By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
October 25, 2012
Some diners feel like all diners. They feel like your diner from your first step inside.
Chips `50s Cafe in Hawthorne is familiar in that way — not just because of its faux-wood-grain formica countertops, its retro gas-pump gum ball machine, its sun-faded, forever-young images of Marilyn, Elvis, James Dean.
Until this week, chances are if you walked into Chips a stranger, Filimon Lamas would greet you as a long-lost friend.
He was there almost every day, all day — before Chips opened at 6 a.m., after it closed at 8 p.m. He was always smiling.
If you were a little girl, he'd call you princess or princesa. If you were a boy, he'd call you campeón or champion.
Lamas, 33, loved children. He and his high-school-sweetheart wife, Gloria Jimenez, had four, the eldest 8 years old.
Last Saturday morning, a man in a painter's mask broke into their slumbering Inglewood home and started shooting at all of them.
Their youngest, Giovani, who was 4, could not survive a shot to the head. Lamas died too, trying, with his wife, to shield their babies.
Jimenez was shot in both her legs and her pelvis. Their 6-year-old son was shot in the pelvis, their 7-year-old daughter in the chest.
Now at Chips, a vase of red roses sits alongside the vintage cash register on which a handwritten handbill has been posted, announcing a viewing and a Mass for Fili and Gio at St. Joseph's, the Catholic church around the corner.
At noon Tuesday, the sidewalk outside the diner was packed with cameras and reporters as well as grieving friends and family members.
Hawthorne and Inglewood police officers announced that they'd set up donation accounts. Brave relatives took turns trembling before the bank of microphones. And in the background, Magdalena Garcia, Fili Lamas' sister, clutched two stuffed animals to her chest and keened so wrenchingly that many who looked her way started sobbing too.
Garcia was steadied by her younger brother, Rodrigo Lamas, 31, and by the diner's waiters and waitresses, who formed a protective line behind her.
Chips is very much a family affair.
In July 2010, hoping to secure their family's future, the Lamas brothers bought the diner with Magdalena's husband, Rodolfo Garcia. The running of Chips mostly fell to Fili, who waited tables and ordered food and sat in a little office, going over the books.
In the kitchen, Magdalena worked alongside the grill cooks, making specialties and staples — menudo and mashed potatoes, sauces, pozole.
Quite a few of those who work there did so long before Fili took over. When he came, they said, he lit the place up — cracking jokes and talking soccer and acting like everyone's equal. People who came once came back, and most didn't know until the news reports that their friendly waiter was the boss, said Ludwig Rivas, a waiter at Chips for the last 11 years.
"He made everybody joyful," said Rivas, who has worked extra shifts to fill Fili's spot since he was awakened by a call from a cook around 5:30 a.m. Saturday, his usual day off.
Since he lost his job as a truck driver two years ago, Marco Orozco, 48, has slept in his van. When he needed to, Fili let him park it in the Chips lot. Fili knew how Orozco liked his fried eggs, and when Orozco had no cash, he extended him credit. Orozco sat at the counter with him evening after evening, watching soccer — even on the final evening of his friend's life.
Now when a fellow who runs a vending machine business comes in asking for the dead man and a waitress breaks the news, Orozco, who keeps tearing up, follows the shocked visitor outside.
"Keep coming," he says, gently touching the man's arm. "Please," he says, "keep coming back."
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