In The Pipeline: Alice's will remain in our hearts forever

"There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning."

So wrote Louis L'Amour, and had "America's Storyteller" ever tasted one of the cinnamon rolls at Alice's Breakfast in the Park, he might have asked afterwards, "Uhm, and where might these be sold after everything is finished?"

That's one of several questions that arose naturally Sunday morning, as proprietor Alice Gustafson and I had breakfast one last time in her restaurant.

One last time, because it was her last day in business.

And so, for a lazy couple of hours, Alice, my son, Charlie, and our friend Richard Reinbolt sat and talked, laughed and dabbed a few tears.

It was important to me that Richard join us for a couple of reasons. First, it was two years ago that he and I met because of Alice's. I'd written a couple of columns in this paper decrying the fact that the city seemed bent on evicting Alice over lease issues. Richard (a regular customer) went further, gathering 2,000 signatures on a petition and, in a memorable speech, made his case at a City Council meeting, along with Alice and many others.

Their efforts bought the place two years so Alice could go out the way she intended — on her own terms. The former schoolteacher won me over with his tenacious, erudite command of the situation. We became friends.

Second, Richard also suffered a tragic loss recently. The woman he adored died of cancer, and we had a long-promised plan to meet at Alice's and talk about his beloved Guila. Alice's is a place where you'd do important things like celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and recall memories of a loved one.

And so on this last day, we looked at photos of Guila and talked about her.

Of course, we talked about Alice, too. Weary but still twinkle-eyed, the woman, who for more than 20 years ran this little treasure of a place, smiled gamely.

"This place was never about the money, just the people," she said.

In between our meal, longtime customers come over to pay their respects.

"This is the last breakfast, not the Last Supper," Richard said, to lighten the mood.

The famous cinnamon rolls arrived — perfect as always.

Many of the knick knacks had come down, but the place still had a cozy, parlor-meets-attic atmosphere, like we'd tumbled into some nostalgic little rabbit hole where civility, manners and good conversation still count for something.

We talked about other local institutions that faded to black, like the Golden Bear, the Surf Theater, the Standard Market and the End Café, which was run by Alice's late husband, John. Everyone seems to wish those places were still here, as people undoubtedly will when they recall Alice's.

Will there ever be a marker here in the park that identifies this little corner where so many found joy and comfort? I hope so.

We talk about whether the new owner will tear down or preserve the structure. Hard to say. Alice doesn't know who the new owner might be.

We talk about what will happen to the dozens of ducks and geese that come around for feed. In time, when they realize the food source is gone, they'll probably just move on.

I asked Alice if there was anything she wanted to let her guests know after all these years. She started to speak but then her eyes welled up, she smiled, and shrugged her shoulders.

A moment later she simply said, "Just thank you."

At the front door, we examined, one last time, the map Alice posted years ago for guests to mark with a pushpin from where they came . The map of the world is covered. We locals loved it, but it's hard to even gauge the number of foreigners whose image of Huntington Beach was positively shaped by Alice's.

As I was finishing this column, my friend, the singer Franki Doll, dropped me this note:

"Not many people know this, but this building was opened at night where there were AA meetings held there for years, it was a home to many friends who found not only great food during the morning, but sobriety and hope at night after business hours. That little building changed lives."

How wonderfully put.

So you know, Mary Beth, Alice's daughter, will continue baking and you can still order those luscious cinnamon rolls and follow her future at marybethsbakery.com.

Alice will get some much-needed rest and no doubt will think about her restaurant every day.

As for the rest of us, I guess we'll just have to savor our memories of a little place by a lake where kids fed the ducks, and where friends and family slowed down a little to enjoy made-from-scratch meals prepared with love. A safe, inviting sanctuary that felt like home — at least the home we keep in our hearts.

"A little building that changed lives."

***

As I prepared this column, an idea for a poem, "Alice's," came to mind and so I wrote it down. At the risk of exposing how much of a poet I am not, I'd still like to offer it here, as it seems to have been inspired by the closing of Alice's.

The sun it sets

along the line

that measures life

my own and thine

can celebrate

what just has been

a lovely day

and in the wind

we bid farewell

to youthful dreams

old promises

pull at the seams

of fragile hearts

that race at night

until the dawn

when rosy light

resets the line

with calm and grace

new fields to roam

new dreams to chase

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at chris@chrisepting.com.

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