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Breakfast at the Diner — #4

In front of the diner there's now a folding signboard, with bright red plastic "YES WE'RE OPEN" signs taped to both sides. Smart idea; sit-down dining is still legally limited to 25% of capacity, and for a lot of restaurants that's not economically feasible, so they're either closed or open only for carry-out or deliveries. This is one of the few restaurants that are open, and there's a busy road out front, so an extra sign out front makes sense. Might draw a few of the cars into the parking lot, and the drivers into the diner.

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A lady comes in wearing a mask, in a rush to pick up her to-go order. Kirstin, the waitress — wearing a mask, too, of course — tries to be friendly but this customer will not make a single word of chit-chat. She pays, takes her bag of food in her gloved hands, and vaporizes out the door.

"You see a lot of that, I bet," says a youngish guy at the counter. "People scared of the corona, wanting to get in and out of here quick as they can."

"Yeah," says Kirstin. "All day long, we're never as busy as we were before the bug, but I understand it. People gotta be careful."

There's a general murmur of Yup, and nobody says it but everyone's thinking, Maybe I'm an idiot for being here. There are only four of us idiots, in a diner that seats maybe 100. Kirstin addresses the tiny crowd: "Anybody up for some good news?"

"Can I get a refill please?" says a thirty-something lady, holding her coffee cup.

"Yeah, I'll bite," says me. "I could use some good news." My breakfast wasn't ready yet, so I'm willing to speak. My mouth has nothing better to do.

Kirstin pours the lady some coffee, and comes around to top off everyone's cup, while she says, "A doctor came in yesterday for lunch. He's a regular customer, works at the hospital, but I haven't seen him since before COVID came along. He says he's been staying away because it felt unsafe.

"'Well, you're here now,' I said to him. 'Sitting down in a restaurant, not getting carry-out. Are you feeling like it's safe?'

"And he says he wouldn't say it's safe, but it's feeling safer.

"He says they're seeing about the same number of coronavirus patients as a month ago, but that their symptoms aren't as bad. Not as many need respirators, and more of them are being discharged — alive — than what he saw in April and May. He thinks the virus might have mutated into a weaker strain."

"Well, dang," says me. "You promised good news, and that sounds like good news." Then my pancakes arrive, and I stop talking.

♦ ♦ ♦

Everyone comes together at the diner — black, white, left, right, poor, not so poor, smart, not so smart. Saw a City Council member eating here once, and you also see down-and-outters occasionally.

The clientele skews old like me, so when it's politics, it's usually loud, sometimes obnoxious. This morning there's chatter about Black Lives Matter, and I'm mentally bracing for the worst. You instantly know when someone watches Fox News and they're just reciting that crapola. Today, though, the breakfast consensus is that black lives actually do matter.

There's an old white guy who always orders "Just hash browns, honey," and I've heard him speak fluent Hannity in the past. Today he says, "I seen a lot of whiteys at that protest, and that's a good thing. What they did to that guy, black or white, it's just wrong. Ain't no arguing about it."

I didn't expect to hear that, not from that guy. Even more unexpectedly, from the context of some things he said later, that old man might have actually been one of the "whiteys" out there protesting.

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Man walks in and says, "Can I get a hamburger, without cheese?"

Kirstin says, "Sure, sweetie."

"I mean, now, at 6:30 in the morning? Can I get a hamburger now, without cheese?"

"It'll take a few minutes, but we serve breakfast or lunch, any time."

"OK, thanks. I want a hamburger, without cheese. No cheese."

Maybe I'm a cranky old bastard, but if it has cheese it's a cheeseburger, right? If it doesn't have cheese it's a hamburger. Words have meanings, and also you don't need to repeat yourself and then repeat the repeating. I can't even mutter Damn kids today, because the guy looked about 50. Old enough to know better.

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Later on, a black couple comes in, him and her, and they sit at the counter but a long ways from me. They order, and while waiting for their food they talk about the protests, but annoyingly, they talk very quietly, almost whispering. I could only catch a few words, never a full sentence. Usually I appreciate people who talk quietly in public, but today I was interested … but I didn't want to say, Excuse me, could you please speak a little louder?

A skinny, youngish white guy comes in, and sits three stools from the black guy, which in pandemic times is one stool closer than I'd feel comfortable. He orders something, the couple continues quietly talking, and then skinny white guy interrupts them to say, "I was there for that, yeah — I saw that cop screaming at that black girl."

Skinny guy and black couple talked for the rest of their breakfasts and butt-bumped when the skinny guy left. Bump-bumping is the new, safer handshake or high-five.

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People talk in the diner. Lord, do they talk. I enjoy some small fraction of my eavesdropping and note-taking, but generally I just wish they'd shut up.

Almost everyone opens with the weather, but one of the old-timers always leads with his health report. Soon as I see him walk in the door I know he's gonna say something about his aches and pains, and sure enough:

"The gout's hitting me pretty hard in the knees this morning." Jeez, geezer, I've got gout too, but I don't complain about it while people are eating breakfast.

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Bob, the owner of the diner, looks and talks exactly like a sit-com version of a guy who owns a diner. He's gravelly-voiced, opinionated and ornery, but he's going to make sure your breakfast is to your liking. He's a nice guy, but he's the kind of nice guy who'd scowl if anyone called him a nice guy.

Near as I can figure from my occasion sightings of Bob, he usually comes in at seven or so. Being the owner, if he doesn't want to work early hours he doesn't have to. Me, I'm there as soon as they unlock the door, 6AM, so I don't often see Bob, but this morning I got distracted and ran late, didn't get to the diner until 6:30.

So it's 7AM and I'm still chewing hotcakes when Bob must've entered through the back door, and he emerges from the kitchen. I say "Hey Bob" and lift my hand to wave, and he lifts his hand as he's passing my stool — and we're both thinking, Wait, are we about to high-five, or shake hands? No friggin' way. There's a pandemic. We both drop our hands without another word, and he passes by and takes a seat ten stools away, and asks Kirstin for steak and eggs.

♦ ♦ ♦

After breakfast, I'm finishing my last refill of coffee, and a 30-something black guy comes in, sits on the stool closest to the door, orders something. The waitress calls him Sweetie and runs through all the 'new normal' questions — "Do you need salt and pepper, cream and sugar? Jelly? Ketchup?"

"Yes, no, yup, nope."

"Sorry about the Spanish Inquisition," she says, reaching under the counter for his requested condiments. "We wipe everything down between every use. It's the new way of living."

"Better than the new way of dying," he says.

To be honest, I noticed this guy mostly because he wasn't just black, he's pitch-black, black as motor oil at midnight. I drain my cup, leave my payment and tip at the counter, and tell Kirstin thanks and see ya next time. As I'm walking past this guy at the corner of the counter, we make brief eye contact, and I say, "Happy Juneteenth."

He half-smiles and nods, and I'm out the door second-guessing myself. Should an old white guy say 'Happy Juneteenth' to a younger black guy he doesn't know? Fuck all if I know. I wouldn't say it to a white guy, but he didn't seem offended.

♦ ♦ ♦

Outside the building, I noticed that the YES WE'RE OPEN sign was coming loose in the wind, upside-down and hanging on only by the tape at the top, which was now the bottom of the flipped-over sign. I fold it back into its proper position, push the tape down, and step into the diner again. Kirstin says to me, "Back for lunch?"

I chuckled and said, "Maybe later. Right now, your OPEN sign is coming loose in the wind. It needs fresh tape or maybe glue instead."

She says thanks, and I think it over for half a second and semi-shout at her, "Happy Juneteenth!" And there, now I've said it to a white person, cuz why wouldn't you say it to white people? It's an important day for black people, but it ought to be important for everyone, right?

 

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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