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Breakfast at the Diner — #15

There are four customers in the diner when I walk in. The Fixture is absent again, but Phil is telling a joke to Q-Man, who's laughing even before the punchline. Bald-Walker is seated at the same table where he almost toppled a few weeks ago. I nod at him, and he nods back. OK, I'm thinking, that's enough human interaction for me today.

Just the Hash Browns Honey must have arrived mere moments before me, since he's still in the process of sitting down at the counter. He's an old guy, so sitting down takes him a while. Kirstin the waitress asks, "Just the hash browns?"

"Just the hash browns, honey," he says.

I take a stool and Kirstin is instantly there, pouring coffee and setting me up with cream and napkins and salt and pepper. "The special today is kielbasa and eggs," she says, so I guess the diner has daily specials again — hope that means business is picking up?

I've had the diner's kielbasa before and it's marvelous, so that's what I order, and Kirstin thoughtfully offers to have Harvey prep it as an omelet. Then she's talking about her children and grandchildren, and I like Kirstin just fine, but I'm the quiet guy so I'm glad she's talking to someone else.

♦ ♦ ♦

A middle-aged white man enters the diner, sits down, orders coffee, and asks Kirstin, "Do you have the homemade corned beef hash today?"

"We have it homemade as a special sometimes, but today it comes from a can."

"From a can," he says, mulling it over. "Is it any good?"

"It's edible," Kirstin answers, "but it's better when Harvey makes it from scratch."

He orders scrambled eggs and sausage instead, and then the diner has a rare couple of minutes with no conversation in the air. I read my magazine and sip at my coffee, and ponder the profundity of corned beef hash in a can.

There was a guy at the diner a few weeks ago who'd never heard of eggs over-hard, and sometimes I'm similarly clueless. It's amazing the things you can go through life without knowing. "Corned beef hash" is one of those things — we never had it when I was a kid, so it was just a nonsensical phrase I'd heard but didn't understand, until I came to the diner for breakfast a bunch of years back.

Years-younger Kirstin told years-younger me that morning, "The special today is homemade corned beef hash." Did I ask what corned beef hash is? Nope. Remember, I'm the quiet guy. But I ordered it, ate it, and loved it, and then afterwards I asked Kirstin what the hell I'd just eaten. 'Corn' and 'beef' seem fairly obvious, though I hadn't seen or tasted any corn, and I knew 'hash' but only as a nickname for hashish, which isn't on the diner's menu.

Kirstin explained it to me, and I'll explain it to you: First off, there's no corn, so 'corned beef' is a lie. It's ordinary beef, soaked in a mixture of water and salt with some other spices. 'Corning', for no logical reason, is the word for soaking beef this way. It lets salty deliciousness seep deep into every mouthful, before this 'corned beef' is cooked slowly and 'hashed' with a knife, which means it's chopped into bite-sized bits. Mix it with some potatoes and onions, and it's corned beef hash.

The homemade hash at the diner is perfection, and same as the kielbasa when that's the special that's what I order. Canned hash sounds like an abomination, though. Never tried it, and never will. (Which is another lie — an hour later at home, typing this paragraph, I've decided to risk adding a can of corned beef hash to next week's shopping list.)

♦ ♦ ♦

It's 6:30, so here comes Bouffant-Walker. Same time, every Friday; you could post a schedule. He says good morning to me as he passes my stool, and I say good morning back. Same as always. Then he sits at the end of the counter and starts his occasional babbling, saying something out loud every two or four minutes. His intent, I think, is to engage some random soul in a conversation — throw out a sentence and see if anyone responds.

"The buses have been free since March because of the coronavirus," Bouffant-Walker tells the diner, "but now riders have to pay. Bus system is hurting for funds," he adds, "but who isn't?" There's no response.

♦ ♦ ♦

"Is everything OK here?" Kirstin asks, as she's pouring more coffee for me. It's a standard waitress question, but I try to come up with a new response every week.

"I'm a cranky old bastard," I say, "so I'd let you know if anything was wrong, but everything's always perfect."

"Why, thank you," she says, and she's gone, pouring coffee for someone else.

♦ ♦ ♦

Health Report comes in, picks a stool, orders coffee, and starts talking about his recent visit to urgent-care because "it was all swollen." Nobody asks what was swollen.

♦ ♦ ♦

Some old white guy I've never noticed before is sitting at the counter, saying something to Kirstin, but I didn't hear what he said. Sure heard what she said, though:

"Hey, we don't brook that. Not At All. You want to eat here, you watch your mouth."

Those are the harshest words I've ever heard from Kirstin. Harvey and Slim are both in the back, and I can neither see nor hear them, but I know they're listening, they've put down their spatulas or whatever, and they could be up front in seconds.

The man mumbles an apology, quietly resumes eating his meal, and everyone who didn't hear it is wondering what he said. It's a working-class diner, and I've heard some fairly vulgar conversations here, all with no reprimands from staff. I've heard bad politics, dirty jokes, menstrual disasters, vivid descriptions of death, and I once spent a few minutes talking with some stranger about our hemorrhoids while everyone was eating breakfast — and still, nobody told us to shut up like Kirstin told this old man.

He finishes, pays, apologizes again, and I wonder if he tips, and then he's gone.

"OK," says Bald-Walker, "what did he say?"

"N-word," Kirstin says. "I'll listen to a lot, but I won't listen to that."

Einstein supposedly said, "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." Nah, I'm not going to blather that racism is stupid — if you don't know that by now, no rant from me would rescue you. It's extra stupid, though, to say something like that in this place. All the customers are white as Ivory soap this morning, but that's unusual — we're in a mixed neighborhood that gets more mixed just a few blocks south of here.

♦ ♦ ♦

Three men come in, separately, over about a minute. None look familiar to me, but Kirstin greets them each by name. "Good morning, Carlos." "Howdy, Henry." "What's up, Stan?" I weigh the mathematical probabilities: here's a diner with only forty seats, where I've had breakfast once weekly for more than fifteen years, but still there are regular customers I've never seen before. And Kirstin knows all of them by name.

♦ ♦ ♦

Here's a minor dilemma. The diner has dozens of those little paper napkin dispensers that any restaurant has — or had. With the pandemic, those napkin dispensers are now hidden behind the counter, same as the ketchup and mustard, salt and pepper, cream and sugar, and menus. Gotta be mindful of the cross-customer contamination, right?

Well, fine, I understand and appreciate the precautions, but I can't make it through an entire breakfast with just the one paper napkin that Kirstin gave me when she set my place. A man needs multiple napkins over the course of a meal, especially if he's a sloppy man like me, and especially when the meal is kielbasa — spicy meat, which makes my nose run.

Early in the meal I ask Kirstin for some more napkins, and she gives me six from the diner's stack of paper napkins, beside the coffee pot on her side of the counter. Six paper napkins might seem like plenty, but the kielbasa is tangy and peppery and it makes my nose drip, and it's a steady drip like a leaky spigot. I've used seven napkins so far, and my nose is still dripping.

Kirstin, though, is now embroiled in conversation with Phil, on the other side of the counter. I'm not going to interrupt, but I'm dripping on my plate, my napkins are all snot-soaked, I'm wiping my nose on my sleeve, and I need a few more napkins. I'm eyeing that stack of napkins on Kirstin's side of the counter.

Why not? I don't know why I've been hesitating. Jerry did it with his azalea and nobody said anything. It all feels very junior high school, but I drip and wait and drip and wait before eventually mustering my courage. I quietly stand up, tiptoe behind the counter, and take four of their dinky little paper napkins.

Sneaking back to my seat, Bouffant says, "Oh, shit." He's dropped his pepper shaker onto the floor. It's right in my path so I bend over, pick it up, and put it gently on his table. "Thank you," he says, and I continue back to my seat, heroically, to mop up my nose.

I pay and tip and say thanks and leave, after stashing all the soggy napkins in my pocket. Kirstin has to handle my plate and silverware and cash and my general demeanor, but she doesn't have to handle my snot.

 

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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