Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Love of Lula by Kelley Benham

TAMPA - Lula Mae Tollaman spent 46 years, or maybe it was 48, in the bathroom at the Columbia Restaurant. Whether you trust old records or her own long memory, it was a long time.

She sat on a red-cushioned chair outside the stalls in a perfect white uniform, Bible in her lap. She was always careful about her uniform and her white stockings. If she ever had a special visitor or her picture taken, she liked a day's notice so she could look extra nice.

She handed out paper towels. Checked that the toilet paper hadn't run out. Offered a hair brush or a word of advice. She rocked babies, and the babies of those babies. She protected the secrets of thousands of women who came through the restaurant. Her bathroom was a vault.

With time and renovations she got a new bathroom with dark wood and marble counter tops and toilets that flush automatically. She worked her way again and again through that Bible, which grew stuffed with mementos and notations. She kept a bottomless bag under the sinks, containing every accessory a woman could require, and whatever else mattered to Lula.

Mostly what she did was listen and talk. Regular customers learned not to enter Lula's ladies' room before their meals were served, because the food would turn cold before they got back.

She outlived two generations of Columbia owners: first Casimiro Jr. and Carmen Hernandez, and then Cesar and Adela Gonzmart. She diapered, cradled and counseled three others: Richard and Casey Gonzmart, their kids, and theirs, who now skitter through the restaurant dining rooms and into the bathroom, maybe wondering where Lula has gone.

She took time off the week of Aug. 7 and didn't return. She died a week ago. She would never forgive us if we told her age.

Her chair isn't in the bathroom anymore. The Columbia has no ladies' room attendant, and Richard Gonzmart swears it never will again.

Lula's funeral is today in Tampa. We talked to her last year, in the bathroom. This is the story she told, the way she told it.

* * *

"Do you know I'm so happy to be here? People say, "You work in the ladies' room.' I meet so many interesting people and do you know I've learned a lot, oooh, good stuff, oh, about travel and this and that.

"Richard is a wonderful boss. His mother used to bring him in here when he was too young to go in the men's room. You see why I stayed so long? They like me, I think. Don't you think they like me? They made me part of the family.

"They used to have violins every night. So, so beautiful. You know, Cesar played until he took too ill. When he took sick we went to see him in the hospital. When I got there he was sitting up in bed and he said, "Oh, Lula.'

"I started pulling up a chair; he said, "Oh no, you sit right here by me on this bed.' And we started talking about the old times, oh yes, the old times, and laughing. Richard was telling him about the salad he was going to put on the lunch menu. He said, "Be sure you make that salad for Lula.'

"He said, "Lula, I hurt so bad and I'm so sick, will you pray for me?' I was afraid to pray with all the nurses walking around. I said, "I'm going to go into the ladies' room and pray.' I did. I prayed so hard when I got here. And the last thing he said to me with his arms around me, he said, "Lula, I love you.'

"Did you ever meet him? No? You missed part of your life.

"I started working in 1956 for Casimiro, Adela's father. I went to the store and bought a mop. I thought I needed a mop. I sent the bill upstairs - I couldn't afford to buy a mop for the Columbia restaurant. He said, "Lula, I see where you bought a mop and you sent me the bill. You don't need a mop.' I said, "Oh, thank you.' But he didn't return my $2.

"I said I'm just going to work until Christmas. Christmas came, I said I'll work until Easter. Then I said, oh, I'll work until after my daughter goes to high school. After high school it was college. I don't have any more excuses. I'm working because I love it. I've been here so long I've seen everyone grow up. I've seen them through good times and bad times.

"I thought about leaving when Cesar died. But Adela said, "Lula, don't go until I'm gone.'

(A little girl comes out of a stall and starts for the door.)

"Honey, you want to wash your hands?"

(Lula helps her.)

"Nobody could steal me away. Nobody but Oprah. I'm waiting for Oprah to call me now. No, I really am.

"Marilyn Monroe. She was here with Joe DiMaggio. Well you know all ladies have to go to the bathroom. She was just like on the screen, you know, so darling and sweet."

(A woman walks out of a stall and leaves Lula a tip.)

"Oh, thank you.

"Eva Gabor was the most darling person. It was just like she lit a candle in here. Have you ever met someone that left such an impression on you?

"People always come to the door and say, "Can you come out?' I don't know why people think I can't come out.

"The women come in, I see them so heartbroken and everything and I tell them, "Honey, fix your face up and your hair and walk back out there, and don't you ever let them see you cry."'

(A woman comes out of a stall and stops at the sink. Her dress is caught in her hose. Lula gets off her chair and fixes it for her, still talking.)

"Every Saturday night this guy was dating this young woman. They were from Dade City. One night she came in and she was all aglow. I said, "You're so beautiful tonight.' She said, "I'm so in love. Do you think he'll ask me?' I said, "I don't think he could refuse. Keep on looking like you're looking.' After a while she came in crying. I said, "Oh my goodness, why are you crying?' She said, "Lula, I'm so happy.' I said, "Oh honey, I'm going to pray for you.'

"I thought she would squeeze me to death. They came in here a long time. They had a baby. When their daughter was 16 they brought her here for her birthday.

"One night I got a telephone call my son was very sick, I would have to go to Texas. Cesar said, "Lula, I'm sorry about your son and if you need plane fare to fly to Texas it's on me.' I went in that other bathroom and started crying. That's the way he made me cry, with happiness.

"When my son passed away the first somebody I saw at the funeral was Cesar and Adela. They were standing at the end pew in the aisle so I would see them. I tell you I almost crumbled. Yeah, they were the first somebody I saw.

"My daughter Betty is a retired schoolteacher. We laugh about that. She retired but I'm still working."

* * *

Richard Gonzmart never knew as much about Lula as she knew about him. He remembers her in his grandmother's kitchen when he was 3. Remembers crawling under the stalls in the women's bathroom when he was a boy, and Lula scolding him. When he got older, he had to wait for her to emerge to talk to her. When he was 16 and met his future wife - she was 14, he spotted her from table 93 - he introduced her to Lula the same night he introduced her to his mother.

When Lula got sick, he and Melanie visited her at home. He had never been to her home before. She had as many pictures of his children and grandchildren as she did of her own.

He pulled up a chair. Sit closer, she said. Closer.

He thought she would be tired, but she talked and told stories about the Columbia. He even told her a secret.

When he put his hand on his wife's lap, Lula said, oh, I hope that doesn't mean it's time for you to go. He doesn't know how long they stayed, because time always did go on and on when you were talking to Lula. She talked about how much she missed Cesar, his dad.

Richard said, Lula, I love you, and when he got home he prayed.

He sent her a CD of his father playing the violin. It was recorded in the 1960s in the Don Quixote dining room, just off the ladies' room where she worked. She used to stand outside the door and listen.

She asked her daughter to leave it playing for her all the time.

copyright St. Petersburg Times, 2005

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