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Breakfast at the Diner — #11

There are seven diners in the diner this morning, when I walk in to make eight. That's a big crowd, by COVID-era standards. Four of them are familiar to me, faces I've seen over hundreds of breakfasts here; the other three I don't recognize.

There's no Kirstin, so again it's a restaurant without a waitress. Harvey the cook nods at me, and before he can ask I say, "Yeah, coffee, with cream please." I saddle up, leaving three stools between me and any other customers. To my left is Maurice, an old, bald, speckle-skinned white man who today has an oxygen tube in his nose. To my right is a black guy in his 40s, whose name I don't know but to me he's Sudden Urge To Pee, for a wisecrack he made a few weeks ago.

Harvey pours my coffee and cream, takes my order. I remove my mask and sip coffee, and open my magazine but can't read it. Damn, my glasses are in the car. "Back in a moment," I announce, and walk out, rump-bumping the door to keep my hands as infection-free as possible.

On my second entrance, now wearing sadly-needed glasses, I hold the door for an ancient and grumpy white guy who's coming in, a man I think of as Damned Good Coffee, since that's always his opening line.

'Ancient', I typed, which means he's about my age. 'Grumpy', which means he and me ought to be friends.

I return to my seat, and Maurice says, "Are the students coming back to the university?" I'm not sure who he's asking and hope it's not me.

An answer comes from a white lady, 30-something I'd guess, who's sitting several stools to Maurice's left. "The plan is, small classes will be held in person, with masks and as much social distancing as possible. Larger classes will be held on-line."

"You think that's a good idea?" asks Pee, to my right. Great — it's a panel discussion, and I'm in the crossfire but it's too late to find another seat. The talking goes on for several minutes, but nobody says anything terribly stupid so it's bearable, long as I don't have to say anything.

Six customers and Harvey all offer their opinions on whether the university should have flesh-and-blood students, but mostly the conversation is between Maurice, Pee, and that lady, who says she teaches biology at the university. "It's probably not wise and I'm not sure I agree," she says, "but if we stay closed there are those who would reduce the university's funding and mandate to almost nothing." There are always 'those', I think.

Pee points out, "If the university is closed, 50,000 students don't need to live here in the city. That'll kill the local economy deader than it already is."

Maurice says, "College kids will be partying every weekend, and hooking up after the parties, and nothing can stop them. They'll be spreading the virus like roaches at the dump."

Bunch of ordinary schmoes at the diner analyze the issue more clearly than any of CNN's talking heads, and the most insightful comment comes in the middle of all this, from Damned Good Coffee.

He pours some sugar, stirs it, and lifts his cup, takes his first sip. He puts the cup down, licks his lips. Wait for it, wait for it… "Damned good coffee," he finally says, "as always." He always says that, and you know what? The diner's coffee is damned good.

♦ ♦ ♦

A 50-something white man, husky but not quite fat, comes in carrying an empty plastic bottle in one hand, and holding a single flower in the other. The flower is big, reddish-purple, with a round 'head' (not sure that's the right word) about the size of a cabbage.

The man doesn't sit down, but instead walks to the end of the counter and turns left, entering what I'd call the employees' area, or the "front of the house" in restaurant-lingo. He's not an employee, though. Never seen him before.

He walks to the sink, fills his bottle with water, and puts the flower inside. No-one says anything as he walks past the pie-display, past the coffee pots, and puts the bottle and flower on a shelf behind the cash register. He adjusts it, just-so, and admires it. I'm thinking, That's a large and pretty flower and also Who the heck is this guy?

Harvey is nowhere to be seen, but Slim, the cook who's cooking today, emerges from the kitchen to the front-of-house to get something, and he says, "Hey, Jerry."

Well, all right, then. It's Jerry. The diner doesn't usually have flowers, and the customers generally stay on my side of the counter, but this is Jerry so that explains everything? Slim stands still for a few seconds looking at the flower but says nothing more, and then walks back to the kitchen.

Here comes Harvey, and he also says, "Hey, Jerry."

"Hey, Harv," is the answer. "Is Kirstin working this morning?"

"She doesn't start until 8," says Harvey. He looks at the flower for a fraction of a second, then shrugs and starts pouring coffee refills. Jerry walks to the end of the counter, turns right to re-enter the dining area, and takes a seat at the counter. Harvey asks him, "You want coffee?"

Jerry's seat is six or seven stools from me and Mr Pee is between us, and nobody else is asking so I'll have to. "What's with the flower, dude?"

"Isn't it pretty?" He answers, as if that's an answer.

"Sure, but … why did you bring … a flower … to the diner?" I say it slow, spreading out the words so the question takes five seconds or so.

"They're blooming so big and colorful, my neighbor wouldn't miss just one. I brought it for Kirstin."

I nod yup, and say nothing more, because who among us hasn't stolen a flower from someone's garden, and gone behind the counter at a diner, to leave it as a gift for the waitress, who's not there?

"Azalea," he says with a smile. I hadn't asked.

♦ ♦ ♦

I worked in restaurants when I was young, but now I'm old so the memories aren't as fresh as Jerry's azalea — or is it Kirstin's azalea now? She doesn't get here until 8:00, Harvey said, and that's an hour and a half from now, so until then maybe it's still owned by the neighbor whose garden it was stolen from. Point being, men are always hitting on the waitress at any restaurant, and for the waitress it's almost never pleasant. Let the lady do her job, jackass, is what I think.

Kirstin is ten or maybe twenty years younger than me, but she's not fat and ugly like me so men sometimes try to flirt with her. She's all work, walks away, but once I saw her tell someone to "Bite the wall, mister."

Jerry imagines his gesture is sweet, and hell, what do I know? Maybe it is sweet. Maybe a gray-haired old dude can steal a flower and give it to the waitress, as purely a platonic present. Still, I apologize on behalf of my entire gender.

♦ ♦ ♦

Here's my omelet, hash browns, and toast, but there's no jam on the counter. Having every customer all day pawing through the single-serve jam containers would spread the virus, so now you need to ask for jam, and for salt and pepper and everything else. Welcome to 2020, pandemic rules. I'd forgotten to ask for jam, though, and now neither Harvey nor Slim are anywhere to be seen.

If I knew where the jam packets are kept, maybe I'd pull a Jerry and go behind the counter and fetch a couple. Nah, that's the "employees only" area and we ought to respect that boundary, even if there's not a sign. Well, I'm too lazy to holler Harvey's name, so this morning it's toast without jam — a reduced-calorie breakfast.

♦ ♦ ♦

Nothing on the plate cools quicker, so I eat the toast first, and immediately after swallowing my last jam-less bite, Harvey is back. He's making coffee and wiping off menus and loading the dishwasher — nowhere when you need him, everywhere when you don't.

Between chores, he has an on-and-off conversation with someone whose name I don't know; just another one of us regulars. They're talking about Black Lives Matter, and specifically about someone named Gloria. I couldn't overhear enough to ascertain who or where Gloria is, but I'm going to write about her anyway.

Harvey says Gloria is "organizing an event" for Black Lives Matter, not here but in whatever city where she lives. Check my calculation, but someone who's "organizing an event" for BLM is probably black, right? Harvey is a middle-aged white man, and so's the person he's talking to, and so am I. I'm an old-school bleeding-heart liberal, though, so it brightens my morning to know that someone important in Harvey's life (his sister? his ex? his daughter?) is black.

♦ ♦ ♦

After Maurice leaves, Harvey wipes the area of the counter where he'd eaten, and a youngish, chubby white guy enters the building and sits on the same stool. It's probably still warm from Maurice's butt. The new customer is wearing glasses and orders pancakes and brought a book, which he reads all through his breakfast. I respect the reading, and especially the desire not to converse.

A nearby customer notices the book's title and says, "A Brief History of Time — what's that about?" The guy ignores him and continues reading.

Wise strategy, I'm thinking. I read the same book years ago, or tried to. The diner has some smart customers, but nobody's going to learn general relativity and quantum mechanics over breakfast. Well, except the guy reading the book, maybe, if he understands the book better than I did.

 

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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