Breakfast at the Diner — #12

Kirstin the waitress smiles and says, "Hi, Doug," as she's sanitizing a stack of menus. Once upon a time she asked me, "What's your name?" and I told her. She still remembers who I am, along with what I'm going to order, and that I like my coffee with cream but not sugar. She's the only person at the diner who knows my name, and sometimes I wish I'd made up a fake name way back when — I'd like to be 'Domingo'. But I'm glad Kirstin is here. She wasn't, my last two visits.

The diner opens at 6:00, and my intent was to be first through the door this morning, to arrive before The Fixture. Nope, it's 6:02 and he's on his ordinary stool, sipping coffee. He's always here before me, and usually still at the diner when I leave. Nothing against the guy but it would be nice if he wasn't here, just once. I mean, a few years back the pie-fridge was missing one morning, sent out for repairs, but The Fixture is always here, and always sitting at the same spot. If I'm ever here before he is, I might sit on his proprietary stool, just to see his reaction. I'll try for 6:00 again next week.

Not counting me because I don't count, I count four customers, all seated at the counter. Clockwise, it's Health Report, an old while man who talks about his aches and pains; Just the Hash Browns, another old white man who always orders exactly that; Bouffant-Walker, yet another old white guy, but with puffy grey hair and a walker; and a younger black man I haven't seen before. At the diner, 'younger' means late-30s or early-40s. The azalea is still behind the cash register, but it's drooping.

At the counter, Kirstin has already brought cream and poured my coffee. "The special today is eggs with spaghetti and meatballs," she says, and for the briefest moment I consider it, before realizing she can't be serious. "Gotcha!" she says. "We don't have a special today." I chuckle and order "the usual," which she of course knows. "Specials only on the weekend now," she adds, "until business picks up or the COVID goes away."

♦ ♦ ♦

An Asian man comes in with a newspaper tucked under his arm, sits a few stools from me at the counter, orders, and reads. He's in his 50s or 60s, of course; anyone younger wouldn't understand what it is to "read a newspaper." When he turns the page, there's the familiar but forgotten sound of a foot-wide page of newsprint crinkling as its flipped over.

Newspapers, man — on paper. Way back when, I always came to this diner (and other diners, in other places) with a newspaper, and read it while chewing breakfast. When I was young I came alone with a newspaper, and after we were married I came with a newspaper and my wife, who brought a different newspaper so we could trade.

Then newspapers began withering away, murdered by the internet, and the papers that haven't died are now slimmer and shallower, with not enough news to make it through breakfast before there's nothing to read. These days I bring a magazine instead. Wish I could bring my wife, but damn it, she's gone.

♦ ♦ ♦

Health Report, Hash Browns, and the younger black man are talking about the dangers of driving with the 'check engine' light on. Hash Browns says his Buick has been giving him that warning for 30,000 miles. "I took it in once," he says, "to a repairman I trust, and she told me it was nothing serious but for a couple-hundred bucks she could fix the problem and the light would go out. I said no. I still got the 'check engine' light and I still got the couple of hundred bucks."

Health Report says his ankles hurt, and that 'check engine' is a conspiracy designed to get you into the dealership for expensive work that your car probably doesn't need.

Black Guy says he'd pay a couple-hundred bucks or more, to keep the 'check engine' light off and not have to worry that his car is about to explode.

I don't say anything, but what I'm thinking is, Gotta take my beater in to the shop, because I'm getting the 'check engine' light, too.

♦ ♦ ♦

I glance up from my omelet and see Bouffant-Walker through the diner's front window. He's outside on the sidewalk, approaching the door. Old guy, walker, fantastic hair, and it's a Twilight Zone moment, because isn't he already in the diner? I look to my left down the counter, and out the window again, and no, they're two different old duffs. The guy at the counter has a walker and a shock of white hair, but his hair isn't as majestic, and he has a mustache — the real Bouffant-Walker is clean-shaven, I see, as I again look out the window. They're enough alike to fool me, though, because I don't look closely at old dudes with walkers.

Genuine Bouffant has stopped a few yards from the diner's front door, and now he reaches into his pocket, takes out a comb and beautifies his enviable head of hair. He has wrinkles and warts, he's at least somewhat disabled, and he probably shouldn't start reading a long book, but the man still wants to look good when he steps into the diner. Same pride and vanity as any of us.

He nudges the door open, walks in, and pushes his walker past the artificial Bouffant. It's eerie when the real thing nods at the knock-off and the knock-off nods back, and maybe they know each other but they don't say anything or shake hands. There's an episode of Doctor Who where if they touch each other it could rip apart the fabric of time and space, but I guess we're all spared because nobody touches during the pandemic.

Bouffant mumbles "Good morning" to me as he walks/rolls past my stool, and I respond like you're supposed to, manners and all that crap. He takes the closest table to my stool, although there are plenty of empty tables a little farther away. Thankfully, he doesn't try talking with me at length.

But he does talk. Is Bouffant bonkers? He talks to himself, or maybe he's talking to the diner. He says one sentence every few minutes, and it's hard to catch the meaning because there's a semi-stutter to his words, somewhat Porky Pig but with a deeper tone and an unidentifiable accent. He's perfectly understandable when I'm expecting him to talk, like "Good morning" or if he's in a conversation I'm overhearing, but when I'm reading and he says something random to the restaurant, it's harder to make sense of him.

At various times this morning, he announces things I don't understand about marijuana, and about Black Lives Matter, and about his eggs, and about, I think, romance languages. Now he says, "I always liked this song" to the radio in the kitchen that's playing "Crocodile Rock," and Bouffant might be old enough to remember when rock was young. I understood his entire sentence, though, and that's rare.

It must be frustrating for the old geezer. He wants to say something, but he has nothing much to say and no-one to say it to, so he says it to strangers who don't particularly want to listen. I do the same thing, of course, but I do it on Reddit.

♦ ♦ ♦

One or two at a time, customers walk into the diner wearing a mask, sit down and order while wearing a mask, and then unveil when there's coffee to drink or food to be eaten. Some customers are so cautious, they'll put the mask on again when they're talking to someone, and then take the mask off to resume stuffing their faces. Almost unanimously everyone masks-up again as they're paying and leaving, even though they'll be outside in just a minute or two. Goes without saying, of course, that the staff is masked at all times. The masks and the spirit of the masks make the diner feel maybe not safe but 'safer', amidst the coronavirus craziness. Plus, it's the law.

On the internet, we've all seen videos of imbeciles who refuse to wear a mask, screaming and unavoidably spewing spittle about their god-given or constipational right to breathe. The videos are amusing and/or terrifying, and the imbeciles are a leading reason America's dying more than other countries, but I haven't yet seen an imbecilic moment like that, in person.

It happened yesterday at the diner, though, and during a lull Kirstin tells me and my neighbors at the counter about it, while she's pouring refills.

"A middle-aged couple came in," she says, "past the 'Masks required' sign on the door, and they weren't wearing masks. Maybe they didn't see the sign, so I said, 'Masks required, please'." Sounds like she said it nicely, of course, because she's Kirstin.

"The man said, 'We're ordering to go,' as if that makes it OK? Harvey was here to protect us, though. He came up front and said, 'I don't care if you're ordering to go to the moon'." Kirstin chuckles, and I should mention that Harvey is one of the cooks. "'Masks on, please'." She says it in her own voice, but I hear it in Harvey's voice, which is much less pleasant. I'd imagine 'Masks on, please' was the harshest possible rendition of 'please'.

"The man said, 'We don't have any masks, and we don't wear —' and that's all he said, because Harvey said, 'Out!' and pointed to the door. Nobody messes with Harvey when he's angry. Well," (she adds, parenthetically) "except that one time, but that's another story for another day. Anyway, they turn around and leave, and I hope they never darken our door again."

At the story's end there's laughter and a few comments from the diner's small crowd, but the only word I hear — and with utter clarity — is from the table behind me and to my right. It's Bouffant-Walker saying, "Dumbshits," which gets some more chuckles, and then everyone goes back to their breakfasts.

Bouffant is a character. He's weirdly friendly, saying "Hi" and "Bye" to me every week although we've rarely said more than that to each other. He addresses the room from his table whenever a thought occurs to him, but what he says (when I can understand it) is usually interesting or funny — not funny 'crazy' but funny like he has a sense of humor under all that grey hair. I've decided Bouffant-Walker might be an interesting guy, and maybe one of these weeks I'll say something more than "Good morning" to him.

Another thing about Bouffant: He's usually still eating when I'm leaving, but on those occasions when he's left before I do, he's always to the men's room after eating and before paying. The first few times, I suspected he was about to dine and dash, and a walker would reduce the speed of his dash. But nope, he pays and tips after returning from the toilet, so my guess is, bladder issues. Or he's combing his beautiful hair.

♦ ♦ ♦

A 20-something skinny black guy comes in alone, and orders two breakfasts to go. One's for him, he says, and the other is for his girlfriend. He says her order slowly, repeating things to make sure that her order is exactly right. I'm thinking, Yeah, I dated that woman, too.

"She wants the eggs not-gooey," he says.

"Over-hard," says Kirstin.

The man seems a little confused, and says, "None of the runny yolk that seeps out when you start forking it."

"That's over-hard," she says again, and scribbles shorthand on the little green piece of paper, hands it back to the kitchen.

"Over-hard?" says the customer as she walks past again. This is a new concept, sinking in.

"Yup." Kirstin explains in detail: "Over-easy, the yolk is runny when you fork it. Over-hard gets cooked a little longer, so it's not-gooey."

"I'm thirty years old," the man says, "and never heard of 'over-hard' before. Very educational."

She smiles and says, "I'm PBS, but without the pledge breaks."


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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