Over Uneasy

Cathy Pususta fed doctors, politicians, and the "neighborhood schizophrenic"
Tony Nelson

In the winter, condensation rises on the inside of Cathy Pususta's storefront windows long before the sun hits the sidewalk. The plate glass is adorned with paintings of cartoon eggs, each sporting a manic, toothy grin and a misshapen nose but, inexplicably, no eyes. When the windows are clear, the eggs bob in a royal-blue sea; after the first killing frost, steam from the kitchen turns the tableau into a tundra.

The barnyard theme carries through, after a fashion, inside Cathy's Grade-A Café. One long wall is paneled in rough pine, stained brown and decorated with white wood frames that resemble stable doors or country gates--except that they're eight feet off the ground. Along the longest wall, a collection of ceramic chickens peers down from atop a phone booth. A guy named Tippy started buying the chickens at garage sales and church bazaars several years ago. He'd bring them in and trade each to Pususta for a single pancake; she told him to quit when the flock threatened to take over the top of an adjacent industrial refrigerator.

Pususta is not worried about those chickens: They'll find another home, she says, after she closes up shop on December 22. But the mural that graces the fourth wall--a farmscape changing with the seasons, created four business names and three owners ago--will probably be painted over. Pususta has no idea what the landlord's plans are for the space; all she knows is that more than a year ago she was told her ten-year lease would not be renewed when it ran out January 1, 2000. (The landlord could not be reached for comment.) She looked for another space, but eventually decided that her heart wasn't in it. And so for the first time in a quarter-century, there won't be a restaurant on 25th Street and Chicago Avenue South.

The little greasy spoon never got discovered by the Uptown morning-after crowd; its location was too far out of the way for the terminally hip. But over the 11 years Pususta has owned the restaurant, it has attracted glitterati of a different type--city and state officials, political hopefuls, corporate moguls, neighborhood activists. "We see all classes of people--from hotshot doctors and lawyers right down to drug dealers," Pususta says, hurrying to add that the latter got chased out posthaste. "The difficult part of closing, for me, is giving up the social part. I've gotten to know so many people who are still coming in here."

Pususta first got to know them all by breakfast preference. For a long time, Minneapolis Community Development Agency head Steve Cramer was "Tea and toast" to her. Central Neighborhood Improvement Association executive director Jana Metge was "Diced ham, scrambled eggs, and onions on her potatoes." Project for Pride in Living founder Joe Selvaggio favored two poached eggs and dry whole-wheat toast.

"This is the place where the meeting before the meeting gets held," says longtime neighborhood activist Wizard Marks (one blueberry pancake and a side of crispy bacon). "So much business gets done here."

City council member Brian Herron, the eggs-potatoes-and-sausage-patties pol whose Eighth Ward is home to countless Cathy's regulars, concurs. "It's been a place where I could go sit among community folks and have my meeting and eavesdrop on other community folks," he says.

Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton--too astute a campaigner to declare a preference for a single breakfast dish--brought her children to Cathy's when they were little. "You could see everyone, and you could see who's talking to who. If someone wanted to meet with you in the morning, there was no question about where you were going to go."

Marv Davidov, the voice of moral outrage behind the Honeywell Project (and a hamburger-and-potatoes man), says he has made a point of taking visiting movement luminaries--like Chicago Seven member Dave Dellinger and pacifist Jesuit priest Dan Berrigan--to Cathy's. "I'd go in there pretty excited before an action," he recalls. "I was interviewed by [Star Tribune columnist] Doug Grow there a couple of weeks ago. He paid."

But the movers and shakers haven't been hogging all of Cathy's tables: On any given morning, they've had to vie for the choicest spots with neighborhood families and workers from the Abbott Northwestern and Children's hospital complexes across the street. Cramer, who ate at Cathy's often during his days at the helm of PPL, notes that "it was useful to have Grade-A there if you wanted some foundation bigwigs to really get a sense of the neighborhood."

Kermit Duncan is one of a group of guys Pususta still refers to as "three men and a baby," even though there are now eight to ten men and the baby is school-age. The contracts manager for Mortenson/Thor, the company coordinating the expansion of the Minneapolis Convention Center, Duncan says he and his friends--most of them parishioners at nearby St. Stephen's Catholic Church--were turned on to the spot by Joe Skelley, founder of the church's shelter. They tend to tip big, since the first typically shows up as the café opens at 8:30, and the last rarely clears out until noon.

Another regular is the man Pususta describes as "the neighborhood schizophrenic." He functions just fine, she says, except when it comes to managing his money. A long time ago, a relative arranged to have Pususta supply him with breakfast and a little bit of cash every day; she sends the tab to his conservator at the end of the month.

"There was an airplane engineer who used to come in," she says. "He had lung cancer and was on a transplant list. In the last year, he started coming in with oxygen. I haven't seen him in months. I even went past his apartment because he told me once where he lived." The building had an elaborate security system, so she never learned whether he still lived there.

If it had been a matter of her patrons' loyalty, Pususta admits, she'd never have closed. Even more important in keeping Cathy's open, she says, was cook Stuart Berkovitz's willingness to spend a quarter-century slinging hash browns and flipping pancakes.

The Berkovitz/Pususta collaboration goes back to the mid-Seventies, when both worked at a long-since-defunct Cedar-Riverside spot called Breakfast at Mama's. They moved to what is now Cathy's in 1979 after Mama's owner bought the place; Pususta purchased the spot from him ten years later, and Berkovitz went along for the ride. Ultimately, however, he found himself getting restless. "It was just comfortable--a little too comfortable," he recalls. "It was five minutes from my house. You met a lot of interesting people, made a lot of friends."

Learning that Cathy's lease was set to expire, Berkovitz says, gave him the push he needed to look for something else; he ended up with a much more lucrative job selling cars in Woodbury. "It was one of the saddest days of my life when he left," Pususta says. "I miss him terribly. He comes in here for breakfast now, too." She never found a replacement, so she began running the kitchen herself, adding to an already grueling schedule.

Other reliable workers have drifted away, too. Storyteller Tookie Sanger was a regular customer who eventually asked for a waitressing job. Pususta says the customers loved her. "She's done standup comedy. She's got stories. I miss her dearly." About a year ago, Sanger left to start graduate studies at the University of Minnesota; again Pususta couldn't find anyone to take her place and ended up cajoling friends and relatives into helping out.

When word got out about the café's impending demise earlier this year, the connected clientele started badgering Pususta about finding a new spot. Some even offered to help finance Grade-A's rebirth. She looked at two possible locations, but finally concluded that she didn't want to start over alone.

Nor does she know what she'll do next. After dismantling the restaurant and turning over the key on New Year's Eve, she says she'll probably just take some time off. The last day patrons will be able to order off the menu is Tuesday, December 21; the next morning, Pususta says she plans to open at 6:00 a.m. and start handing out free muffins and coffee. The party will go until at least 6:00 p.m. so regulars who have jobs outside the area can stop in to say goodbye.

"I hope it's packed," she says. "I envision a lot of tears. I know I will be sorely missed. There's just nothing else around here."

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