's. Be back in a little while," he would say. 

 

There, he'd find relief from loneliness, the inanity of TV and the nagging need just to be out of the house. At Steve's, he could slide onto a stool, and order a cup of coffee with the "ole boys" at the counter. They were retirees, widowers like him, perhaps, Saturday morning quarterbackers for sure, or an angler holding forth on an 12-pound catfish out of Moore's Creek. 

 

I can't imagine my father joining in on such, but he loved a good story and would have been an eager listener.  

 

One day, there was story that far outweighed a catfish of any size. Christ had gone off to Greece and brought back a wife. "Prettiest wife you ever saw, and she poured me my coffee." 

 

My father had known and appreciated beautiful women, certainly my mother was one, but Katina. Beside being Christ's new and beautiful bride, she was my father's first encounter with "exotica."  

 

He read in The Lincoln Library that Greece was the mythical home of beautiful women, yea, even goddesses, but that Christ could take time off and go get one, for a wife, was a stunning dose of reality. 

 

And so, for his few remaining years we'd smile at his casual announcement, "I believe I'll go up yonder to get me a cup of coffee. Be back in a little while." There, he'd join the lineup of regulars at the counter, basking in Katina's island beauty, charm and hospitality. We wondered how she managed all that adoration.  

 

How, when writing home to Greece, did she describe those Senior Southern Gentlemen in Steve's Cafe? She'd have learned their names of course, birthdays too? She'd have shared one's pride in a new pick-up truck, the grief of another for a son killed in Korea, of upcoming surgery on worn out knees? Did she know some came to be, however loosely, within the realm of her charm? As for my father, it was enough that she knew and greeted him by name. 

 

Somewhere there's a photo of them, but we can't find it. And of Steve who, one day, reached across the counter to shake my hand though I'd been gone a lifetime. As to lifetimes, my father's was ending. At Golden Triangle they'd replaced a broken hip but had neglected his depleted will to live. Enough remained, however, to fill his voice with pride as he called, "look who came out here to see me in the hospital. Good ol' Steve." 

 

Two weeks later he suggested a ride uptown. To repay the visit? To get out of the house for a while? There was that, but with a difference. I parked in front of the cafe and started to help him out, but he stopped me. "I don't believe we're going in today." So we sat there in a sad and potent silence till .... "I reckon it's time to go back home." He died the following morning. 

 

Visitation was at Gunter. Into the groupings of family and neighbors, friends from Caledonia, the Alabama cousins came Katina, ever exotic among the grayer, frailer mourners.  

 

After a hurried handshake, she turned away, missing my sincere "so good of you to come." But she hadn't gone. She was there, moving slowly, casually through the gathering toward where my father lay.  

 

Low by her side she held a single flower with a sprig of something green. Did she speak his name as she placed it there beside him? 

 

She waved a quick goodbye and would, in minutes, be back at the counter at Steve's.  

 

Could she have known my father's heart was lifted straight to heaven? 

 

 

 

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