Lark Shellhamer left home at 15 and never finished school, but she's the best waitress I've ever known.
Her section fills in the early morning when the Village Inn remains mostly empty. The franchise diner in Midtown Anchorage has become a community of her regulars.
"She makes everybody happy," said Sandy Smart. "That's how you're supposed to be."
Sandy sits at her usual table for two hours every weekday morning, sipping coffee and nibbling an English muffin. I use her first name because this is a place of first names. Everyone calls her Grandma Sandy, including Lark and her two sons, Blaze and Cruz, also longtime waiters here.
Lark starts work at 5 a.m. The restaurant operates 24 hours except for weekends after the bars close. Some of the first customers are strippers after finishing their night's work and Bible study group members before starting their days.
Lark said the key to her success is treating them all with equal kindness.
My daughter Becky and I began coming in last year when my son was beginning school an hour earlier. Lark recognized us the second time we came in. The third time, she met us at the table with our coffee and hot chocolate ready.
We began looking forward to Lark's smile and energy. She zips around the dining room like a hyperactive middle-schooler, making sudden turns and stops, hugging customers and dropping into their booths to talk about kids or football, and then speeding off to deliver another big tray of comfort food.
Lark grew up in Eagle River. At 15 she dated a 19-year-old boyfriend who had received a lump of cash in an inheritance. When her mother gave her an ultimatum, Lark left. The couple flew to a random city, Dallas, and spent the inheritance on drugs. Lark ended up on her own, addicted to crack on the streets of Dallas.
Her first job was waiting tables in a Texas IHOP. She got clean. She eventually quit even coffee and soda.
Just before Christmas 27 years ago, Lark returned to Anchorage, pregnant, and three days later applied for a job at Village Inn. She has been there ever since, earning a living and raising her sons.
"I've been here busting my butt," she said. "I've never lied to them. They know how hard I've worked getting out of it."
One of her first Village Inn regulars came to the hospital when the baby was born, bringing Cruz a blanket she had made. She did the same for Blaze. That woman is too old to drive now, but friends help bring her in to breakfast to see Lark sometimes.
Early on Thursday, Nicholle Mills came in to write Christmas cards. She tries to arrive before it's busy to get as much of Lark's time as possible. They share advice on raising kids.
Josh Nelisnick and Joel Hoffenkamp came in after 7:30 a.m. and ordered sandwiches. They work overnight stocking shelves at Sam's Club. This habit has lasted nine years.
"Honestly, the food wasn't that good when we started coming here," Josh said. But the service made up for it.
Every summer, Lark throws a block party in her Eagle River neighborhood for them and her other Village Inn regulars. She hires a live band and sets up horseshoes and kids' games. Josh texted her one night about a great deal at Sam's on a bouncy house, so she's adding that.
Josh and Lark took their co-workers, from both Village Inn and Sam's Club, out bar-hopping one St. Patrick's Day. On Thursday, she knelt at the table with Josh and Joel to sign them up to jump into Goose Lake with her and another server for the Special Olympics Polar Plunge.
"This is pretty much my social life," Josh said.
Barb and Ruth Piotrowski came in with a card and gift for Lark, a pair of earrings. Lark makes Christmas baskets for her regulars. Ruth has been in Anchorage 69 years. She raised Barb here in the house where she still lives on Cordova Street.
"How long have we been coming here, Lark?" Barb asked.
Lark said, "I've got to think how old the kids are."
The answer turned out to be 20 years.
As soon as Blaze and Cruz were old enough, they began working at Village Inn, while still attending high school. Cruz eventually left to join the U.S. Navy. Blaze wants to be a flight attendant. He is as positive and energetic as his mother.
Gordon Streeter began as a busboy in 1999. Lark drove him home from work when he was too young to get a driver's license. He has worked his way up to general manager, Lark's boss.
"We really don't have turnover," he said.
One morning, I asked Lark about the change she sweeps off tables into her apron. She drops it into a cardboard box after work, which she has sealed with duct tape to keep anyone from raiding the hoard for vending machines. At the end of the year, she has enough money for a vacation.
When Cruz left for the Navy, he paid off his truck with the change he had saved up.
One year, the restaurant closed for repairs while Lark was still collecting spending money for her vacation. The Village Inn on Spenard Road said they didn't need her, but she offered to bring her own customers. She called the regulars and they came, filling her section and her vacation kitty.
Lark has been married 20 years. Her husband handles cargo for UPS. She said she doesn't really need to work anymore, but her customers wouldn't let her stop.
With her tips, Lark makes considerably more money than I do. She earns it. I doubt I'll ever be as good at a job as she is at being a waitress at Village Inn.
She said: "It's a gold mine if you know what you're doing. Which is just being nice. Be kind to everyone, no matter who they are."
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