This is a food thing that’s not exactly about food, but more about a place where food is served. And it’s kind of about really deep things like taking care of your soul. My first memory of the Golden Light Café at 2906 SW Sixth Ave. is from my early days in Amarillo, some 25 or so years back. It’s a Route 66 icon these days, but back then, the locals weren’t as savvy about the Mother Road’s mystique. Golden Light was really just about good food with no frills, which is what I found when I first visited. My only other memory from the time was that a waitress smashed a fly on our table just after taking our order, and made it seem like that was just part of the good service we should expect. I forgot about Golden Light for a number of years after that. I’m sure I dropped in now and then, but like so many Amarilloans, I got busy selling my soul to the latest of the chain restaurants that cropped up in the 90s and early 2000s, thinking it made me feel urban. Golden Light didn’t enter my consciousness again until I met a young fellow named AJ Swope through the news business, along about 2007 or so. AJ was a channel 7 news guy, and a darn good one. I was then, as now (and perhaps evermore shalt be) the PR guy for the power company. We were fated to cross paths. In my mind, AJ was just a kid – about 17 years younger than me. But he was interested in the things I dealt with, especially wind energy. And for the first time in my life, I realized I knew some things simply because I had been around for a while. AJ was inquisitive and engaging, and made me feel smart. I liked him right off. When my company helped launch a nonprofit to promote wind energy, I encouraged AJ to leave news and head up our new group - Class 4 Winds - as the executive director and chief promoter of the region’s growing wind energy business. AJ took the job and made a real name for himself in no time at all, and quickly won over the hearts of anyone he encountered. We all loved his adventurous and enlightened soul, and he brought a sense of excitement to even the most mundane of tasks. OK so where are we going with all this? Well, AJ also had a band, a good one. I didn’t know this at first, but once he got more familiar with me, he started letting me in on these things. He and his group – The Last Train Home – got good enough that they started scoring some gigs at the Golden Light Cantina, one door east of the Golden Light Café. In short order, this little section of old Sixth Street became AJ’s embassy, the headquarters of his cool. I remember him inviting me to come hear his band, but they often played late on Thursdays, and my wife and I had smallish kids at home. I kept looking for the right time. Next time my friend, I’ll try to go next time. Just remind me.
The problem with life is we put too much faith in tomorrow. On Jan. 15, 2013, right near the top of AJ’s ascent as a musician and as a wind energy expert, he was driving to Dumas to talk about wind farms to a group of retired teachers. He never made it. A woman in a red car got on the wrong side of the road and killed him in a head-on crash just north of the Canadian River. The police said she did it on purpose. If you’ve ever felt empty, like really empty in the soul, you know it’s the worst feeling of all. I couldn’t get past the fact that AJ lost his life working the job I had encouraged him to take. I couldn’t fathom the cold reality of zero chances to get to know him better, to go to the Golden Light and listen to his band. About all I could do was hunt down AJ’s friends and family and try to fill in that gouged-out place in my heart by drawing close to them. AJ’s brother Dirk starting meeting me at the Golden Light at some point in 2013 or 2014. We’d sit at the bar and drink Lone Star beer as if AJ was there with us. The wait staff knew why we were there and paid a little extra attention to us. A few others close to AJ met me there too. Through this process of joining friends with food and a deep longing, the emptiness lost some of its hollow qualities. I even felt like AJ came by and sat with us a few times. And while this camaraderie was helping to bind up our broken hearts, I got reacquainted with the joy of a meal at the Golden Light Café. Over time I figured out a certain logic in how you eat there. If you’re drinking a Lone Star, you need some grease to go with it, because Lone Star isn’t that good by itself. The basic Golden Light burger is really all I need, because I’m not fancy guy. I’m a Methodist. I just like my ground beef with some mustard slathered on it and loaded up with pickles. Tomatoes and lettuce are invited to come along for the ride. I also realized that if I ordered more than one Lone Star, I probably needed some chili cheese fries to soak up the extra alcohol. All these things work together like a loose harmony in a bluegrass tune. And that’s pretty much what I eat at Golden Light to this day.
Based on my simple and provincial palate, I’m not the guy to tell you that Golden Light is some kind of amazing culinary experience. There are a few creative combinations such as burgers topped with fried donuts and burgers with stupid amounts of painful peppers, but most of what you get is pretty basic and it’s meant to be that way. But what I can tell you is, based on surviving an empty time in my life, Golden Light can crowd out the loneliness like few other places can. This says something about our motivations when we decide to eat out. We want to feel a good vibe as much as we want decent food. Hanging out at Golden Light, eating at the bar and drinking a Lone Star with your friends makes you a decent human being hoping for good things. Just try to print that in the menu of a chain swill parlor and the ink just won’t stick.