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Charlie Nichols leaves for work every morning at 3:45 a.m. His restaurant, Nichols' Worth Diner, has been in the family for more than 35 years.

The Beautiful Stairway Out

story by Amy Nelson

Charlie Nichols leaves home at 3:45 a.m. each day to open his diner on Bridge Street. One morning, about a year ago, something special happened.

“Normally I’m behind, and I just rush," he says. "But I said, ‘Today is Carly’s birthday.’ The whole idea was to do everything coolly, calmly, responsibly. And I crossed all my T’s, dotted my I’s. So I turned on the radio and that song came on called, ‘Kiss Me.’ And that was my daughter’s favorite song.”

Nichols’ eldest daughter, Carly, lost her life in May 1999 after falling into a canal in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. This, along with a string of other family events, marked what Nichols’ refers to as "the beginning of the end of everything," including his marriage of nearly 20 years.

He spent the next decade between Paducah and Ireland, where his wife and most of his eight children had moved. Then, in 2008, Nichols’ stepfather, Laurence Greif Jr., passed away. Nichols decided to settle once and for all in Paducah to take care of his 94-year-old mother, Mattie.

The Greifs ran a restaurant between 1964 and 1981. Charlie helped, learned the ins and outs of restaurant work and the payoff of persistence.

“I just got trapped there because I was their son until finally after about eight years of terribleness, I just started seeing things and we became the best,” he says.

Nichols says his life is full of examples like this.

“It can be something you don’t particularly like, but if you keep doing it, you’ll get good at it," he says. "And once you get good at it, then you start to like it. And then you’re going to get better at it. And then you’re going to like it more. But many people don’t get through the period of terribleness.”

Now, he says, the Nichol’s Worth Diner is his “beautiful stairway out.” He started collecting Social Security in 2011, paid off some debts and began to bring his breakfast spot to life.

"To me, restaurants are witchcraft, sugar, grease, coffee, drugs — candy cane places," he says. "But it doesn’t matter; it’s not evil. Information, strength and help will come and it will be beautiful."

Nichols has a little collection of newspaper clippings, YouTube videos and books from which he draws daily inspiration.

"Once an old man said, ‘Do not seek the kingdom of heaven outside of yourself. The kingdom of heaven is inside of you.’ This thing with the restaurant is cleaning me out so I can do anything; I can transfer it into gold and dreams.”

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The kitchen of Nichols' Worth Diner is part work, part fun. Charlie divides his time between chatting up customers and throwing down Southern-style breakfast plates.

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The flow of customers into the one-room diner is slow and steady. Charlie says he can handle most of the demands with the help of two part-time workers.

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Nichols' Worth Diner is open from 7 to 11 each morning. Charlie prides himself on his gravy, which has a secret recipe.

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Charlie trades stories with customer Kimbreley Rives and her friend, LaDonna Harris, both of whom are Paducah natives.

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Just before closing, Charlie removes bunting from the windows of his diner on Bridge Street. He puts up the bunting each morning and takes it down before closing.

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Charlie drives his daughter, Dervla, to work five afternoons a week. His dog, Skipper, always comes along. "He gets panicky the closer we get to Dervla's job," he says with a chuckle. "We have to talk him through it."

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Charlie checks on his 94-year-old mother, Mattie Mae Greif, every day after he returns home from work. "She went blind 20 years ago," he says.

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Charlie has eight children with his eldest, Carla, dying 17 years ago while working overseas. "She knew when a brick was missing," he says. "She had great intuition."

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Charlie sits down after a long day of cooking and caretaking. "I read the encyclopedia every night," he says. "I've been thinking nostalgically about how we got them when my wife and I first met."