Monday, August 8, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

The waitress and the Good Samaritan


“A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead.” So begins the story of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to give aid when those more upstanding in the community, the Levite and the priest, had no time in their busy lives. Of course, this is just an old story. A parable at best. And even if it was a true story, the Good Samaritan is long dead. If you stopped to give aid today, you’d probably get mugged by the victim. Or at least get sued.joes1


The dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho is not the same as Robert D. Ray Drive. Trust me. You should not plan on getting beaten or robbed or stripped of your clothes as you make your way down that road to Trellis cafe. As for being left half dead on the side of the road, ignored by both a Levite and a priest? I only saw joggers pass, a friendly, waving group. Not a single Levite in sight.

Trellis cafe sits in the midst of plants, and trees, and ponds, and windows so large you don’t know whether you’re dining in or out. Murmuring voices cover the room like a soft blanket. The muted clink of dishes and silverware and wine glasses and the occasional high-pitched laugh make you wonder what you’re missing. You want to be a part of this scene. You want to raise your glass. You want to exclaim over the desserts and soups and entrees. This is an experience and you want in. Ah, here comes the waitress.

Jeannie Punelli is in motion. She flits gracefully from table to table, to kitchen to bar, and back to the tables. Dipping in and dipping out. Quick, concise movements. Her lean form and slight stature evoke a fairy out of some ancient book. A 60-year-old sprite right there among the lilies in the outdoor water garden.

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“I’ve been a server for about 15 years. Before that I was mostly a mom. I love doing this, I have to say. I really love doing this.”

Jeannie has three kids and eight grandkids. She started serving food for Lisa LaValle years ago at the Des Moines Art Center, while her daughter, Rose, worked for LaValle as a chef. And when LaValle moved to Trellis at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Jeannie and her daughter were part of the easterly migration.joes2

“I get to be with my daughter every day at work. My daughter’s daughter comes in and helps us bus tables. We are just a big family here. I see myself doing this as long as I can. My mom is 84 and still works.”

And the customers?

“I’ve built a relationship with so many of these people, they’re my friends.  I’ve watched people have babies, I’ve watched people die.”

But more is going on here. Jeannie loves the restaurant, loves the food, loves her coworkers, but she has a plan for her customers. Even when they are a little grumpy.

“I love to have fun with my customers. Some are more fun than others. Sometimes we have customers come in and they are just grouchy. But a lot of times I have found they are just really hungry. So once you get them some good food, it can be a whole new thing. It’s kind of a challenge for me. See if you can make them smile.”

See if you can make them smile? This is your goal? This is part of why you come to work each day? This is meaningful? Really?

And Jeannie’s smiling eyes tell it all.

But, naturally, that’s not the only story floating around at Trellis.

Jeannie tells me of a person who appears about once a week. An anonymous person. This anonymous person picks a table. When it is time for the bill, that table is given a sheet of paper.

Our paths have crossed at one time or another

Maybe a handshake

Or a short conversation

Eye to eye contact

A nod to each other that confirmed respect

You are a part of my life history

As I am of yours . . .

So today, I bought your lunch

As an unexpected kindness.

“We just give them that poem and say this is your bill today,” Jeannie says with a twinkle.

How does the anonymous person pick the table?

“The person just gets a feeling or a vibe about what table to pick. Sometimes I’ll tell the person about somebody I think is deserving. For example, there’s a couple I’ve waited on for about 15 years. He passed away last year after having Parkinson’s. She was in with a friend, and I told the anonymous person a little about her. See, I’ve been through cancer with a 3-year-old grandson, and she and her husband were good to me throughout that. They came in every week and checked on me… The bill at her table was picked up.”

Jeannie tells me that these random acts have trickled down to all of them working at Trellis. “It’s really cool how it’s affected so many people. It’s a neat thing to be part of.”

I smile at the thought.

And that’s enough for her. A smile collected. A poem delivered. And Jeannie is off to serve another slice of chocolate zucchini cake. CV


Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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