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Breakfast at the Diner — #7

135,000 Americans are dead so far, idiots refuse to wear masks, we have riots in the streets, and climate change rolls along, ready to kill us all — yeah, everything on Earth is awful, but Kirstin the waitress is back slinging hash at the diner. "And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…"

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To sidestep the early crowd at the diner, I arrived a little later than last week. Second thing in the morning instead of first, and indeed, there were fewer customers and more empty seats. Looking around the room, I notice two 20-something white men, but only because they're sitting with a gorgeous redhead who seems somewhat overdressed, like she's headed to the opera after she's eaten her low-budget breakfast.

The diner's regular clientele includes at least two old men who use walkers to get around. One is bald and frightfully thin, and the other has more flab like me and an amazing bouffant of silver hair rising maybe six inches straight up from his forehead, kinda like this

but with wrinkles and gray hair. Bald-Walker is at a table way down at the other end of the room, but Bouffant-Walker is sitting at a counter stool, and he's left his walker blocking the rather narrow walkway.

My wife used a walker for a while, so I'm familiar with the mechanics and necessities, and I can't and don't begrudge him for blocking the aisle. A walker needs to be within arm's reach, and while it does take less space if it's folded, it's a bitch folding and unfolding a walker. So I only say, "'Scuse me, mister," and squeeze between him and his walker, brushing up against both, to take my favorite seat at the end of the counter.

♦ ♦ ♦

Actually, the coffee tells me where to sit. Kirstin knows which seat I like, and she fills my cup while I'm gently bumping past walker-guy. She puts cream on the counter for me, too.

"Morning, sweetie," she says. "Our special today is huevos rancheros, and we can make that for you as an omelet if you'd like." She says this while she's setting up exactly the jelly, salt and pepper, ketchup, and ice water I never even have to ask for.

"Sounds good," I answer, "but I'll have my usual, please."

Kirstin recites my order from memory, gets it exactly right, and jots it in shorthand on one of those ubiquitous green tickets, which she passes to the guys in the kitchen. I am glad she's back, and glad she's healthy, but I don't say so. An hour later, on my way home, I wonder why I didn't say so, but I know I won't say it next week either.

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A black man comes in, young and muscular and looks like an underwear model but he's wearing clothes. Kirstin greets him by name, same as she seems to know everyone by their second time in the restaurant. She takes his order, and it's a little complicated. No onions in his omelet, no butter on his toast, and such quibbles. Kirstin takes it all down with no difficulties.

Couple of minutes later, Harvey the cook can't be seen, but his voice calls out from the kitchen, "Hey, about this Denver omelet?"

There are so few customers, Underwear-Model knows that's his order, and he says, "Yeah? I'm a Denver omelet," which makes me giggle. He glances at me, and giggles a little himself.

Voice from the kitchen: "You wanted no butter on your toast, so are you OK with butter on the grill for your omelet?"

"I'm not allergic," he says, "Do whatever you think best."

"Oh, that's a dangerous thing to say," says Harvey's voice from behind the wall. "I might fry your omelet in mayo and tartar sauce."

♦ ♦ ♦

With only a handful of people scattered inside the diner and nobody near me, for a while there was only one customer' whose yakking was inescapable. "She's so annoying," some yuppie-guy starts, and instantly you know he's going to be annoying.

Sure enough, he says something dumb and dull every few minutes, before his food comes and while he's eating and after his plate is taken away. He's broadcasting, not talking to anyone in particular. Not a word of what he said was interesting, but now we all know everything about his sister-in-law. He says he hates her, but I think he's secretly in love.

♦ ♦ ♦

Being a man, I sneak an occasional gander at that pretty and swanky-dressed woman down the counter. I'm not being creepy about it, promise, it's just — dang.

I'm ignoring her two male companions but she's not, and I'm wondering what's the dynamic there? She's flirting with them both. Man to her left says something, and she says, "Wouldn't you like to know?" Man to her right says something, and she just giggles. She's mid- to late-20s, a little old to be so giggly, but I'm not typing that with a sneer. Just reporting the facts.

♦ ♦ ♦

A forty-ish white guy is seated at the corner stool where he always sits, and by always I mean always. He owns that stool, I think, and he asks Kirstin the question I didn't ask. "So where the hell were you last week?"

"Business is slow," she explains, "so we're all working four days a week instead of five."

Bouffant-Walker pipes up, "Well, this place is like eating out of my armpit when you're gone." Laughter.

"Yeah," says the guy who owns the corner stool. "You ought to post a schedule or something, so we'll know what mornings to avoid."

"My apologies for the armpit," Kirstin deadpans, "and next week I'll be off on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Please make a note of it."

♦ ♦ ♦

I'm literally making a note of it. Several times during any meal at the diner, I put down my fork and lift my pen to scribble something in the margins of my magazine. At my age, the memory's too feeble to write something like this without notes.

Wonder what I'll say one of these mornings, when someone asks what I'm writing, and why? "Oh, I just like jotting down the stupid things strangers say in the diner — like what you just said." Yeah, that'll win me some friends and influence people. That question will be asked one day, I suppose, so I'll need an answer that won't get me beat up. Put that on my to-do list.

♦ ♦ ♦

For about a minute and a half out of nowhere, me and Bouffant-Walker and Underwear-Model are having a three-way conversation. We're talking about what's open and what's closed for COVID-19, and Underwear-Model says, "The parks are all open, but in some parks the restrooms are padlocked."

"No staff to clean the place," I said.

"Well, that's a problem," says Bouffant. "That could ruin a picnic."

And here comes one of the longest sentences I've spoken out loud in months: "They can tell me to wear a mask, but they can't order me not to take a dump."

"Yeah," says Underwear-Model. "When you gotta go you gotta go, like a bear in the woods."

"I assume you mean the Chicago Bears," I say, and they both laugh.

That's me faking social skills, but I don't care about the Chicago Bears, or about football. This is Wisconsin, where even I know, if you want to get a laugh you say something bad about the Bears.

♦ ♦ ♦

Someone is talking about the pandemic rules and regulations, and Kirstin says, "We can't have more than ten* customers inside at once," and then she looks around the almost empty room and adds for laughs, "which is seldom a problem." Business at the diner is not what it was before the coronavirus, that's obvious. If anyone's reading this, please support your local restaurants that don't have golden arches.

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And sadly, there she goes. I've been occasionally but discreetly observing that woman, but now she and her two men are leaving. They slide masks onto their faces, and she pays the tab for all three of them and says, "Thank you." Which means, they're not regulars; else she would've said, "Thank you, Kirstin."

Once out the door, she walks past the diner's front window, accompanied by only one of her men. The other must have walked toward the parking lot, in the other direction, which saddens my prurient imagination. I was hoping all three of them would have a delightful morning, but as they say, two out of three ain't bad.

♦ ♦ ♦

No new customers step through the door for several minutes, so there's nothing the kitchen needs to cook, and Harvey plays the overnight's accumulated messages off the answering machine. I'm at a stool twenty feet away, but the machine puts out good sound. Everyone in the diner hears every word, clear as a landline.

The first call is about a delivery truck that's coming tomorrow.

The second call is someone ordering two meals for pick-up, steak and potato and a fish sandwich, specific sides and sodas, and the voice finishes by saying he'll be there at around 4:00. The machine's timestamp announces says that they called yesterday at about three. Thing is, the diner closes at 1:00, every day. "Hope you enjoyed your meal," Harvey says with a chortle. "Come back soon!" He pushes a button and the answering machine's mechanical voice says, "Message deleted."

The third call is personal, so I won't repeat the details, but Slim is out of luck for the weekend, and his "Damn it!" carries from the back room.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bouffant-Walker is still on a stool when I leave, and his walker is still in the aisle. His breakfast is gone but his coffee isn't, and Kirstin is pouring more. Maybe he's going to ride that stool all day. "Adios," I say as I squeeze past and unavoidably nudge him again.

"So long," he says. "Wash your hands and stay alive."

"That's exactly my plan."

 

* Correction: A few weeks ago I guesstimated that the diner seats a hundred, but I was as wrong as sin on Sunday. Due to the pandemic, restaurants are currently limited to 25% of capacity, so Kirstin's comment that the diner is limited to ten customers at once means it seats forty or so. ItsDougHolland.com regrets the error.

 

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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