The Melrose Café: The Legacy of a Quiet American Hero-Dale Bassett [1939-2014]!
On Florida State Road 21, spanning the wooded, water-logged acres between the Metropolis of Gainesville, Florida [home to the Univ. Of Florida] and Keystone Heights, there is an unobtrusive building with an obtrusive sign announcing the day’s menu of “Pork Chops”, the Melrose Café resides as the center meeting place for the denizens of an unincorporated town of Melrose.
Nothing really distinguishes the town from any other place in Central Florida, other than the fact that it has no official body of governance; no police station; and no fire department. In many ways, one could consider Melrose a Libertarian paradigm of excellence; or equally valid, the Liberals’ dream of complete freedom and social acquiescence. In either case, the Melrose Café was the de rigeur meeting place for those who held all types of political views, as long as they expressed them civilly; and those hard-core Red Necks who valued their suped-up Ford Pick-up-trucks with their fanciful gun-racks. In other words, Melrose Café was a representation of America.
The only requirement to order the meal of the day was the ability to understand that grits would accompany any meal and that the waitresses could be very polite until you might have thought for a slight moment that you could cop an ‘attitude’. Then all-hell would break out.
The man who created this oasis of Americana was Dale Bassett, along with his charming wife of fifty years, Carol. Both had ventured into the American entrepreneurial world many decades before when Dale, a Jacksonville, Florida native, decided to sell his successful insurance brokerage house and present his wife Carol with the realization of her long- time dream: a café that both could run in their senior years. The dream came true.
Yet like all American dreams, first uttered in a moment of passion, it took years of hard work, sweat, and tears to make this forty person café an established institution to which the cynical, Libertarian/Liberal denizens of Melrose would frequent on a daily basis. Let it be known up front that Dale understood that with limited resources, he could at best, serve only breakfast and lunch. On special occasions, he might venture to offer another meal, but that was infrequent.
From my narrow perspective of acquaintance, I met Dale and his wife, Carol, about one year ago when I first moved into Melrose. I discovered the town thanks to the misadventures of a pig, named Francis, whom my wife transported to Rooterville, a pig sanctuary.
I came to know Dale, as best as one could know the “Quiet American”, as he and Carol were perusing their daily accounts over a table near the front of the café. I suggested in a half-sarcastic way that ‘numbers lie and liars use numbers’. Dale agreed. He assured me that he understood the nature of numbers and what they truly represented as he assured me that in his former life he had been an insurance underwriter for all types of businesses, especially medical practices. Whether his comment was fortuitous or calculated, to this day I have no idea why, but I immediately engaged in a discussion where I explained my previous travail with medical insurance when I had practiced psychiatry. And before you could annunciate the DSM IV criteria for sanity and sobriety, Dale expounded on his experience with one of his clients, a practicing psychiatrist who had garnered over three million dollars a year in revenues. I was astounded. I had explained to Dale that at 45 minutes a therapeutic session, it was hard for me to conceive of how anyone could make that kind of money on what he and I agreed was essentially ‘bullshit’.
From that day onward, we would engage in sporadic conversations ranging from world events to the problems of running a small business, replete with personnel, taxes, and cash flow issues. For the most part, the conversations to an outsider listening in to what we had to say to each other, may have appeared ‘mundane’. But to me, a serial entrepreneur, Dale had exemplified the best and brightest of America---the small business owner.
Dale had taken a risk to make a dream come true. He earned his way in the business of food and service, not through going to the Cornell School Of Hotel Management, but through ‘trial and error’. I would see him and Carol bent over the end-of-the-days’ receipts discussing where he could or could not save a penny here or there. He was the epitome of what I considered the best of America –the small business owner – who on a regular basis persevered through the trials and tribulations of daily problems of running any type of business: inadequate, inappropriate staffing; change in menus; maintaining consistent quality control so that the customers would come back, again and again. He did not run a ‘fast-food franchise’. He didn’t use gimmicks, his food was consistent. He created what on the surface appeared to be the most of all mundane creations—a cafe, really a ersatz diner , serving only breakfast and lunch.
In a time when the cauldron of history is boiling over with wars and conflagrations all over the world, the Melrose Café, on Route 21, is a sanctuary of sanity and reality.
I go there every day with my two dogs, Bonnie and Basel, my wife, not to eat my three hard boiled eggs with ketchup, but to talk to the “Quiet American”, my hero. He died last week. But his wife, Carol, and his younger son, Michael will continue the traditions of maintaining a small business in Melrose, Florida.
I salute you, Dale, on behalf of all we Americans who have to fight the inglorious battles of quotidian life, day in and day out.
My Quiet American Hero, Dale Bassett!