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Breakfast at the Diner — #14

I'm trying again to be the diner's first customer, so I can snag The Fixture's stool before he arrives. The diner opens at 6:00 in the morning, and I'm parked on the street at 5:44. I flip on the dome light and read my magazine in the car until 5:50, when I cover my face with an anti-pandemic mask, lock the car, and walk to the building's door. It's still locked, and I'm alone — so I've won, and if The Fixture shows up now, he'll have to fight me to take his customary stool.

An old white man walks up, stands behind me, and sorta groans and says, "Why don't they unlock the frickin' door a few minutes early? They shouldn't make us stand out here..." It's Damned Good Coffee, so nicknamed because he's always a grouch until he gets his caffeine. I say nothing, but nod in pretended agreement.

ManBun and Lady ManBun approach; they're a couple of young hippies who frequent the diner. She says hello, and ManBun smiles hugely and looks right at me and says "It's good to see you, man." Why would he say that? I grunt in response, and he launches a long description of how sunny and beautiful yesterday was. Yeah, ManBun, I remember yesterday. I'm already zoning out from his bubbly happy-talk, but now he does the dreaded introductions. Oh my goodness golly, he's already said his ladyfriend's name and his own, both of which I've instantly forgotten, and now he's asking for my name, which I don't want to provide.

"Domingo," I lie. "Pleased to meet you," and that's another lie. It's 2020 so we do not even think of shaking hands, and now he's prattling on about spirituality and shrooms and telling me he plays bass in a band, but I am so very much not someone who cares that ManBun is in a band. My 'perpetually grumpy' schtick is usually an effective shield against moments like this. Jeez, ManBun, Do you not see my shield?

Thankfully, Damned Good Coffee says something to Lady ManBun and now those three are talking without me, but Phil is approaching. He's another regular at the diner, a jovial, extroverted 40-something white guy who cracks jokes as easy and often as Harvey cracks eggs. He says something to me, and it's probably something funny so I chuckle, but I didn't actually hear it. I'm a little hard of hearing but mostly hard of conversation — having several people talking near me and to me is something I rarely endure and never enjoy.

Please, someone, unlock the door and let us inside. I am here to eat breakfast, not to meet & greet & mingle at the door. Phil says something else that's probably funny, and I smile but inside I'm sagebrush blowing through the desert.

At last there's a knock from inside the diner's door, and Kirstin smiles and waves through the door's keyboard-sized rectangular glass window. She's letting us know that we can come inside, but she can't open the door because it swings outward and we're all huddled against it.

Sweet relief — the awkward conversation at the door is finished. I'm into the diner before The Fixture. In my mind there's a brassy orchestra playing triumphant music as at long last, I slide onto the stool where nobody but him ever sits. It might as well have 'The Fixture' embroidered in the upholstery.

"You came early to steal Frank's seat?" Kirstin asks, and then she answers, "He's not going to like that, but tough luck. You snooze, you lose." I smile, she pours coffee, and now I know that The Fixture's name is Frank.

Mercifully the other customers scatter inside the restaurant, and for the rest of the morning I overhear nothing from any of them. My heart is still racing from all that hellish conversation out front. It'll be worth it, though, to annoy The Fixture. Life is better than three minutes ago. I unmask, sip the coffee, and glance toward the door to see if he's coming.

♦ ♦ ♦

Instead of The Fixture, a couple of men walk in. They're dressed like construction workers, complete with fluorescent vests. They sit at the counter and loudly order, and instantly I don't like them, and for their entire breakfast they reinforce my snap judgment. Chatter chatter, followed by loud laughs, more chatter chatter, another loud round of laughs, and then more chatter chatter. I can't understand more than a few words of their talking and laughing, and don't want to. They're beefy and boisterous best buddies, and their mannerisms reminds me of too many men I've hated, so I hate 'em. I am not Dale Carnegie.

♦ ♦ ♦

Conversations at the diner seem to start the moment the door is unlocked in the morning — or before, apparently. Customers who come in together, couples and triples and occasional quadruples, generally just talk amongst themselves. At this diner, though, most customers come in alone like me. Us solo eaters usually order a meal and say 'thank you' afterwards and don't say much in between, but there are always a few who seem to come for the talking more than the biscuits and gravy. They never shut up.

You're not required to participate in the dialog, but you can't escape hearing it. Sometimes it's amusing and sometimes it's annoying and since there's no opting out I take notes, jotting down people's profound or stupid remarks. Then I come home and try and sometimes semi-succeed at sewing the words overheard into something worth reading.

Maybe 60% of what's said in the diner doesn't interest me at all — football, baseball, and other sportsball, the weather, everyone's fishing and hunting stories, their children and grandchildren, amazing things the dog or the hamster did, and so on. There's also conversation that I can't decipher or make sense of, and like anyplace in America the diner gets an occasional empty-headed right-wing bullshitmonger talking about the fact-free fantasy realm where they reside. I have standards, though. I'm not wasting a single scribble in The New Yorker's margins on any of that crap.

♦ ♦ ♦

I'll invest some ink in Brian, though. The line that catches my attention is, "Don't feel bad for what you did, Brian," and immediately I'm wondering what Brian did, and really, why shouldn't he feel awful about it?

Of course, I don't know who Brian is. Never seen him before, and I hadn't noticed Brian and his breakfast companion when they walked in, because they're two twenty-something white men, well-dressed and upper-crust by appearance. Young professionals on a career trajectory is my guess, so they're the walking definition of I'm not interested. I'm intrigued, though, that Brian doesn't have to feel bad for what he did, so I intently eavesdrop.

Brian apologizes, and sounds sincere. His voice cracks like he's on the verge of crying, and I'm tempted to yell from down the counter, 'It's OK, just don't do it again!'

Having lived their whole lives on Facebook, people like Brian and Not-Brian don't really understand the concept of privacy. I'm from a different era; if I had a major blunder to apologize for, I'd apologize someplace where half a dozen people aren't listening, where a waitress isn't interrupting to ask if we want more coffee, and where some fat stranger isn't taking notes.

It happened at a party, and Phyllis wasn't acting like herself, and Brian and Phyllis have a history, but nobody knew what was in the box — something like that — and who the hell goes to a party during a pandemic?

Brian's apology sounded genuine, and I'm glad the apology was accepted. A sincere apology should always be accepted, unless it's from some schmuck like my nephew, who screws up over and over again, always apologizing and then screwing up something else.

♦ ♦ ♦

One of the regulars — a quiet guy, so he hasn't earned a nickname from me — is having his breakfast three stools to my left. Kirstin is a fabulous waitress but she's not perfect, and she's forgotten to offer him salt and pepper. She's momentarily not behind the counter, so he asks me, "Could you pass the salt and pepper, please?" I don't think twice about it, just slide my shakers down toward him, saying something like, "No problem, Mister."

That's me and some stranger being what was called 'civilized' before the pandemic, but now it violates all the proper protocol for our world under viral siege. Hope it's not true but for all he knows, I've just given him salt and pepper and a fatal infection.

Maybe I should've refused, and let him go without seasoning until Kirstin returned? She would've given him a set of the shakers kept under the counter, which are freshly sanitized between customers. Maybe I shouldn't be eating at a diner at all? Or maybe just maybe, we have to take some small risks once in a while because everything in life is a risk.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bouffant-Walker comes into the diner toward the end of my breakfast. He always enters at the same time, about 6:30, and he always says 'good morning' to me, or words to that effect. Today he says his predictable 'good morning' and adds "What are you doing in Frank's seat?" but he's rolled away toward a table before I can think of an answer.

Bouffant is a 50/50 guy — sometimes he parks his walker and his self at a table, and sometimes he sits at a stool at the counter, leaving his walker partially blocking the aisle because the aisle is narrow. In hundreds of meals at this diner, I only ate at a table once, the very first time I was here, with my wife. Since then, I've been a counter guy, 100%.

For detailed but boring reasons I'll skip, there are four or five stools I prefer — second, fourth, and sixth or seventh stool from the end on the right, or the last stool on the left — but The Fixture's stool will never be one of them. It's right next to the door, so you feel the breeze and probably inhale the coronavirus every time anyone enters or exits. Being the corner seat, this stool offers a panoramic view of almost everyone at the counter and at most of the tables, and that's not the view I want. I'd rather see the backside of a coffee machine, in one of my normal seats.

I'm not sitting here ever again. The whole point of stealing The Fixture's stool was to annoy him, but I'm the only one who was annoyed. He never even showed up this morning.

 

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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