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No joy in Lawrenceville

If I needed any more evidence that 2008 was a cruddy year I got it Tuesday night.

I had a craving for hot and sour soup, and no one on Earth makes a better bowl than the people at Big Joy II in the old Kmart shopping center in Lawrenceville. So I cruised over on my dinner break, looking forward to the soup, some Kung Pao chicken and the Tom Clancy novel I've been reading.

But it wasn't meant to be.

As I pulled into the parking lot, it looked like the lights were out at the restaurant. I quickly started telling myself they were just closed for the holidays, but I'd put enough bad economic news in the paper in the past year to know better. Deep down, I knew the truth.

As I pulled my car up to the front door my fears were confirmed. A look through the window showed that all the furniture was gone. A sign on the door read: "Thanks for all our customers. We are closed for good."

I couldn't believe it. I drove around the parking lot three times, not really knowing what to do. I pulled back up to the restaurant and read the sign again, just to make sure there wasn't some note about moving to a new location or something. Finally I pulled into a parking place on the other side of the shopping center, and there in front of me was the nail in the coffin: The Big Joy sign, broken and dirty, lying next to the Dumpster behind KFC.

What a sad sight. My favorite restaurant - and some of my favorite people - gone. Just like that.

You grow to depend on certain constants in life. The older I get the more I cling to the little things that make me happy. One thing that could always brighten the dreariest of days was a visit to Big Joy.

I started eating there in 1999, right after I began my job at the Post. I quickly became a regular because the food was great and the people were friendly. Michael Chiang, the owner, and his sister always greeted me with a big hello and a smile.

After I'd been eating there a while I didn't even have to order my drink and soup anymore, they just brought it to me when I walked in the door. The waiters and waitresses changed over the years, but they all learned my tastes as well. Do you know how wonderful it is to find a restaurant where the people know what you want, are glad to see you and wait on you with courtesy? It's especially rare and refreshing in a world rife with eateries run by stupid, uncaring teenagers and filthy, inconsiderate idiots.

Sometimes the owners would sit in my booth for a few minutes and we'd talk about things. Whenever he walked by my table, their father always smiled and told me hello with a little bow.

They kept a separate Asian version of their menu that had more authentic Chinese food on it, and sometimes I would order off that. They were always interested to know what I thought. (I still don't understand how anyone eats that giant bowl of spicy seafood noodle soup by themselves for lunch, and I have a healthy appetite.)

Big Joy was aptly named. I could take a book, settle in a booth and have a good meal and a good time, even on the worst of days. I ate there hundreds of times over the years and never had one meal that wasn't satisfying. There was the one time when they oversalted my ginger chicken by mistake, but they recooked it and gave it to me for free because that's the kind of people they are.

And now they've gone, and I'm without my favorite restaurant and my friends. The only thing I have left are memories and a regret that I didn't eat there more often and get to know them better.

If I sound depressed, I am. This past year has seen many friends lose their jobs, neighbors lose their houses and good people lose their businesses. I've seen enough.

I hope the crooks, the greedy bankers and the politicians who caused this economic mess get what's coming to them this year, and I pray the good people who have been paying the price get what they deserve for a change.

And I wish all the people from Big Joy II the best of luck and hope they find their own joy in the future. They certainly brought me plenty, and I will miss them very much.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.