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Breakfast at the Diner — #21

There are half a dozen customers in the diner when I arrive. The Fixture is not one of them, again. He was always at the front corner stool, and now he's always not. It's been a couple of months since I've seen him. A few times I've heard someone ask, "Hey, where's Frank?" but nobody knows, and usually nobody asks.

ManBun is at a table near the front window. He waves at me like we're old friends, but we're not. I slightly nod my head to signal, "I've noticed your existence, and I don't disapprove." The woman he's usually with is nowhere to be seen.

Phil is at the counter, and there's no-one sitting near him so he looks up at me, but he knows I won't sit nearby. He's someone who likes to talk, tell jokes, and listen to the laughter in response. I'm someone who likes to eat, look around, and keep to myself. We wouldn't mesh well, sitting in proximity at the diner.

Except for ManBun and Phil, everyone eating this morning is a stranger to me. Of course, even the customers I know, I don't really know. Most of us come alone, like me, and I generally nod or maybe say hello, but that's it.

A few days ago at work (which during the pandemic means 'via Skype from my bedroom') I was chatting with a co-worker about our weekend plans, and I mentioned having breakfast at the diner. "Why do you go to a restaurant alone?" she asked, and then she couldn't quite comprehend my answer. She thought it was sad. Is it sad? Is it complicated or mysterious?

This diner is my destination, once a week, because the food is reliably good, it's affordable, the setting is comfortable, and they never stop pouring refills on coffee. I come alone because, well, because it's not really a choice.

At the counter, there are two strangers seated twelve stools apart, and I sit halfway between them. I like the distance.

Kirstin steps up, greets me with some kind words. It occurs to me that they're the kindest words I'll hear this week, at least in person. I'm not kidding when I say in italics at the bottom that I'm a hermit, and the endless COVID lockdown makes it even more true. Forty-five minutes in the diner every Friday morning is my social life.

She pours me a cup of coffee, and there's suddenly peace in the Middle East. She takes my order back to Harvey and Slim in the kitchen, and soon there will be an omelet, and nuclear disarmament, and a plan for kicking global warming's butt. Life is good, and the coffee, of course, is spectacular.

♦ ♦ ♦

A black guy comes in, mid-20s I'd guess, which makes him wet behind the ears in this place. He sits at the counter, perilously close to talkative ol' Phil, and I know the new guy will be getting an earful in a few minutes. If he wants solitude he picked the wrong stool, but if he's looking for conversation Phil can provide that.

He asks Kirstin for a menu, which clinches it — menus are for rookies. She pours him a cup of coffee, answers his questions about what exactly is in a Denver omelet, and that's what he orders.

When Kirstin fades away toward the kitchen, Phil starts his patter and within a few minutes the newcomer is laughing at Phil's jokes. I think that's the only thing Phil wants out of life, and there are far worse aspirations. By the time the newbie's breakfast arrives, he and Phil are old buddies.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bouffant-Walker comes in, and says good morning to me as he's passing my stool, same as he always does. "Good to see you," I reply, and it wasn't a lie.

Bouffant is sort of a soft-boiled egg, but he belongs in this place. Like Kirstin, like Phil, it's good to see him, and like The Fixture something would seem off if he wasn't here. Seeing some of the same faces every Friday is reassuring, like the perpetual roar and stink of traffic outside. Even as the ongoing catastrophes continue — climate change, the coronavirus, Donald damned Trump, and whatever's next, a plague of locusts, perhaps — the diner remains.

♦ ♦ ♦

Two old white men come in together, and take a table midway toward the back of the diner. They're the only people all morning who aren't eating alone. They're not seated close to me, but the diner is mostly empty and they're a little loud, so every word carries, and bird is the word — cuckoo birds.

They must have been wearing masks when they entered the diner, or Kirstin would've turned them away, but now they're saying, loudly, that the coronavirus doesn't exist. It's all a plot, intended to topple America and Donald Trump, which they seem to think are the same thing. They're vague on who's behind the plot; first they say it was Joe Biden, but later they blame "Deep State" and the Chinese.

Damnation, I am weary of the wingnuts. Are we being lied to by the government? Yes, of course we're being lied to, but not everything that everyone says is a lie or a plot or a hoax. The world isn't that complicated, and the bad guys aren't that smart.

I'm weighing words in my mind, getting ready to say something rude and angry to these fools, but I don't have to say anything because Bouffant-Walker jumps in.

"People who don't know what they're talking about," he says. It's not a properly-structured sentence, but it hushes the room.

Bouffant is a precarious, gray-haired cartoon character who walks in a walker and speaks in a strangely squeaky voice with the hint of a stutter. He frequently fires off unexpected sentences to nobody in particular, but mentally he's present — he's in the diner, not elsewhere or absent. "You're idiots," he says after a brief pause.

He's at a table facing me, his back to the wingnuts, but he's talking to them and they know it. They're frozen, one of them in mid-chew. "Corona is real," Bouffant goes on, "and anyone who says it isn't is real stupid." I hear Phil laughing from the other end of the counter, and he hears me laughing.

One of the conspiracy kooks swallows his bite and says, "You must be one of those people who believe everything you're told," but I'm guessing at what he said past 'people', because Bouffant launches his response without waiting.

"I hear the sound of stupid," he says, looking around comically, then turning, slowly and perhaps painfully, to face the stupid behind him. His chair scrapes loudly on the tile floor as he twists it. "You can believe whatever horse doodle you believe," Bouffant says, "but I don't have to listen to the sound of poop plopping."

"Crazy old man," says one of the wingnuts.

Kirstin steps out from behind the counter with a coffee pot, and she says, "Can't we all just get along?" She fills Bouffant's cup.

"We'll get along fine if the old guy just shuts up," says one of the COVID deniers.

Kirstin walks toward the wingnuts' table, and says, "More coffee?" They nod, she pours.

"He started it," says the other idiot. "We were minding our own business ..."

"'Out of your mind' -ing your own business," Bouffant begins — a retort clever enough I didn't get the joke until I'd almost finished writing it down.

Bouffant and both wingnuts are all talking at the same time now, so I'm only getting the gist here, not an accurate transcript, but Kirstin says, "If you boys would talk a little quieter —"

The first wingnut — let's call him Oliver — says, "I get to say whatever I want to say," and Stanley says, "That's right."

"Please keep it down," Kirstin says again, now pouring coffee for Stanley, and without spilling a drop despite all the drama.

Oliver is staring at Bouffant and says, "Anything else you want to say, old timer?" Bouffant interrupts with his response, but I can't make out what he says because Kirstin has raised her voice.

She's loud enough that everyone in the diner can hear every word, but she's still smiling as she says, "I've asked you to be quieter but you're louder instead. Time to pipe down, or I can box up your breakfasts."

Sometimes I think Kirstin is secretly a superhero. Maybe she'll do some kung fu and topple their table? Of course, she does have back-up: Slim is standing at the boundary, where the counter ends and the dining area begins, just watching. Harvey has something cooking on the grill, but I know he'd let an omelet burn if he's needed.

He's not needed, though. Stanley says he's sorry, and Oliver glares at Bouffant, but then adds cream to his coffee and stirs. Bouffant's chair scrapes the tile again, as he turns back toward his breakfast, but he's still talking. "Reality as we know it is someplace you've never been."

Kirstin says something — Bouffant's real name, I think — in a slightly scolding tone of voice, and he's immediately silent. Another of her superpowers, apparently.

The diner is now quiet, except for the new guy, who's standing at the cash register, chuckling and waiting to pay Kirstin for his breakfast. "This place is wild," he says. "Is it always like this?"

"Always it's like this," Phil says from his stool. "Sometimes more so."

 

I'm a grumpy old man who lives alone and has few friends — basically a hermit. Once a week I have breakfast at my favorite diner. Most weeks it's my only in-person interaction with other humans, which is not my strong suit.

Yeah, I'm aware of the coronavirus, so I go to the diner at dawn, before it gets busy. I wash my hands before and after, cough into my elbow, spray Lysol on my food, pay at my plate, tell the waitress to keep the change, and hold my breath while leaving until I'm outside. It's a little more dangerous than staying at home, but life would suck without breakfast at the diner, so get off my lawn.

And remember, decent people leave a generous tip.

 

Breakfast at the Diner

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