Breakfast at the Diner — #13

I want to get to the diner before The Fixture, but time is running short so I skip showering, grab The New Yorker and a pen, get into my car and drive. It's 6:04 when I park and step into the diner. There are already half a dozen customers, including The Fixture on his season-ticket stool, sipping his permanent coffee. I'll try again next week, because I'm stubborn and because you don't own that stool, stooge.

Kirstin the waitress isn't here. Slim is in the kitchen, and nods at me across the distance. Harvey is handling the front-of-house duties. The diner's hierarchy is always the same: When Kirstin is here the cook is either Harvey or Slim, or sometimes both, but when Kirstin isn't here Slim is the cook and Harvey is the waiter.

He asks, "You want coffee, Chief?" With Kirstin, everyone's either 'Sweetie' or she knows your name, but Harvey seems to only know a few customers' names and I'm not one of them. To Harvey, most everyone is 'Chief' or 'Sarge' or 'Mister'. A couple of weeks ago I was 'Mister' but today I'm 'Chief', so it feels like I'm coming up in the world.

I nod in reply, and Harvey says, "Cream, right?" and I am surprised. I always need to tell Harvey that I need cream, and usually he'll also bring sugar I don't want, but today he brings cream and only cream! Coming to this diner once weekly for fifteen years, Harvey has cooked hundreds of meals for me and taken my order perhaps a dozen times, and today's the first time he's tacitly acknowledged that it's not the first time.

But wait, there's more: I order what I usually order, with all the detail — what kind of toast on the side, hash browns not American fries, what condiments I'll need, etc — and he writes it all down and then says, "Your usual, got it." He walks toward the kitchen to pass my order to Slim, and I'm impressed. Harvey knows my usual order? I may have underestimated his service-industry skills.

Then he brings everything I need except jam for the toast, same as last time. I make do without the jam because, same as last time, Harvey is busy and I don't want to ask.

♦ ♦ ♦

Knitting Needle is having breakfast alone at a counter stool. There's no knitting needle in her hair today, but there was the first time I saw her at the diner, so she'll always be Knitting Needle to me.

Underwear Model comes in and sits a few stools away from her — close enough for conversation, I'm thinking as I secretly observe, but not close enough for disease. He's a hunky man in his early 30s who looks like a walking Calvin Klein ad, and she looks a few years older. They're both black and they nod at each other. It's a howdy-stranger nod, not an old-buddy nod.

You don't see many women in the diner, and even fewer who are unaccompanied. She's attractive, so it's an act of courage for her to eat alone at a restaurant. Sad to say but that's the way it is, and I'm hoping Underwear isn't going to make it awkward for her. This place needs more estrogen, not less.

Underwear Model is talky, but not too talky. He starts with the weather, yields for a few minutes of merciful silence, and then he's talking about breakfast, and she doesn't say much. For a while I read my magazine, and when I raise my eyes he's moved one stool closer to her, and they're both laughing about something. He's making progress and she doesn't seem to object, so I guess it's all right. Can't remember ever having that sort of rapid success, even when I was young and at the height of my so-called game.

♦ ♦ ♦

Two old gentlemen, Bald-Walker and Maurice, are talking about their electric bills. Bald-Walker is a rail-thin old man who moves at about one mile an hour and needs his walker for stability. Maurice is decrepit and skin-stained and this week he doesn't have an oxygen tube in his nose. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not, and nobody ever mentions it either way.

"It's the air conditioning that makes the bill so high," says Bald-Walker. "Summer in Wisconsin, air conditioning is a fact of life. People have it on 24/7, and in a big house that can add a lot to the electric bill."

"We've all become a bunch of pussies," says Maurice. "In the old days we lived just fine without air conditioning."

Bald-Walker says, "In the old days we were young and tough."

"Like I said," says Maurice, "we've become pussies."

♦ ♦ ♦

Now The Fixture is talking to Underwear and Knitting Needle. "My son lives out on Allied Drive," he says, "and he can't even order a pizza." Allied Drive is the main thoroughfare through Madison's bleakest neighborhood. It's Sesame Street compared to any bigger city's urban ghetto, but by local standards Allied Drive is the slums. "He called a pizza place, and as soon as he gave his address they apologized, but said they don't deliver there. He called a different pizza place, nearer to his apartment, and they said no, too."

"Welcome to my world," says Underwear.

"It's racism," says The Fixture. "It ought to be illegal. This isn't the 1950s."

"It's a pain," says Knitting Needle, "but Allied Drive is a neighborhood, not a race. A lot of delivery drivers have been mugged, robbed, beaten up out there, so I can understand the drivers' reluctance."

"It's an essential service, though," says The Fixture. "It's food. If Pizza Hut can say no to delivery because of the neighborhood, is that different from restaurants saying they don't serve colored people?" Maybe he's using the term in its correct historical context, but still I wince at the term 'colored people'. Isn't this the guy who just a moment ago said, 'This isn't the '50s'?

"It's different," says Underwear. "I can't order a pizza delivered to Allied Drive, but that's not because I'm black."

"Well, it's 'deliveryism', then," says The Fixture. "It still ought to be illegal."

"I don't agree," says Knitting Needle. "Here's some kid delivering pizza, making minimum wage plus tips. It's a job, that's all. If he's required to go to a dangerous neighborhood where he gets attacked, you're making pizza into life-or-death."

"It still seems wrong to me," mutters The Fixture, and I'm pretty sure the glance between Knitting Needle and Underwear Model says, If you'd seen the things I've seen, you wouldn't worry about 'deliveryism'.

♦ ♦ ♦

A customer I don't recognize settles in at a table near the back, gives Harvey his order, and asks, "So where's Bob?" and he has a point. Bob is the owner, and in the past I'd see him perhaps half the time I came to the diner. Since the coronavirus I've seen him exactly once.

"Not enough business," Harvey says, and walks away as if he's answered the question. Harvey is not a talkative fellow, but I reckon I know the diner well enough to expand his three words into a paragraph:

The diner was a four-person operation before COVID came to town — Kirstin, Harvey, Slim, and Bob. Business has been slow since reopening, and each of the three employees are working only four days a week instead of five. My guess is that Bob has stopped working his own shifts so the other three can keep their jobs and health insurance. That's nice, but it makes me wonder again, How long can a little restaurant like this survive with so few customers?

♦ ♦ ♦

Done with breakfast, I finish an extra refill of coffee, and pay and tip and leave.

Of course, in the pandemic, washing your hands is a habit after going anywhere, so at home I walk straight to the bathroom to scrub up, glance at my face in the mirror, and what the hell? There's orange in my beard, on both sides of my mouth. It's just a couple of narrow streaks, but impossible not to notice. I touch it; it's dried. I taste it; it's thousand island dressing, from the salad I ate last night with dinner. Sigh.

My first thought is, Fuck you, Harvey. You could've said something and I would've stepped into the men's room and washed the yesterfood off my beard.

My second thought is, Why do I always give Harvey the same big tip I'd give Kirstin? I ought to be more stingy with that bastard.

My third thought is, Well, would I have said anything to Harvey if he'd had dried food on his face? Probably not.

And now I'm thinking, It's funny, that's all. If you can't laugh at salad dressing in your beard, you're taking life too seriously. I briefly daydream about wreaking an amusing revenge, but I remember Kirstin saying 'Nobody messes with Harvey'. I don't want to be that nobody, so, yeah, I'll be the bigger man and let it go.


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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