By job description — bartender, postman, retailer, cashier — they are ordinary people.
But these ever-present characters have a life, interests and history outside the roles for which we know them. And, oh boy, do they have stories to tell.
The barflies at Mariano’s typically aren’t boozers or lonely, lazy Norm-from-“Cheers” types. Customers at the colorful cantina famous for its frozen margaritas are more often empty nesters out for a bite and a drink, or busy families picking up a takeout order. And on any given night, the bar — a straw-roofed, magenta and turquoise island in the middle of a sprawling dining area appointed with (year round) holiday lights, saddle seats, mounted deer and bull busts, and robust canvases depicting Mexican Revolutionaries and mariachis — is bustling.
A steady stream of drink and bar food orders plus to-go calls and pickups keep the bartending team of Jessica Pearce and Richard Medina hopping. If you ever stop to appreciate it, what they do requires unique skill, says regular customer Bryan Mullican. Not only are they engaging, but also they keep things moving and flowing, even when they should be overwhelmed.
“My wife Judy and I eat dinner at the bar about once a week and Richard and Jessica have become like our adopted children. We just love them,” Mullican says. “Richard has Judy try out the new margaritas and even when the place is packed, they handle everything and never stop having a good time.”
Mariano’s has been in this community for almost 40 years. It’s the kind of place where people feel they are at a good friend’s home for dinner, so it’s fitting that some of the first faces you see belong to these two, manager Justin Hill says. “Strong, enthusiastic, friendly, caring, loyal and dependable” is how he describes the drink-slinging duo.
“They both go above and beyond.”
What makes them so good? For one, says Pearce (also a part-time student who tutors special needs children), they really love the job and the customers.
“You know, we don’t have alcoholics hanging at the bar, but really nice people who I’ve become friends with. Not like I see them outside of here or anything, but when they come in, I am genuinely happy to see them and talk to them. I even had a regular who is an interior designer help me find a rug — that sort of thing.”
Another job requirement, adds Medina, tongue-in-cheek: “You have to be a little crazy.”
“Sometimes we get hit hard, but Jessica and I are a good team,” he says. “We don’t get stressed; it has become like clockwork.”
Medina, a full-time father to a 13-year old and a 1-year-old, works 40-48 hours a week, sometimes as a manager. While Pearce says she doesn’t like leaving the “little hamster tank” that is her bar, Medina likes walking the dining room during management shifts and meeting guests.
“I like meeting people all over the restaurant,” he says. “The bar is more personal. Sometimes you have people in alone and they might just need someone to listen, and Jessica and I get that. We are here to hear and take care of them.”
He has reported two dead bodies, conducted highly personal business alongside Tom Brokaw, and frightened strangers with his uncanny acquired knowledge.
He’s not a private investigator, but mail carrier Bob Schellenberg knows as much about Lake Highlands as anyone you’ll meet.
It started near Chicago in the 1970s, when Schellenberg took a job with the United States Postal Service.
“I like people, and you really got to know people. Especially in those days, many of the women stayed home, families had one car … I’d have lunch at the Greek restaurant and could just hand a lot of folks’ mail to them right there.”
A couple of years later, he moved to The Big Apple, where he traded suburban family homes for the Harvard Club and The New Yorker magazine in Times Square.
“Working in New York City was like being on a six-year vacation,” Schellenberg says.
He especially loved to take bathroom breaks at the exclusive Century Club, where he once found himself standing shoulder-to-shoulder at a urinal with newsman Tom Brokaw.
“It would be different now,” he says. “The big boys in New York, they don’t get mail anymore.”
In the mid-’80s he landed in Lake Highlands, where he has walked only a couple of different routes during the past three decades. Day after day, the leather strap of his bag wears thin a patch on the right shoulder of his uniform shirt. Everyone seems to know him — “He’s the nicest person on Earth,” raved one homeowner on his route, adding that he is also “a hoot” and a wine enthusiast.
A hoot, indeed. Once, on a day off, Schellenberg met a man at the golf course and after some conversation, learned the man lived on his delivery route.
“He told me his full name, and I told him his address. It really freaked him out. He was scared that this stranger knew where he lived, until I explained to him that I was his mailman.”
Texas summers and incapacitating ice storms notwithstanding, he loves the routine, though some days are more memorable (and gruesome) than others.
There was, for instance, his first dead-body tip to police. An overflowing mailbox at a house near Flag Pole Hill prompted Schellenberg to contact the cops.
“The Northeast station was on my route, so they knew me,” he says.
Police arrived and discovered the grisly results of what was later determined to be a cult-related double suicide, he says.
Some 10 years later, Schellenberg mentioned to customers his concern about another unchecked mailbox. They decided to get a neighborhood teenager to jump the fence and check things out through the back glass door. The poor kid was met with the sight of a couple of dead bodies. Schellenberg called it in.
“When police arrived, I was a block away, but when they opened those doors, you could smell it all over the neighborhood.
“Both stories, when reported in the daily newspaper, noted that ‘the mailman reported it,’ ” Schellenberg says. “I guess it’s my claim to fame.”
When he’s not adding to the homicide-department caseload or tormenting fellow golfers, Schellenberg loves cooking for his college-student sons and their friends — that is what he was doing when we caught up with him, and he was obviously loving it — and dancing. Yep, some of the guys at the post office still call him “Twinkle Toes,” a nickname he wears with pride. Having studied dance for 10 years, he is quite good, after all. His wife, Lynn, is a dance therapist who works with Alzheimer’s and autistic patients. (It was a job offer for Lynn at Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital, in fact, that brought the couple back to Dallas in the ’80s.)
Being a postman isn’t an easy job — you know, the whole “… snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness …” bit.
“And the older you get, the tougher the weather is on you,” Schellenberg says. And his soft spot for people has caused no shortage of heartache.
“You know people and care about them, see them grow up, go to school get married, but they move away or die, and that hurts.”
But Bob, despite the Twinkle Toes label, is tough. You have to be to do this job. It’s no accident, he says, that he has discovered crime scenes or that people have come to know and trust him.
“It happens all across the country,” he says. “The mailman is the eyes and ears of the block. We see everything.”
There is an employee at the Medallion Center Target who looks like Santa Claus.
But Michael Azari, the man with the long white beard and glasses, assures us he’s not the guy who brings presents every Christmas.
“He’s my brother,” Azari says.
Azari, 66, has worked at that Target store for 25 years.
“I have good relationships with my customers,” he says. “I get along very well with the kids.”
Azari was born in Iran and moved to Texas 31 years ago from Sussex, England, where he grew up.
As much as he appreciates his job at Target, Azari’s passion is music. In the early ’60s, Azari was a singer in a rock-n-roll band called Peter and the Wolves.
“Everyone wanted to be in a band then,” he says.
Back when the Beatles were still the Quarrymen, Azari and his band played any stage they could find, touring around England and Germany.
“We were bums,” he recalls. “We played for nothing. We played for our dinner.”
He still plays guitar and sings any chance he gets, often jamming with friends at parties. Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger are among his favorites, but Azari says he enjoys artists from Chuck Berry to Led Zeppelin and more recent bands.
“Music is what sustains me throughout life,” he says.
Aside from meeting customers at Target, Azari also enjoys getting to know his fellow employees. They’re an international group, and they come from all walks of life, he says.
Azari has worked at Target so long that he knows generations of families.
Neighbors who grew up shopping at that Target now bring their own kids. Most of them know the proper introduction, telling their kids, “This is Santa’s brother.”
“Hello, pretty lady! How are you today?”
Betty Parker’s voice — pure Dolly Parton — and her hair — deep, bold red piled high on her head — belong in Nashville rather than behind the drug store counter. But she’s perfectly content at her post at CVS on Mockingbird.
“I tell you, all these wonderful people I meet where I work, the majority of them are my neighbors, and I just love ’em all to pieces. I look forward to them coming in. When they come in to say ‘hi’, I want to say ‘hi’ back in such a way that it lightens up their life a little bit and brightens up the rest of their day.”
After all, she has had her days in the Nashville limelight, where she lived and traveled as a country music singer, imitating Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. She left that life when she met and married a “super guy.” The lifestyle was exciting, she says, but “my husband was more exciting.”
She still sings at church, but life as a songstress is history.
“Them days are long gone, but remembered fondly.”
Somewhere in the range of 70 years old now, the Lake Highlands resident has worked at Safeway at Mockingbird and Skillman, ME Moses at Abrams and Mockingbird and Drug Emporium in the same center. Each of those places closed, leaving Parker to wonder if she might be “a jinx,” she says.
But it wasn’t long before she heard about the new CVS opening; she was, of course, a shoo-in.
Says Danny Maywald, who hired her, “I knew that if I could find someone that had the job skills that Betty brought, who would get along with the customers and call them by name and have that one-on-one relationship with them … well, that’s what I was looking for. The customers just love her.”
Though the stores have changed, she says, many of the customers have been a constant.
For her chronically cheery disposition, Parker credits “The Man Upstairs,” as well as her current managers and customers.
CVS managers Moses Beruman and Jason Hunt are super guys, she says. “When I am working with Moses, I know it is going to be a good day,” she says. And as for Hunt, she says she couldn’t ask for a better leader. “Some bosses are pushy, not my boss! He is just so wonderful I can’t even explain it.”
And though her stations have changed, many of the customers remain in her life. She says her relationships with people she met at work helped her get through tough times over the years, including the death of her husband.
“The people are still just the beautiful, wonderful people they’ve always been,” Parker says.