Mama’s last call

A 56-year-old bartender is forced to retire after 30 years at a legendary Omaha live music venue that would be torn down to make way for a Walmart. “Mama’s Last Call” ran in the Omaha World-Herald on May 8 — Mother’s Day — in 2005.

Mama’s Last Call

For 30 years, Ranch Bowl bartender Amal Sawaged has served tough love to her customers and her kids.

As the sweaty head bobs at the bar, Mama pours water into a plastic cup, pushing it until the bleary eyes see it and rise to meet hers.”Water!” she shouts over the guttural roars from the stage.As her furrowed, toothpickthin eyebrows tell him he’s had enough alcohol, a limp hand reaches for the cup, following orders.Mama knows hard alcohol, hard rock and hard times. For 30 years, the Jordanian immigrant has served drinks and smart remarks at the Ranch Bowl, a restaurant-turned-live-musicvenue that will close in coming weeks.Despite ailments from arthritis to diabetes, Mama, 56, dreads no longer serving the people she considers her second family.So do they.They love her accent and attitude, her dedication and dirty mouth. Some know her as Amal Sawaged, but most know her as Mama, a name she thinks evolved from mispronunciation and her mothering ways.They see the gold crucifix dangling over the band name “3 Day Meat Sale” on her black T-shirt, but most don’t know she’s a strict Catholic who doesn’t curse around her kids. Or that while putting up with loud music and drunken behavior at work, she has put seven kids through Catholic schools and some through college.They notice an accent but aren’t aware she grew up in a two-room house with 13 relatives and shared shoes with her mother so she could walk to school.

This night, she wears $25 Payless tennis shoes. Under the black apron: made for her by local band LD-50: elastic bandages wrap her legs from knee to ankle, holding in the varicose veins she has from years of working on her feet.

She never called in sick or hired a baby-sitter. Somehow, Mama managed to be there for her kids: at the Ranch Bowl and at home.

* * *

On the night of July 10, 1966, 17-year-old Amal awoke to her parents and priest. They told her she would marry the next day.

She covered her head with the sheets, but the next day, her future brother-in-law placed Amal’s quivering hand in that of Ghazi Y. Sawaged, a man 14 years her senior.

She pulled it back twice. On the third try, she cooperated.

Ghazi, a student in America, had returned to Jordan to visit his parents. They insisted he leave with a wife.

Amal’s 13 relatives lived in a 14-by-14-foot home without running water. They sold wheat, lentils, goat cheese and yogurt. Happy but poor, they saw the marriage as a better life for Amal.

She had learned some English in school but didn’t know much about America.

“I accepted it, because your parents wouldn’t do anything to hurt you,” she said of the marriage.

Her father, sad to see her go, fainted at the airport. Her only suitcase, filled mostly with clothes, was lost on the trip.

As Ghazi attended class in Tempe, Ariz., Amal sat in their hotel room and cried.

After a year, the couple moved to Omaha, where distant relatives spoke of better job opportunities. Something clicked in Amal.

“You can’t sit and dwell on it,” she recalls thinking. “You have to make the best of it.'”

On their second day in Omaha, a friendly stranger told them of two jobs. Ghazi soon was hired at Western Electric, Amal at the Ambassador Cafe.

Because she didn’t speak English, Amal bussed tables. Six months later, she told the owner she was ready to waitress.

He said she wasn’t.

She insisted she was.

He didn’t know she had been studying conversations.

“I wanted to learn. I wanted to do something for myself because I depended on my husband,” she said.

The owner made Amal take his order: and promoted her to waitress on the spot.

* * *

Seven years later and pregnant with her third child, Amal was filling salt and pepper shakers when she saw smoke seeping from the heat registers. The cafe burned to the ground.

Her boss helped her find a waitressing job at the Ranch Bowl. She started a month after giving birth.

Through four more children and the Ranch Bowl’s transition to a live-music venue, Amal worked lunch, returned home to fix supper, went back to work, and returned home at about 1:30 a.m., when she would fix lunches and do laundry. Because Amal doesn’t drive, she rides with Ghazi or co-workers.

The 80-hour weeks lasted 20 years, slowing recently to about 30 hours.

“Kids, even waitresses, don’t work that hard anymore,” said Matt Markel, who bought the Ranch Bowl in 1978.

Markel’s flexibility allowed Amal and Ghazi to continue swapping child-care responsibilities. They never strayed from focusing on the children.

After a bicyclist hit their oldest daughter while she walked the four blocks from her midtown school, the couple immediately bought a house: without looking at it: close enough that Amal could watch her children get there safely.

Amal’s eagle-eyed care hasn’t stopped there.

“It’s really hard because I have friends that are boys, and mom’s against that,” says Lisa, 17. “And strappy tank tops.”

The six Sawaged daughters, ages 17 to 37, can’t leave the home until they are married or out of college. Two have earned college degrees, married and live in Omaha; one returned to college and bought a house three houses away from her parents; and three live at home. Also still at home is son Joe, 15.

Amal didn’t buy toys for her kids. She bought books.

Three daughters received full-ride college scholarships, including Heather, the college freshman whose V-neck sounds alarms when she returns home from her waitressing job.

“Is everything I wear wrong?” Heather giggles as her mom pinches the V together. “I swear! I’m going to wear an Eskimo suit to work.”

“You should!” Amal says as she grills her daughter a hot dog. “I don’t like you working nights. Because driving at night, I don’t like that, you know?”

“I know,” Heather says.

“Eat another one. That way you’re full,” Amal says. “I’d like for you to change that shirt.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

* * *

A woman in a plunging turquoise T-shirt leans over the bar, curling her finger to summon Mama.

“What do you suggest?” the woman shouts.

While Mama never wears earplugs and insists her hearing is fine, she reads lips to understand drink orders.

The only bartender serving a crowd of nearly 400, Mama steadily works her way up and down the bar, from cooler to cash register, customer to customer.

At home, she doesn’t let a guest leave without a glass of Hawaiian Punch or a homemade sugar cookie. Ranch Bowl patrons get the same care but with surprise concoctions or their “regular,” remembered by a person’s face.

“She’s on it,” said Jennifer Arbaugh, 23, who started going to all-ages concerts at the Ranch Bowl at 15.

While cursing is Mama’s trademark with some patrons, others, like Arbaugh, rarely hear it.

Mama says she can read people, knowing who will get a kick out of the tough talk and who will be offended. Tattoos often serve as a clue.

Two brothers with their last name inscribed on the back of their necks recall being startled the first time Mama barked at them. Now they start the night with a request for Captain ‘n’ Coke with some curse words thrown in.

Mama doesn’t struggle to reconcile her cursing and Catholicism. Different kids need different words.

“They want you to speak their language,” she said.

They open up, telling her of girlfriend break-ups, band disagreements or school problems.

“She’s always quick to give you a hug if you need one,” said Ben Sieff, 35, a longtime local musician who talked to Mama about his parents’ divorce.

She’s also quick to put people in their place.

“I’ll just say, ‘Had enough, and we don’t want no problems, and please leave,'” Mama explained.

That mix of tough and tender fascinates people like Lisa Britt, Holy Cross School’s secretary, who knew Amal for years before learning she tended bar.

“It’s not a double life, but it’s something you wouldn’t know right off about her,” Britt said. “There’s her Mama persona at the Ranch Bowl . . . but here at church and school, she’s fairly quiet.”

Whether cash or baked goods for fund-raisers, Amal gives 110 percent, Britt said.

Years of that, however, are taking their toll.

A dozen pills for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, underactive thyroid and arthritis help. But shoulder, hip and leg pain keep her awake for hours. When her doctor told her to switch jobs, she ignored him, resolving never to mention her job again.

“There was never a time I thought I would leave the Ranch Bowl,” she said.

She sobbed when her bosses told her of the closing.

“After 30 years, it just broke my heart.”

* * *

The fluorescent lights flicker on, and the crowd trudges through empty bottles, discarded band fliers and spilled drinks.

“We’re going to miss you, Mom.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” she says.

“Where you gonna go?” another voice shouts.

She doesn’t know. She’s never had to look for a job: they’ve always found her.

One group insists on doing a shot in her honor.

She pours the drinks, discreetly filling her plastic cup with water.

“A toast to Mom!” they yell as she tilts her head back and gulps, letting the clear liquid drip down her chin.

“Is that water or vodka?” asks one of the tattooed brothers.

“Vodka,” she says.

She turns, then winks.
—————————————————————————————–

From the tip jar

Amal Sawaged found a poem, written on the back of a band flier by someone named Lisa, in her tip jar after a recent Ranch Bowl concert. She plans to frame it:You worked the crowd night after night

Saw every kiss and every fight

Ain’t it such a crying shame

We’re losing Omaha’s hall of fame?

You’re made out of some real good stuff

No tribute would be quite enough

Mama, God bless your rockin’ soul

You’ve been a witness to rock ‘n’ roll

Mama’s kids

At home: Joe, 15, Creighton Prep sophomore; Lisa, 17, Mercy High School senior; Heather, 18, University of Nebraska at Omaha freshman; Jackie, 20, UNO sophomore.

In Omaha: Sue Maresch, 37, married to Rex, with children Hillary, 12, Jordan, 10, and Madeline, 8; Tanya Tyrcha, married to John, with son, Jacob, 2; and Tamie Sawaged, 29, Creighton University law student.

Caption: Color Photos/2 Amal Sawaged tells daughter Heather to change a low-cut shirt. Even working 80-hour weeks, she’s kept an eagle eye on her seven kids. Amal Sawaged is known as “Mama” at the Ranch Bowl, where she has tended bar for 30 years. Her tough talk and attitude have earned her the respect and affection of customers she considers a second family, one that she will lose when the live music venue closes in coming weeks.
Edition: Iowa;Midlands;Nebraska;Sunrise
Section: Living
Page: 01E
Index Terms: Closing;Concert;Family;History
Record Number: 6857072
Copyright (c) 2005 Omaha World Herald
This article is copyright of the Omaha World-Herald and used with permission. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or redistributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald.
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