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.”