Cover Story: From The Gap to Grits

Carla Tucker gets grilled

May 5, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Una-Kariim Cross

Woman, at rest: Carla Tucker (left) is still; Joe Tucker is not.

Carla Tucker had no desire to be immortalized in print. "No one wants to read about me," she says. "It would be a boring interview."

Liar, liar. Pans on fire.

She finally gave in and recounted her life's story. Most recently it centers around Tucker's, the family-owned diner where she cooks, busses, takes orders and buys food alongside her husband, Joe, and a collection of eccentric family members.

The oldest of three children, Carla moved with her family to Covington from Albuquerque, N.M., when she was 3 years old. She was a "good girl" until 17, when she slipped up and got pregnant with Katie.

"I loved my daughter even before she was born," she says.

By 21, Carla was working at The Gap full time and raising Katie solo. Love was the farthest thing from her mind the October night in 1979 when she met Joe Tucker at a now-defunct bar near UC.

"My friend was talking to Joe's nephew and he said, 'I'm going to get my uncle,' " she says. "I thought, 'Oh great, she's got some hot guy and I get someone's uncle.' "

Carla was smitten and gave Joe her phone number. He called the next day and then started showing up at her job.

"I was this crazy working person and Joe would come to The Gap and help me fold jeans to be with me," she says. "We were never away from each other again."

Eight months later, they were married. But because of work, the newlyweds barely saw each other.

Joe was working at the restaurant from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m., and Carla got off as late as 10 or 11 p.m. Determined to make the marriage work, she made a life-altering decision.

"He was working so hard and he had these other people working with him," she says, "and I thought I could help him so much better."

Carla had never worked in a restaurant before. As a manager at The Gap in Kenwood, she was accustomed to giving orders and waiting on customers with large expendable incomes. Her previous work experience didn't prepare her for waiting tables in a poor Appalachian and black community.

She adapted quickly and discovered one of the biggest rewards of working at Tucker's — the family support she received whenever Katie, a diabetic, got sick.

At 1637 Vine St., food is the main attraction. But Joe, Carla and the extended Tucker family are reasons to return.

Tucker's feels like family. Joe is sincere, kind and silly. Carla is strong-willed, genuine, funny and, above all, gracious. They welcome and treat every customer with respect.

It's no secret that almost half the customers are dope boys from the neighborhood. Despite the stereotypes, Carla says they're respectful to her.

The atmosphere in the restaurant sometimes teeters to the absurdity of a Saturday Night Live skit. "Don't Believe the Hype" by Public Enemy blasts from the tiny CD boom box.

An indigent black man with trash tied to a string around his waist comes in panhandling. A regular informs him he can't be in the restaurant with a garbage can and escorts him outside.

Joe is trying to multi-task, cooking, prepping sandwiches, checking orders and rambling verbosely about nothing in particular. CityBeat writer Kathy Y. Wilson sits at the counter looking through the newspaper for something to read. From nowhere, Joe drops one of his infamous Joe-isms.

"Hey, Kathy, we have The New Yorker over there somewhere," he says, "and they have writers in there."

Carla and David, her rail-thin cousin and chief doorman, stop what they're doing and look at him, dumbfounded.

"What he's talking about no one knows," Carla says.

Amidst all the chaos, Carla is quiet and focused as she tries to cook, despite Joe's constant interference and chatter.

"He just doesn't know how to shut up," she says, the only sign of the aggravation born from working with her life partner. "He talks in his sleep."

No eating experience at Tucker's would be complete without David, whose feistiness and quick wit are legendary. He takes orders, answers the phones, runs the cash register and gets a person told when necessary.

"A lot of people love him. He has good qualities, but today I didn't see any," Carla says, laughing hysterically.

Sunday is the Tuckers' only day off. They spend it having breakfast with Joe's widowed mom, tending to yard work. The evening is reserved for fun.

"We plan an elaborate dinner, turn on 97.1 FM and dance around the house," she says.

Life isn't always a dance. Last year was the worst 12 months of married life for the Tuckers.

Joe and Carla filed bankruptcy. Then two shootings went down just steps from the diner's door. Fearing for their safety, many customers stopped coming.

"There are people from the suburbs that aren't going to go through the drug boys to come eat or if they hear about people getting shot," Carla says, adding that the police aren't helping improve security in the community. "As far as drugs go, things have gotten worse. The city isn't doing anything. I feel like they want to keep them cornered in this little area to keep track of them.

"The police feel like we're stupid for being here. They've said to us, 'Well, what do you expect?' "

At the height of the personal turmoil, Carla was gardening, slipped and broke her wrist.

"I was just sitting there in pain looking at my wrist hanging off and I got so depressed at the thought of medical bills," she says.

In December, the family was devastated by the death of the shotgun diner's founder, Joe Tucker Sr. And like all families, they rebound.

No bitching. No excuses. Just work.

For the last three years, Carla has worked for no salary or vacation time. Why, after working eight hours a day, six days a week for 24 years, is she still committed to the restaurant?

"Whatever other choice do I have?" she asks, smiling. "I tell Joe once a week I'm tired. I used to leave and go home, but I don't do that anymore. I try to control my temper. Now I just tell David to leave."

Carla says the support of incredible women keeps her motivated.

"My mother, Joe's mom and my daughter are my inspiration," she says.

Retirement isn't an option. "No chance. We'll be crazy old people that can't hear the orders, just fixing something." ©