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Here Comes the Sun

By Kathy Y. Wilson · June 9th, 2004 · Your Negro Tour Guide
About this time two summers ago, Atif Kemaz corralled chaos. Simone's, his New World bistro, was thick with it.

Likewise, our neighborhood of East Walnut Hills -- the 'Nut to us -- was also rowdy up top. Like Simone's, though, the place is elegant underneath.

Already fantastically textured, all the 'Nut needed to join our unattracted opposites to one another was a divining rod in the form of an elegantly urban public place.

Not retail or a nightclub. More like a watering hole cum war room where all God's children could pass one another on our way to seat ourselves.

Simone's was and remains. Thank God for Jesus.

If you even found Simone's back then -- facing into a dated, soon-to-be-defunct strip mall parking lot wherein languished AmeriStop and a cheap clothing store peddling mostly lottery tickets and synthetic hair -- you joined us for miracles and stayed for blackened salmon sandwiches.

And unless you're an intimate friend, his mother (Ms. Irene) or his uncle (Mr. Uncle Spike), you have no idea what transpired behind those green saloon-style swinging kitchen doors. It was pretty close to the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Toto scampers behind the Wizard's curtain and Dorothy follows to find a solitary man -- an anxious and frightened man -- pulling levers, blowing smoke, disguising his voice to sound like God's. Atif was the Wizard.

Like Moses waving his staff across the Red Sea, Atif summoned a staff from nowhere when business was light but then suddenly slammed.

He drove across this city in his banged-up black pickup buying the food himself with crumpled bills spread so thin the dead presidents smiled.

It's true that one night he fed the masses with fishes and loaves.

If you were there, you might have waited an exceptionally long time for the city's best French toast during the International Sunday Brunch. Or maybe you did get your Southern Style tilapia sandwich, you ate it and simply left some money on the table because your server was ghost.

But I bet you came back. I know I did.

So much that my friendship with Atif transcended definition and boundaries and became nearly inextricably tethered by all things Simone's. The cotton of my comfort level was so high I'd walk into the kitchen and either prepare or oversee the preparation of my own food and concoct my own beverages.

Sometimes I'd wait and/or bus tables and barter the use of the truck in exchange for running Atif's restaurant-related errands.

Held together by tips, spit and electrical tape and replenished with frequent trips to AmeriStop for ice and liters of soda, Simone's of old was the byproduct of the parentage of a traveling carnival and a Judy Garland/ Mickey Rooney movie. "Let's put on a show in the barn!"

It survived despite itself. Then fast changes fast.

Atif has been harangued, whispered to, yelled at, threatened, abandoned, partnered with, bullied, denied, accepted and approved during the burial and the resurrection of Simone's, now anchoring DeSales Crossing. Chalk it up to life for a visionary entrepreneur in a post-LeShawn Pettis-Brown era when the Empire (Theater) strikes black.

That, or opening, closing and re-opening a restaurant is plain insane. If you're Atif Kemaz nee Roland Randolph, you hold on, hang in and hope for. He did and he does.

Saturday night at the invitation-only pre-Grand Opening dinner party felt more like a family reunion of Simone's diners, servers and fans of vegetarian lasagnas, shrimp fritatas and black bean soups past with a side of sightseers. Before Shelle seated me in the packed dining room, I stopped by Keith Glaser's outdoor table to congratulate him.

"People were looking for you at the lunch seating," said Glaser, the lynchpin instrumental in the DeSales development. "We had a big crowd "

"Was the mayor here?" another asked.

"He's coming next week," Glaser said.

Charlie Luken should come to Simone's. Perfectly fine if he doesn't. Because Atif's never needed that kind of validation.

Oh, he'll take it, thank you. But he's too busy basking brown to bother.

Kathy's collection of columns, Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White, is available in bookstores now.


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