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Breakfast at the Diner — #3

An old guy at the counter sneezes, twice and then again. He had already sneezed several times a few minutes earlier, so everyone's eyeballing him, even the people pretending they're not. He sneezes again, and a lady seated nearby asks for her breakfast in a box, waits impatiently for the styrofoam while this guy sneezes twice more.

I'm twenty stools away, but the counter is U-shaped so I'm opposite the sneezer, facing him directly, with only a coffee pot and the waitress between us. He sneezes again. He's covering his mouth like you're supposed to, so I don't deck him, but he's reducing the marvelousness of my omelet. The waitress, wearing a mask, says something to someone in the back room, who's also wearing a mask, and the sneezer sneezes twice more.

Wearing an apron and a frown, a burly man emerges from the kitchen, carrying a to-go container. "I'm gonna ask you to leave," he says. The sneezer shakes his head 'yes', and the cook slides his breakfast from the plate to the carry-out box, shuts the box's lid, and gently but firmly 'helps' the customer up off the stool. One last sneeze and the sneezer is out the door.

"Adios, motherfucker," says the cook after the door closes. There are some light chuckles, and tense customers. Our hero walks back to the kitchen, and the diner is quiet enough you can hear him washing his hands.

Another customer asks for a box, and then he's gone, too. The diner is emptier than it was, both five minutes ago and three months ago.

♦ ♦ ♦

Now there's just me and one other old guy eating his eggs, so the waitress talks with him, and then with me, and it makes me wish there were more customers. I'm here to eat and eavesdrop, not to talk. But she has a story to tell, which I'll re-tell. The waitress needs a name, though, so let's call her Kirstin, which is not her name.

While the diner was closed by the coronavirus lockdown, Kirstin says she got a phone call from Bob (which is not his name, either), the owner of the diner. He asked her, "Why aren't you taking Unemployment?"

"Because I don't need it as much as other people do," she said. "My husband and I have money in the bank."

Bob argued with her on the phone, not mean or angry, just insistent. "Look," he said, "you're entitled to it. You've been taxed for Unemployment coverage for years, and you're past your probationary period at the diner so I'm never going to fire you. This is your only chance to get a payout after all you've paid in. Please start filing for Unemployment." Kirstin said sure, so she filed, a month after the diner was closed and a month before it re-opened.

The story struck me on two counts. First off, the owner's wisecrack about Kirstin's "probationary period" at the diner? Well, she's been working there since the 1990s. Kirstin kinda is the diner — if it's your first or second visit you're "Sweetie," but after that she probably knows you by name and you can order "the usual." Which is amazing, because there must be 500 regulars at the diner, once-a-weekers like me, and everyday eaters and once-a-monthers, and somehow any of us can say "the usual, please," and Kirstin will bring exactly what's wanted, plus refills of coffee.

Second, and almost as impressive, Bob pays part of any Unemployment claim. That's the way the system works. I'm not sure how he knew that Kirstin hadn't filed, but when he called and asked her to file for Unemployment, he was asking Kirstin to raise his taxes. I'd wager no-one who works at Denny's got a phone call like that during the lockdown.

 

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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