To appreciate a meal in Sam's Cafe, you should know Sam and his friends.
The cafe doesn't exist yet, but it probably will someday.
It certainly will if Sam has anything to say about it. And when Sam Greenberg says something is going to be done, the odds are it will be. He has a long track record, powerful friends and a fortune that Lotto-winners can envy. So if Sam says there's going to be a cafe on Parthenia Street, just west of the San Diego Freeway, plan on dropping by for a hamburger.
If the burger doesn't turn out just right, be a sport, don't complain. The cook will be a child, and might be having a hard time.
Perhaps a 32-year-old child, but a child nonetheless.
Sam's friends, the ones who will work in the cafe, are mentally retarded. No matter what their birth certificates say, some are never going to reach a mental age of more than 7 years old. Some may hit 9, others won't come close.
Each day, several hundred of them come to the center the San Fernando Valley Assn. for the Retarded operates on Parthenia. They have classes in how to get along in the world. They play games. They work in a big hall--assembling gadgets, packaging odds and ends--to raise pocket money.
It looks and operates just like an elementary school. As indeed it is, except that the students milling around the playground have adult bodies and graduation day is not of this world.
Some of them would draw no notice on the street. Many have features permanently frozen, or slackened, into the silly-putty faces that second-graders make at each other. Some make strange noises when they talk. Others are so cheerful and politely well-spoken they should win medals for it.
Sam helps take care of them because--this sounds hard to believe, but stick around--a girl he knew only casually when he was in high school had a mentally retarded child. Somebody, thought Sam at the time, should do something for that child.
More than 40 years later, that child is still one of the 300 who use the center Sam helped found and support.
Sam was there Tuesday to unveil drawings of the cafe the association intends to build. The plan is to operate a real-world restaurant, open to the public, with facilities for teaching retarded persons to work there--peeling potatoes, frying burgers, fetching dishes, making change. Then, the theory goes, they will have the experience to get jobs in other restaurants and thus support themselves.
The cafe's projected cost is $900,000. Sam is putting up half.
It's a matching grant. Sam turns over his share as the association raises the other half. After 2 years, the association is only $150,000 short.
All told, Sam has given the association "about a million dollars" over the past 20 years, executive director Norma Herdt said as he tried to wave her off the subject. Meeting Sam, you would not suspect he had that kind of money. He looks like a guy who rents out U-drive trailers, cement mixers and air compressors.
He should. He does.
His father, a Valley pioneer, was a blacksmith. Sam has the brawny look of somebody who came out of a forge.
A lifetime of shrewd dealings have made him a wealthy man and a power in local Democratic Party politics. He has been on the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners for 15 years, the longest term in the board's history, and is currently its president for the third time.
He deals as an equal with the most powerful figures in the city, but you can tell Sam from the others right away, if only because he's the only man in a roomful of $1,200 suits who isn't wearing a tie. They see him as the voice of crusty common sense, whose boilermaker's perspective on high finance turns coal into diamonds.
He's known among reporters for making statements that are bluntly impolitic, the kind of thing a voter might say over the seventh beer, but no politician would utter if he were alone on a desert island.
This extends to the explanation of why he gives his wealth to the retarded:
"At least these people didn't do it to themselves. Somebody with a few bucks, like I have, you should do something to help a little. But so many groups, they want you to help people who take dope, or drink or they're criminals or something. I don't want to help those guys. Hell, I don't feel sorry for \o7 them. \f7 But these people, they never did anything to be like this. So I can help them and not feel like I'm some sucker."
After a million dollars' worth of not being a sucker, the association insisted the projected school/restaurant be named "Sam's Cafe."
Greenberg walked the grounds Tuesday, with clients, as the association calls its charges, following him, calling out "Sam, Sam," insisting he talk to them. In the crowded little kitchen where the center's meals are cooked now, he watched some of them peel potatoes and strip spinach.
"One day," he said, "one of those women said to me, 'My mother wasn't home last night and I made dinner for my daddy all by myself.' She was so proud. It's enough to make you cry."
Listening to Sam sigh is like hearing a cement truck weep.
On the playground, the center's song-and-dance troupe bumbled and giggled through a chorus line rehearsal. As Sam walked away, the group struck up a song from the musical "Oliver."
It was just a coincidence, but it went like this:
"Consider yourself, at home.
"Consider yourself, one of the family . . . ."