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Breakfast at the Diner — #8

The Fixture is at his usual spot, the front corner of the counter, and Bald-Walker is at a table near the back. They're the only other customers in the diner when I walk in.

The Fixture is a white man, casually dressed, who looks about forty years old. He's The Fixture to me because no matter how early I arrive he's always on his stool, sipping coffee and talking with anyone who's nearby. Often he's still there when I leave. Today there's nobody seated near him, so he's jabbering at Kirstin the waitress, who doesn't want to interrupt him, so instead of saying hello she just waves at me. Smiles, too, I assume, but she's wearing a mask so who knows. There's a pandemic on; everyone's wearing a mask except while they're eating.

Bald-Walker is seated and eating at a table, near the back of the diner. His mask is dangling under his chin like a bib. He's Bald-Walker because, well, because he's bald and he needs a walker to walk. I'm glad he came in before me, because honestly, it's a frightful sight when he enters the building. He's so precarious, even with his walker, he looks like he'd topple if anyone says howdy too loud.

The Fixture and Bald-Walker are sitting far too far apart for conversation, and I take a seat at the counter, equidistant between them. The three of us are at shouting range, not talking range, so I'm optimistic that there won't be much conversation. My mood brightens.

♦ ♦ ♦

As I lower myself onto a stool, though, I grip the edge of the counter with my fingers underneath, and there's something sticky there. Chewing gum, left under the counter and now on my fingers. From its moisture and adhesiveness, I'd guess it's a few weeks old. My mood sinks back to its normal low.

Kirstin says hello and pours my coffee. I say something semi-sociable, excuse myself to the restroom, and wash the spearmint from my fingers. Gum spit out of some stranger's face, aged under the counter — sigh.

The diner is generally clean, and doubtless even cleaner during the pandemic than in normal times. It's exponentially more frequently and thoroughly sanitized than my own home or kitchen. Can't expect them to inspect under the counter very often, so I ain't mad at 'em. It's an icky moment but I wash it away with the gum.

♦ ♦ ♦

Returning to my stool, Kirstin asks how I'm doing, recites the daily special, and says, "What's for breakfast?" My breakfast at the diner is always a house omelet with two pancakes, unless the daily special sounds enticing. It's been years since I ordered anything but my usual omelet or the special. Maybe I've never ordered anything else at this restaurant?

Last night, though, I watched an old Humphrey Bogart movie where he had ham and eggs at a bar for breakfast. As soon as Bogey ordered it, I knew I wanted it. "Ham and eggs, please," I say.

"Nope, that's not what you want," Kirstin says, looking at me and scrunching her eyebrows. "You want a house omelet and two pancakes." I laugh, but insist on ham and eggs. She writes it down and sighs heavily and nods 'nope', like I'm making a big mistake that I'll soon regret.

♦ ♦ ♦

While my breakfast is cooking, I'm reading The New Yorker and sipping my coffee, and at the corner of my eye something moves and there's the sound of a chair scraping on the tile floor. Bald-Walker is rising up from his table, or trying to. He's lifted himself halfway-up by pushing down on the table, but the table is only supported by one post in the middle, so as he pushes it tilts.

He's still standing and so is the table, but both are wobbly. The salt and pepper topple and roll over the edge, clattering loudly on the tile floor. His plate would fall off too, but it's pinned against the old guy's frail midsection. A plastic ketchup dispenser hits the floor, and I'm thinking, Should I dart over? Nah, I'm no hero, and anyway I couldn't get there quickly enough. Old guy is going down and I'm just going to watch — but Slim is suddenly there.

Slim is one of the diner's cooks, the pudgy one, and who knows what brought him out of the kitchen, but he's at the right place at the right time. He wordlessly slides a hand under Bald-Walker's shoulder, slightly lifting him but mostly just steadying him as they stand. They're awkwardly close but they're both wearing masks. With his other hand Slim nudges the plate back onto the tabletop, which bounces a bit but then levels itself.

Once Bald-Walker has both hands on his walker and seems stabilized, Slim loosens his grip. The old guy grunts twice, or maybe those grunts were words; it's hard to tell. He doesn't say thanks; instead he says clearly to Slim, "I didn't really need any help." Slim tilts his head as if to say, Whatever, and then he walks back to the kitchen.

"Are you OK?" Kirstin asks.

"I'm OK," says Bald-Walker, "and I didn't need the help."

As he passes my stool on his way out, I mask up and say, "You needed the help." Said it with a chuckle, but I wasn't joking.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. No shame in it, but c'mon."

"Nah," he says. "I might look flimsy, but I'm all right."

"All right," I say. "You have a good one, then." It takes him a minute and a half to walk to the cash register, where he pays his tab. Then he pushes his walker out of the building, slowly, very slowly, with a brief struggle at the door as he shakes and nudges the walker past an ever-so-slight bump where the tile ends and the doorjamb begins.

♦ ♦ ♦

Now it's just me and The Fixture, who has his wallet open to settle his bill. He puts cash on the counter, nods at Kirstin, and says to both of us, "That guy needed the help." Then he's gone, and I'm the only customer in the diner.

♦ ♦ ♦

Kirstin brings my ham and eggs and refills my coffee. I eat breakfast and read my magazine, and that's it. For the next half hour or so, all through my meal, nobody enters or leaves. No eavesdropping, no interruptions, no annoyances, no other customers. It's sweet, but strange.

"There's no predicting business any more," Kirstin says as she's refilling my coffee. "Some days we're busy almost like normal, and other days there's no-one here for an hour at a time."

Slim shouts from the back: "Fuckin' pandemic!"

"Yeah," says Kirstin. "Who thought a pandemic would be a good idea?"

I read, sip coffee, and eat. Kirstin fills salt and pepper shakers, wipes down cream and ketchup containers, tops off my coffee, loads the dishwasher, takes an order over the phone, washes her hands, tops off my coffee, etc.

She was right, by the way. I regret the ham and eggs. Nothing wrong with them, they were good, very good, but … if I could do it all again I'd order a house omelet with pancakes.

♦ ♦ ♦

I've often wished that people in the diner would shut the hell up, and twice I've told other eaters to do exactly that. Sometimes I've been the diner's only customer, but not often and only for a few minutes. Today's the first time I've been the only customer for an entire breakfast.

Enjoyed the quiet, no doubt, but I don't like what it portends for the diner … or for myriad other small businesses … or for humans.

Mask on, I pay and tip and exit, climb into my ancient, rusting car and start the engine. A baritone voice on the radio says that the coronavirus is on the rise across America. That isn't news, of course. Our national leadership hasn't taken the pandemic seriously, so it just rolls on and on, making more people sick, more people dead.

The irony, of course, is that I'm defying the common wisdom myself, eating breakfast inside a restaurant once a week. Call me a dumbbell and I won't argue the assertion.

It's a calculated risk. I figure we're all going to get the diagnosis eventually, but I'm trying to delay my turn, by working at home, having groceries delivered, masking up before and then washing my hands after checking the mail or walking my block or any other excursion outside my apartment, and having Absolute Zero social interactions with anyone except for this — my once-weekly breakfast at the diner.

Maybe I'm not Anthony Fauci, but I'm also not Evel Knievel. I arrive at the restaurant early when there aren't many customers, don't say a word without masking up, and never sit within three stools of anyone else. If I get the coronavirus, though, you can say I told you so.

Here in Wisconsin, the number and percentage of positive tests is trending upward, as are hospitalizations. The Governor is a decent guy, a Democrat but spineless. Early in the pandemic, he enacted state-wide safety rules, but Republicans control the state legislature and Supreme Court, and they've blocked any restrictions. The Governor hasn't pushed back, hasn't said or done much of anything lately, and there are now no state-wide rules to speak of.

Local government is run by non-morons, though, so I won't be surprised if there's soon another county-wide decree that restaurants must close, or retreat again to offering only carry-out. Hope not. Hope I'll be back at the diner next week, but cripes. Fuckin' pandemic.

 

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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