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Breakfast at the Diner — #6

The first thing I noticed was that Kirstin wasn't there. She's the diner's only waitress, so when she's absent one of the cooks comes out and takes orders, pours coffee, etc. Sure enough, there's Harvey, one of the cooks, taking someone's order.

I'm eyeing the situation but haven't sat down yet. It's 6:06 AM and there are more than a dozen customers, biggest crowd I've seen since the diner re-opened after three months locked up for the pandemic. Seems a lot of people are coming in as soon as the diner opens at 6:00, same as I've been doing. It's strategic; there's less risk of getting the virus if you beat the crowd, but we've become the crowd.

Most customers are seated at the counter, where I want to be. Under the ever-changing rules, there are supposed to be two empty stools between every customer at the counter, couples excepted. There's only one legal stool remaining, so it's mine, and as I slide in the black man two stools to my right says, "You win, you get the last seat at the counter."

"Yup," I answer. That's me, trying to be friendly.

♦ ♦ ♦

As a waitress Harvey is a damned good cook. He's a grey-haired non-nonsense man with tattoos on his arms and a pen behind each ear, and of course, a mask on his face. To complete the look he should have a pack of cigarettes rolled into one sleeve of his t-shirt, but maybe he doesn't smoke. He approaches, nods at me, taps his pen on the counter and says "You want coffee?"

"Yup." I say again, but I'm thinking, Of course I want coffee. Without coffee what's the point? Kirstin never needs to ask.

"Today's special is kielbasa and eggs," he says.

"That sounds good," I reply. "Can I have that as an omelet?"

"How do you want your eggs?" he asks.

I tilt my head, confused. "In an omelet?"

"Easy, hard, scrambled?"

"Uh … surprise me," I answer, giving up. I usually order the same omelet every time, my "usual," but when there's a daily special, I'll sometimes order that instead. The special, though, whatever it is, always comes with eggs and hash browns and toast. It's not available as an omelet, but Kirstin knows I'm an omelet guy, so when she tells me the daily special she always adds, "and we can make that for you as an omelet." Kirstin's been breaking that rule for so many years I'd forgotten there is a rule.

Harvey, though, plays by the rules.

♦ ♦ ♦

This morning's multitude means more conversation than usual, most of it not worth having or hearing. Top topics are socialism (customer consensus: no) and space exploration (consensus: yes) and the ongoing protests (consensus: maybe). Someone asks about Fourth of July fireworks, and Harvey says, "Nope, the fireworks got shit-canned." The old man who always complains about his medical issues comes in, takes a seat at a table 'cuz there's no room at the counter, and — guess what? — he complains about his medical issues.

♦ ♦ ♦

A twentyish white guy comes in, wearing a Grateful Dead hoodie, with a manbun and a beard that's out of control, and he takes a table. Never seen him before but I'm thinking he's gotta be a hippie or stoner. Not that there's anything wrong with hippies or stoners, though I am skeptical of his manbun.

He seems bewildered by the concept of a menu. "Do you have smoothies?" he asks.

"You know what?" says Harvey, not nasty but not negotiable: "We do not have smoothies." He points to the beverage section of the one-page menu and says, "You think it over, I'll be back."

♦ ♦ ♦

It reminds me of the famous Honey Incident. I wasn't even there, but all the regulars know this story: Lady comes in and orders tea with honey. The answer is, "Honey? We don't have honey. This ain't a fancy place." I don't know who said it; sounds like Harvey or Bob, the owner. All I know is, the lady gets all huffy, walks out, and she's been a punchline at the diner ever since.

♦ ♦ ♦

The next customer is a wiry black man in ratty clothes, almost bald and what hair he's got is grey. He's … 'shuffling' would be accurate, but that word has unpleasant overtones if you're describing a black person, so let's say he's dragging his shoes and walking somewhat precariously. He pulls out a chair at the table next to ManBun, but from behind the counter Harvey hollers, "Please take the corner table," which keeps the required six-foot separation.

Seems obvious that he's homeless, and yup, when Harvey comes to his table the man says, "My money is mostly in change, but I have enough."

"Have you counted it?" Harvey asks. "I don't want to be counting ten dollars in nickels and dimes."

"I have it in a baggie," he says, and takes a big plastic bag out of his pocket, plops it loudly on the table. It's mostly coins, with a few dollar bills. "Nine dollars and forty cents," he announces.

"Well, then," says Harvey, "can I start you with a cup of coffee?"

♦ ♦ ♦

The cook — not Harvey, but a husky guy I think of as "Slim" — slides my breakfast in front of me without a word. It's eggs over easy, hash browns, toast, and two generous lengths of kielbasa. I've never had breakfast here that wasn't an omelet, and I'm not optimistic about this. I sigh, stab the meat, lift it to my mouth and take a bite, and what I'm thinking is, Sweet jeebers, that's good! I might have said it out loud.

The kielbasa is better than perfect, and better than when they've let me have it as an "omelet special" in the past. The eggs are also exquisite, and my perception of time and space and reality has been altered. Harvey is going to get the same tip Kirstin always gets.

♦ ♦ ♦

Back to take the homeless man's order, Harvey opens with, "How about you hang on to your change, and I'll buy you eggs and toast and coffee? That's a one-time deal." I'm thinking this is a Hallmark movie, as I click my pen and write it down, word for word.

The man says, "Thanks," and asks for scrambled eggs and white toast, and Harvey nods and walks away. ManBun and BaggieChange begin a lengthy conversation, with the former frequently saying "Excuse me?" because the latter is slurring his words. He might be drunk, might be injured, or it might be a speech impediment.

BaggieChange talks about how much he's missing baseball, and knows more than me about the local team. ManBun talks about the virus, and mentions that he's in a band that's performing this afternoon in an open-air fundraiser for the Bail Fund. He invites his new friend to attend, tells him where and when, and his answer is, "Sounds cool, I'll try to be there."

♦ ♦ ♦

A couple of teenagers come in, one black, one Asian, and they sit at the counter. You see some 20s people at the diner, but not many teens without parents. They're talking about the protests, and the police, and some news that didn't make the news.

Last night, according to the teenagers, some wingnut drove his car not quite into some picketers but close enough to bump people and topple a few. Some of the protesters were helping the injured people, while others were banging on the car's windows, and then the cops showed up. They pepper-sprayed everyone in the protest, including people injured and on the ground, and shoved people away from the car until the wingnut could safely drive away.

One of the teenagers sums it up better than I could: "Yeah, let's pretend nobody knows why the protests sometimes turn violent."

♦ ♦ ♦

After BaggieChange and ManBun have both left, Harvey the waitress finally comes 'round to refill my coffee, and I say, "You know, you handled that classy."

He says, "What do you mean?"

"The homeless guy."

"Oh, him," he says. "We see him once in a while when he's flush, and he always pays in change. Never any trouble. But right now, pandemic and all, I don't want his change in the register, handing it out to the next customer. Just seemed smarter to comp his bill, but Bob might be mad when he comes in."

"Contagious coins hadn't occurred to me," I said. "Good thinking. I'm guessing Bob won't be mad."

"Ah," Harvey snarls as he's walking away, "Bob's a decent guy, but you don't want to mess with his money."

♦ ♦ ♦

The restaurant is almost empty by the time I leave, which has happened the past few weeks, and I make a mental note to show up half an hour later next week. With luck, that'll be just as the beat-the-crowd crowd is leaving. The diner being busy is good for the diner, but maybe not so good for old guys like me, borderline high-risk. Or for the people who work there.

Without kind words from Kirstin, the vibe was different this morning. I even saw the bottom of my coffee cup, which never happens when she's there. I didn't ask where she was, though. That's none of my business, but I do hope Kirstin's not doing the COVID.

 

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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