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    Pam Pryor makes the room sizzle. Eggs already cracked and easy, she puts down another round of bacon, three strips, throws the old cast-iron grill press on top, lets the pig talk. Pryor’s comfortable by the grill. She wears a T-shirt — today the Wagner’s Pharmacy one, sometimes her Wildcats blue, once an “I’m Not Listening” tee, cartoon graphic plugging its ears to match Pryor’s sass — and always her black knit capris. She calls out the list of ticket orders lined above her head: biscuits and gravy, side of bacon, scrambled eggs.
    Pryor never thought she’d be a cook. Took over when Kitty, who used to run the grill, left Wagner’s. Hell, she never even thought she’d be around this long. Saw the “Help Wanted” sign in the window 15 years ago. She’s 51 now. Some things just stick.
    An orange “WOMEN AT WORK” sign hangs on the wall beside the veggies, above the clock. Pryor scrapes the grill to clean of scraps, makes room for a foot-long beast of an omelet Pryor named for her brother-in-law Jack. The Food Network featured it on Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. Flay went down all right. Made these little omelets with avocado and goat cheese. Please. This is Wagner’s. People want meat and extra cheesy.
    Joann Hellmann moves from dining room to countertop, checking on customers. Hellmann’s a talker, hot on her news, University of Louisville basketball, and the “useless” information she learns on Jeopardy!. Knows that the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland caught on fire the other day. She has a conversation with an old man at counter’s end about the Jodi Arias trail, how the Arizona woman nearly decapitated her husband.
    “She was highly unstable, and he played with her head,” Hellmann says. “You can’t mess with a crazy person’s head.”
    There’s inevitable talk of snow, the passing March storm, the 18 or however many inches that buried Louisville, stopped the world. Flipping an egg with her back to the audience, Pryor says, “It’s been horrible. Didn’t even make it here yesterday.” A rare thing for Wagner’s.
    The old man says, “I did. Wasn’t nobody here.”
    Hellmann says, “I got outta bed, looked outside, said, ‘I can’t get out of here.’”
    Usually she gives Pryor a ride when they work together, but Hellmann knew sure as hell she wasn’t getting her little Honda out at a quarter after 6. She even shoveled the night before to curb the damage, but that didn’t do no good. Took a whole afternoon to get the job done, with five breaks in between, for tea, for soup. She’s gonna be 53 in May. It’s hard on an old girl. Made her think about moving to Phoenix, where her son lives, but she knows she couldn’t stand the heat.
    The old man says, “Yeah, I went by your house, and your car was still buried.”
    “Gee, and you didn’t think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if I stopped and shoveled that for her?’”
    Everybody laughs, and the show goes on. That’s how conversations with customers go around here. In and out, bouncing across the room. Sometimes a couple other people join in, sometimes the whole room, everybody in on everything. Like talks of Miss Kentucky 2015.
    A blond girl of volleyball-player height repping U of L gear pays for breakfast at the checkout counter in the next room. Pryor’s younger sister, 39-year-old Wagner’s waitress Tammy Ashcraft, runs up to the register, says, “Is that Miss Kentucky back there?”
    One customer says, “Which one, the blonde?”
    Another says, “Katie George is Miss Kentucky. I don’t think that’s her.”
    Pryor says, “That’s not her then? Kind of look like her, don’t it? That’s what she looks like when she comes in here.”
    It’s about 9:30 a.m., and so far, seats are pretty much empty. To be expected this early in March. All that snow-slowing business. None of the horsemen from Churchill Downs in town yet. They frequent Wagner’s once the track opens, make breakfast buzz loud, like horse flies. Nearer to Derby season, the faces of trainers and jockeys. They’re who made this hole-in-the-wall a nationally recognized fixture when they started showing up decades ago. Opened in 1922 by Leo Wagner, Wagner’s Pharmacy, on Central Avenue across from Churchill Downs, became the hotspot for horsemen to buy cigarettes, pharmaceutical goods, a fountain soda. When the drugstore’s fountain added the grill, Wagner’s became the social center for track regulars. In 1999, Central Avenue expanded, and the drugstore moved into a Churchill Downs-owned building on the corner of Fourth Street and Central. Its location practically sniffs the backside.
    The trainers — Bob Baffert eats here when he ships in. Dallas Stewart all the time. Dale Romans three or four times a week. Greg Foley. Nick Zito. Jockeys Robby Albarado and Kent Desormeaux. They’ll roll in after training, between 8 and 10 o’clock, along with the groomsmen, hot walkers, exercise riders. Hellmann says a lot of them want chicken noodle soup, some lunch, since they’ve been up since 3 a.m. Hellmann’s man, Bob, is an exercise rider. He’s been at the New Orleans Fairgrounds for months working horses. She can’t wait till March ends, gives her other half back to her. As a lot of fate goes around the track, she says she won him on a bet. He bet she couldn’t tell him where she lived. Of course she was gonna win that.
    On Oaks and Derby? Welcome, the masses. People wrap around the building when the doors open at 6 a.m. They’re from north, south, east, west. They’re from across the Great Divide. They’re hatted, they’re hungry. They’re ready for biscuits and gravy with scrambled eggs, the most popular item on Derby’s limited menu. They’re vegan cheaters, because the sausage gravy is so damn creamy, keeps ’em coming back. They’re WHAS-11, and: “I’m Reed Yadon, broadcasting live from Wagner’s on Derby Day!” They’re everywhere, and Hellmann’s favorite words that week are “Excuse me”; a bunch of accidental bumping and banging. The people seem to be multiplying! They don’t stop! Morning blends into day, a mess of good mornings and good afternoons, or whatever it is.
    The masses, the messes. Pryor remembers drunk girls after Dawn at the Downs with high heels in their hands, walking in with dirty feet. Hellmann remembers the strangers having sex in the one of two tiny bathrooms inside Wagner’s, and breaking the sink, water everywhere. Blood, too. Ol’ girl cut her foot in the process. A big reason for the port-a-potties installed outside Wagner’s come Derby. Outside, Bible thumpers scream what’s sinful into megaphones. They drive Hellmann crazy. Where’s the commitment, you know?
    One Derby, this guy came in Wagner’s crying like a baby. If he was 21, he was 21 and a day. He said he lost all his friends. Didn’t know where they were. Kept saying he was such a loser. The ladies gave him something to eat, sobered him up, got him back to his bus.
    When he came the next year, and asked, “Y’all remember me?” Hellmann said, “Hmmm, I don’t know. Why don’t you cry for me a little bit?”
    Wagner’s is vintage. Ten oval signs on the wall above the grill display faded paintings of diner selections. On one, Wagner’s famous milkshakes; another, a cheeseburger; another, pancakes. They are from the original Wagner’s, the one opened in 1922. The pumpkin-colored tables and chairs are the same, or mocked to look similar. The stools, the counter, the sign above the side entrance: all hauled from the original location. The frames — edges layered over one another, row after crooked row of them on the walls — hold Churchill- or trainer-donated pictures of past Derby winners. The pictures flow into the second dining area and into the souvenir shop, which used to be part of the pharmacy until lack of business forced it to close. Street Sense and Orb stand brightly in their photographs, covered in red roses, while the photo of Secretariat ghosts. Vintage. The tickets are handwritten on “Guest Check” slips. No computer to clock time, number of hours worked.
    There’s no radio on. Just a small flat-screen in the corner above the ice machine, channeled to the news, on mute. Forks clank and dishes clatter, the morning chatter. In a couple hours the room will fill for lunch. This day, special. Fish Friday. Though it’s a mix of ages that dine at Wagner’s, some college-aged, mostly it’s the white-haired regulars, some wearing baseball caps, button-ups or loose sweatshirts. Mostly working men hungry for their Wagner’s two-to-three-times-a-week fix.
    Full staff today. Pryor, Hellmann, Ashcraft, Martha Parrish and Clara Leiby. The last two are the quieter of the bunch. Parrish is the worrywart, the dry humor. She waitresses and helps cook. Usually wears the same gray Wagner’s tee, navy polka-dotted belt, and red scrunchy pulling her white ponytail back. Fifty-eight with a hunch to her back, scooch to her step. Hardly hear a word out of her, but when she does speak, she’s either mumbling into the roast beef, or cussing, calling people — usually just one of the girls — assholes. Leiby, 63, is polite and simple, her voice high-pitched. She wears a Wagner’s tee dressed up with a different brooch each day — classic Victorian lady, rhinestone dragonfly or a hummingbird. She says it makes her different. Hard-of-hearing Wayne and belly-bulging Charlie are the dishwashers. Cockatoo-haired Carolyn controls the cash register, wears rhinestone sweatshirts. A word on the girls: Except for Ashcraft, none of them wears a wedding ring. Pryor was married to her high school sweetheart for 22 years till he died of congenital heart failure. Only way he was leaving her. All the girls are either from Louisville or across the river. Hellmann raised in Okolona; Pryor, Germantown; Leiby, Sellersburg. Most of ’em throw in on the lottery, Pick 3. Once hit for $400, another time for $350. When Ashcraft hits her numbers — 1, 8, 4 — she’ll run behind the counter, ecstatically dance, tennis shoes squeaking.

    An old man eating at the end of the counter cuts his tomato wedges, a popular breakfast side. He wonders who sliced them. Thicker than usual. “Fat as steaks,” he says. Pryor asks him if he wants more coffee, but Sam, a dark-haired man who has just sat a couple stools down, swoops in, answers with a cool, “Nah.”
    Pryor, quick: “Not you.” As in, I wasn’t talking to you.
    Pryor loves puttin’ on the ’tude. Always returning “Can I get an order of potatoes?” with a snappy “NO!” or “Now you’re getting pushy.” Most customers invite the sarcasm, play along. She knows when to use it, when not to. Her fire matches her dyed-auburn hair, kept short. Thin-rimmed frames make big ovals around her eyes. She traded her old ones in for these. The others were too small, and she always had to look over the top of the frames to see people, which felt plain rude, like she was looking down on them.
    Sam asks Pryor, “What do you recommend this morning?”
    She says, “Chinese. Bob Evans.”
    Sam orders an egg sandwich and vegetable soup, then settles in, takes his coat off.
    Scrape, spray oil, scrape, spray, sizzle, sizzle, sizzle.
    The old man starts talking, says, “I’m waiting for work to call me back. Give me a job.”
    Sam says, “The fence place?”
    “Yes, I’ve been so poor,” the old man says. “Twenty-three years of work just flashes by.”
    Apparently there was a scuffle Sam knows about and jokes, “You get to hit that ol’ guy in the mouth again?”
    “I never did hit him!”
    “That has yet to be proven.”
    “I barely pushed him!”
    They laugh, and then, like boys, talk about good sledding hills by each others’ houses, one by Iroquois Park, one down Seventh Street. All this familiarity at Wagner’s, knowing who’s who, who lives where, like the world exists as a map to one another.
    Sam slurps his soup. He turns to his left to notice his other buddy, Rosie, who’d abandoned his hat and gloves alone on the counter, as if they belong to a ghost.
    It’s race day at Santa Anita in California, and Sam says, “Hey, Rosie! You’ve got that Racing Form and it’s Friday and your horse is running.”
    “Number eight!” Rosie says.
    “Number eight!” Sam says.
    “Number eight!” Pryor says.
    What is Hellmann forgetting? She thinks out loud. Not pickles. Not oil. She just said something. What did she just say? It’s a Monday, inventory day at Wagner’s, orders to make. Hellmann leans over the counter, makes a list on the pink notepad with Golden Retriever puppies on it. It’s usually kept on the fridge by the grill where other magnets surround it, ones customers bring the ladies from travels: Chicago, Cocoa Beach, Jamaica, Grand Canyon, Indiana. Ha — Indiana. Hellmann’s fridge at home is covered with magnets too. She’s going global.
    It’s only 11 a.m., still early, a minute to think, if she could only remember. They’ve got all their cheeses (or as Pryor likes to say, “Chuz-us”) — American, Swiss, cottage, Velveeta, shredded. Got pickles, oil, celery. It was something else. Finally: “Sugar! That’s what it was. Sugar!”
    “Did you see that on the computer? On the Facebook?” Pryor asks. She’s either taking a sip of her half-sweet, half-unsweetened tea, or thunking the fries in the basket, shaking grease. “You can remember eight songs from the ’80s word for word, but go in the other room, forget exactly what you went in there for.”
    “I remember Pat Benatar was big in the ’80s. And Madonna,” Hellmann says.
    “You see her fall onstage?” asks Pryor, referencing Madonna’s recent performance at the Brit Awards. “One of her guys pulled her back. She didn’t get her thing off fast enough.”
    “Yeah, her cape was on too tight,” Hellmann says. “She had it on backward.”
    “Yep, he jerked her off the stage,” Pryor says.
    “She fell at the Super Bowl too. Which then leads them to show on ET all these celebrities falling down. It’d be hard to get right back up. I’m a big baby. I’d be crying,” Hellmann says.
    She’s known as the emotional one. Says every one of the customers has probably seen her cry. But recently, when one of those, what-ya-call-’em?, cheap propane lighters blew up in her face trying to light a cigarette, and she about burned all her bangs off, she cracked up laughing. A proud moment for her. Normally she’d be in the fetal position about it. Now she realizes it’s better to laugh. Plus she knows Parrish, the worrywart, will worry about it for her. Mean as she says Parrish can be, she’s one of the only people Hellmann can stand. They’re both Tauruses, see. They joke knife fights in the parking lot, marrying each other, quitting smoking.
    When Parrish says she’s going out for a smoke break, Hellmann says, “I thought you quit.”
    “That’s the next off my list,” Parrish says.
    “Oh, please,” Hellmann says. “If I had a nickel for every time, I could retire.”
    Before Hellmann started at Wagner’s 13 years ago, she worked at Baptist East Hospital until she was laid off. She remembers when Lee Wagner used to fill in for the hospital pharmacist. Lee, the second generation, died in 2008. His son, Lee Wagner Jr., aka “Little Lee” (even though he’s almost 40), is general manager, while Little Lee’s sister, Brenda Smyth, controls the books. Age 10, Little Lee was helping with the cash register, and in high school, he’d go to the backside with his dad, hustle the tack. He’d sell vet bandages, horse electrolytes and Wagner’s Racehorse Liniment, a minty rubbing application for sprains and aches and pains, still sold in various ounce amounts. Little Lee still does business with the Churchill-based trainers, gets them the horse supplies they need.
    Hellmann feels like she’s getting old. Forgetting stuff. She points to the bags under her eyes. Doesn’t do much besides work, watch U of L basketball games, and hang with her two dogs, the Lab and 17-year-old Shitzu, especially when Bob’s out of town. Some Sundays she just needs to rest her skinny body in her recliner.
    She doesn’t know how she’s going to do Derby. Getting here at 4 a.m., possibly staying till 9 p.m. or longer, if Little Lee decides to stay open to draw the after-Derby crowd. It’s already a 70-hour workweek without the extra umph. Gonna be tough. Pryor likes it busy, when time slips quick, but she agrees it’s tough. Hardly any sleep. Go home for five hours and, boom, you’re back. Parrish doesn’t want to hear at all about it. It’s too much. They all think they need to hire another person to help work Wagner’s for this year’s Derby. Somebody just on the biscuits and gravy.
    t’s nearing the end of the Wagner’s day, almost 2 p.m., and Hellmann is counting fives and ones from the shared tip jar. “The customers take good care of us,” she says. Wayne puts away the plain white dishes. He’s wearing a Churchill Downs sweatshirt, little Twin Spires on the left chest. This is the only time a man’s behind the counter. Charlie, grasping a handful of clean forks, knows not to go near the grill. At least Pryor has joked he better not in the past. Pryor isn’t here this Monday afternoon. She went home sick, doesn’t know what happened. Was fine one minute, white as a ghost the next. Sometimes when she’s up over that grill all day, she forgets to drink enough, or eat, and today she felt dizzy. Kinda like when you’re drunk and gotta put your feet on the floor to stop the world from spinning. Wayne took her home. Today, she doesn’t have to suffer the forever of the final 15 minutes she always dreads.
    Parrish is sweeping chips and other dropped food into a pile. The broom’s black bristles are gnarly and curl in on themselves like a bad perm.
    “Why don’t you spend a dollar to get a new broom?” Wayne says. He’s 74 and the S’s exit his mouth in whistles.
    “’Cause I like this old antique bastard,” Parrish says.
    “That old thing is ragged,” Wayne says.
    “Yeah, that’s Old Faithful,” Charlie says.
    “It sure is,” Hellmann says, having just walked in from wiping tables in the other room.
    “We’ve got two more brooms over here, you know,” Wayne says.
    “Ours is old-fashioned,” Charlie says.
    At some point, for some reason, Parrish says, “Shit fire, save matches,” and it’s too good not to share. 
    It circulates every year when the horse people start leaving. Talk of closing. “Who knows,” Pryor says. Who knows how long the restaurant will be around. Little Lee says Wagner’s has a really good relationship with its landlord, Churchill Downs. It’s just a matter of expansion, if the track ever gets that talked-about casino. Little Lee would like to see the place stay open for decades to come, but the future is as much of a ghost as the past.
    If Wagner’s closes, where will they go? Where will the regulars go for the Wednesday special: roast beef, mashed potatoes and peas or slaw? Where will cops place 15 to-go breakfast orders for an injured officer’s family too worried to leave the hospital? Where will the 63-year-old birthday girl eat her birthday breakfast, listen to Pryor tell her, “You don’t look a day over 21”? Where will the man in the American flag bandanna question the C-J’s front-page story about a carp problem? Where will he say, “Once again, man tries to fix a problem and creates another problem”? Where will all the pictures go? What will become of tradition? Nostalgia?
    Will Old Faithful be thrown away?

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