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Breakfast at the Diner — #16

Did I understand this right? I'm just coming into the diner, getting settled in my stool, and Maurice and Bald-Walker are in the middle of a conversation. Bald is saying how he misses going to the games, what with the pandemic and all, and Maurice is complaining because he didn't get to play softball this summer. "First year I haven't played since I was a kid," he says.

People will surprise you sometimes, but is this possible? Is he joking? Maurice is so old he makes me feel young, and — he plays softball? I wanted to ask him, fast-pitch or slow-pitch? And which position? He's a little shaky when he walks, so I can't see him as a shortstop. He's tall and lanky, maybe he plays first-base.

More to the point, though, he's bald, liver-splotched, and there's an oxygen tube in his nose. Does he take the tube out and leave his oxygen tank in the dugout when he's at bat or running the bases? No mockery is intended, only respect and amazement, but — so many questions I didn't ask.

♦ ♦ ♦

Usually I don't work on Fridays, and start my weekend with an omelet at the diner. This week, though, we worked overtime — overtime, while working from home, how weird is that? So I'm here on Sunday morning instead, but it seems to be mostly the same cast of characters. I see several faces I've seen here before, sipping coffee and eating eggs on a different day.

♦ ♦ ♦

A black woman comes in, alone and in her 40s I'd guess, and she's — what's a polite word? — plus-sized. Hey, I like 'em plus-sized. I'm plus-sized. She's attractive, and she's wearing a sleeveless white t-shirt that shows off her arms and other attributes I'm not supposed to notice but do. It's a blazingly white t-shirt, too — like she's in a commercial for detergent.

She sits where the counter bends ninety degrees to the right, and Kirstin is taking my order so she says to this lady, "Good morning! I'll be with you in just a moment," and the lady nods.

She's in no rush, obviously, but Harvey darts up front from the kitchen, with an order pad in his hand. He's smiling, which is something I've never seen before. He says good morning to her, pours coffee and says a few words and mentions the morning's special. It's unusual for Harvey to take orders while Kirstin is working, and he's never this energetic or friendly when he's taking my order.

Must be hellish to be an attractive woman, I think. I'd rather be a lumpy old man.

My favorite moment of the morning comes next, after Harvey takes her order and turns and walks back toward the kitchen. This lady plainly rolls her eyes and shakes her head. She says a paragraph with that gesture, thinking she's saying it only to herself, but I see it and literally LOL. She hears me laugh and we make eye contact from a dozen stools apart, and she might have slightly smiled at me, I'm not sure. Possibly she shrugs, as if to say, That's the way it goes, or maybe I'm imagining it. It's only a moment, and now she reads her magazine, and I read mine.

♦ ♦ ♦

My omelet hasn't arrived yet, when I glance at the door because someone's walking in. He's wearing a mask but I know that face. It's Rufus. Oh, fuck it all to hell. Rufus and I work in the same office, but we've both been working from home since the pandemic started. Why did I look up? If I'd kept my eyes in my magazine we could've plausibly pretended not to notice each other. Now he's seen me, and seen me seeing him, and he's walking toward me, alone and smiling. I'm making every effort to smile, too, but inside I'm screaming.

"Hey, Ted!" he says, too loud from too far away as he keeps coming too close and too closer. Oh, fuck it all to hell. He's not an enemy, but he's not a friend, and not someone I want to see outside the office, but — here he comes.

He's twenty steps away, but I answer loudly, "Hey, Rufus, how ya doing?" and I'm smiling but also using my sci-fi telepathy to transmit a message: Don't sit here, don't sit here, don't sit here. It's nothing personal. I almost like the guy. He's a big bear of a man, younger and nicer and more outgoing than me. At work he's about 75% present, the other 25% lost to years of drug abuse, but that's no problem. Where we work, 75% is more than enough brains to get by.

Now he's ten steps away, walking at a normal pace but in my mind it's like slow-motion video of a mushroom cloud spreading over Nevada. He might sit down and eat with me, talk with me, but I have nothing to say and I'd rather eat alone. At work, his desk is fifty feet from mine, but it's a different department so we rarely interact. In five years we've had maybe two conversations and I don't want a third, not here, not today, not during my sacred breakfast at the diner. But here he is, standing over me at my stool.

"So, we both eat at the best damn diner in town," he says, and the dreaded chit-chat has begun. What I want to say is, "Go away," but instead I tell him I'm usually here on Fridays, and he says he's always here on Sundays, which I guess gives him the home field advantage. I ask how he likes working at home, not because I care but because it's my turn to talk and I'm supposed to say something. He answers, but instead of listening I'm watching his eyes darting between some empty adjacent stools. He's thinking, Am I supposed to sit with this guy and have breakfast with him? Same thing I'm thinking.

The answer is emphatically no but I don't know how to say it tactfully, since the question hasn't even been asked. Tact, man. I have none, and they don't sell it at Amazon, but now I need every ounce of any tact that's within me.

"Hey Rufus," I say, "we don't have to do this just because we ended up at the same diner."

"Oh, thank Christ," he says, blurting it out before I've quite finished what I was saying. "That's exactly what I was hoping one of us would say. See you at work, Ted, if we ever get back there."

And with that he's already beelined to a table way, way at the back of the diner. We both enjoy our breakfasts in solitude, and later it occurs to me that the table where he's eating is about as far from my stool as the distance between our desks at work. A nice, socially-distant distance.

I gotta commit this to memory: Rufus said he always comes to the diner on Sunday mornings. I always come to the diner on Friday mornings. If anything keeps me away on a Friday morning, there are five other days to choose from, but this diner is now off-limits for me on Sundays.

♦ ♦ ♦

Toward the end of my blissfully solitary meal, three men come in together. They're buddies, obviously, but they're not loud or rambunctious so what do I care? They take three stools, leaving an empty stool between each of them, and they're all between me and Black Woman in White T-Shirt.

It's slowly dawning on me that the last of these three men is parking his butt on a stool that leaves just one empty seat between him and me. That's enough space between us for normal times, but times aren't normal and it's been a while since anyone's sat that near to me at the diner.

Kirstin approaches the newcomers, says "Hi" with her ordinary smile, and then she says, "Sorry, you guys can't sit at the counter. Not enough empty stools between the customers. Why don't you take that table near the window? I'll be right out with the coffee pot!"

These three men obediently take the table where they've been directed, and as promised Kirstin is promptly there with coffee and three cups.

Dimly I remember, yeah, that's right, there's a rule during the pandemic: Customers who aren't from the same household must be separated by a minimum space. One stool between me and that guy would've been too close.

Kirstin enforced that rule, protected me and those three other customers and T-Shirt Woman too, and she did it so smoothly that none of us quite knew what was happening, even as she made it happen exactly as it's supposed to happen.

♦ ♦ ♦

Not much later, a couple of 30s women enter, one black and one white and they're holding hands. They sit at those same counter seats where Kirstin wouldn't let the men sit, and which she'd wiped off after they'd gone to the table. Since there's only these two ladies and they're sitting together, there's plenty of room between us all. They say yes to coffee — almost everyone says yes to coffee — and the black lady asks Kirstin, "Do you have any vegan options?"

"Well," she says, "we could make you a nice vegetable platter, with or without a side of hash browns, and our ketchup is vegan. We can make oatmeal with water instead of milk, and some of our regular vegans enjoy dipping unbuttered toast into the oatmeal."

Honestly, that's not the answer I'd expected, and it sounds like a pretty good breakfast. First time I've heard anyone at the diner ask about vegan options, but obviously it wasn't the first time Kirstin had heard the question. The two ladies ordered a veggie platter with hash browns and oatmeal with unbuttered toast, and they shared their breakfasts off each other's plates.

♦ ♦ ♦

Between reading my magazine and eating my meal and absorbing the diner's low-key ambiance, sometimes I take it for granted but today I notice, Kirstin is damned good at her job. She's always busy, pouring coffee, taking orders (sometimes quite complicated orders, with special requests and allergies to be considered), bringing the food and silverware and condiments, checking in later to make sure everyone's happy, handling orders over the phone, washing dishes or peeling potatoes when there's a lull, adding up the numbers on everyone's tickets, remembering everyone's names and 'usuals' and making just enough conversation to let each customer know that she gives a damn, but never so much as to be intrusive.

More than all the rest of it combined, I'd hate that last part of her job. Conversation is the worst part of being human, at least for me, but Kirstin is always ready to listen to people talk about football, politics, the weather, the coronavirus, the royal family, or whatever any paying customer wants to babble about. She laughs at their same tired jokes she's doubtless heard 10,000 times. She mentions her husband fairly frequently in the chit-chat, as a defense mechanism, I think, to remind stupid men that there are boundaries.

Yeah, I really couldn't do her job, but she's great at it, and today I said it as I paid. "You're damned good at what you do, Kirstin." Then I put on my mask, put down my tip, nodded at Rufus in the distance at the back of the diner, and left by the door at the front.

 

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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