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Breakfast at the Diner — #19

Pushing the door open, I step inside. Kirstin sees me and smiles and says hello. Harvey hollers, "Hey, Chief," from the kitchen, and he must be in a damn good mood or high, because that's the warmest greeting he's ever given me. Slim is running a soapy cloth across an empty table, but he glances up at me and says "Hi."

All I've done is step into a place of business, but it feels akin to coming home, or maybe better than that. When I go 'home' — back to the family I grew up in — there are ongoing arguments to sidestep or participate in, a billion memories good and not so good, and things we have to talk about, and things we can never talk about, and it gets complicated quick. My family tolerates me, but the diner actually wants me, long as I pay the bill and leave a tip.

♦ ♦ ♦

Just the Hash Browns comes in, and seats himself adjacent to me at the counter. I'm wary, of course, because sometimes he likes to talk, and — have I mentioned? — I'm not much for dialogue. He orders "Just the hash browns, honey," surprising no-one, certainly not Kirstin.

"Yeah, I had a sneaking suspicion," she says with a friendly tone, as she walks away to relay the order to the kitchen.

"How are you doing this fine morning?" says Hash Browns, and I pretend not to know he's talking to me. My strategy works, and he instead starts talking to someone at a nearby table.

♦ ♦ ♦

Well, here's something I haven't seen at the diner before — pretty sure it's a tweaker having breakfast. He's twenty, wiry, white with a pimply complexion, and his hair and clothes seem un-recently washed.

He's sitting at the counter but far from me, and I'm nearsighted so he's out of focus, but even at a distance I can see that he has brown and black spots in his teeth. He's hyperanimated, moving his arms frequently and in big swoops, very Roger Rabbit, every several seconds even when he's not aiming food into his mouth.

He's extremely chatty with everyone within earshot — chatty even in a diner known for its nonstop banter. Lucky for me, he's soft-spoken so I can't make out much of what he's saying, but I assume it's nothing offensive, or Kirstin would toss him out the door.

I finish connecting the dots toward methamphetamine when she interrupts him to say, "Would you like a refill of your Mountain Dew?"

A lady who'd originally been stationed at the counter, midway between me and the tweaker, gets up after that, and wordlessly carries her plate to a distant table way in the back. She returns to the counter to get her coffee and the syrup for her pancakes, and Kirstin smiles and says, "Wherever you settle, I'll find you and bring more coffee."

I eat, read, and take notes as usual, but keep an eye on the tweaker. Everything I know about meth I learned from Breaking Bad so I don't know anything really, but his helicopter arms and overamped demeanor make me nervous.

Nothing further happens, though. Ten minutes later he manically dabs a napkin at his face, pays and tips and says thank you, and he's gone.

You were expecting a point? When have I ever had a point?

♦ ♦ ♦

Here comes Bouffant-Walker, same time as always, every Friday at 6:30 or so. He says "Good morning" to me, and I'll admit it — he gets on my nerves a little. I'm sure he's as nice as any other case of mild dementia, but he's too talky about too many things, and too outgoing for me. It impedes on my introversion, if that makes sense, which it probably doesn't. Still, I do say good morning to him, and fake a smile.

♦ ♦ ♦

Here comes Health Report, saddling up to a spot at the counter, within easy talking distance of Hash Browns. Good morning, they say to each other, and I give it one minute before Health Report brings up something about his aches and pains and diseases. I'm wrong, though. It takes quite a while.

First they talk about Trump getting COVID, which is all over the news this morning, but they're both skeptical. "I need to hear it from someone other than Trump," says Hash Browns. "He says a lot of bull and you never know."

"He never stops 'tweeting'," says Health Report, with an oddly perfect pronunciation of tweeting, like it's new to his vocabulary. "He never stops messing things up, but he always has time for 'tweeting'."

"That's a good thing, too," says Hash Browns. "Can you imagine how much damage he could do if he just shut up for once, and concentrated on doing the damage instead of tweeting?"

They both laugh, and then Health Report says, "Oh, man, can I tell you, my leg hurts this morning." I glance at the clock on the wall. They'd talked about other things for a little more than four minutes.

♦ ♦ ♦

Midway through my breakfast, someone says something about Hubert Humphrey, a name I haven't heard since I had no gray hair. I glance up to confirm, and yup, it's someone old, of course. No-one who's not on Social Security would have anything to say about ol' Hubert. It's two old black men, together at a table and talking politics — not present-day politics, but the politics of their era, the 1970s.

Scanning the room, seven other people are eating breakfast or waiting for breakfast, and it's mostly the cast of Coccoon. Wilford Brimley is at the counter, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy are at a table, and Don Ameche is sitting where The Fixture used to sit. Broderick Crawford wasn't in that movie, but someone who looks a lot like him just walked in.

Now that the Tweaker has left, there's nobody under forty in the building, except the cook. There's a man at a table by the window who looks so old he's just a collection of wrinkles wearing baggy clothes. There comes an age when you just can't guess someone's age; is he 80? 90? 110? Yeah, that's the man at the window table.

Today's average customer at the diner must be 60 years old, which makes me older than the average customer. I wonder who'll be alive to have breakfast at this place in ten years. Me, I hope, but realistically the odds are against it.

♦ ♦ ♦

"I'm tired of everything on State Street being boarded up," I overhear. It's two old white gentlemen, and I'll call them gentlemen because they're both wearing suits, which is unusual at the diner.

State Street is a neighborhood near the University campus, with coffee shops and bookstores, bars and restaurants, boutiques and panhandlers. Every city has a neighborhood that's especially 'cool' or 'funky', and in Madison, Wisconsin, it's State Street — and it's been boarded up since the protests and riots, a few months ago.

"The shops don't want to take the boards down, because they're afraid there'll be more riots," says one well-dressed old white man to the other.

"Well, there will be more riots, until someone does something about the problem."

"The problem is, the rioters get away with rioting."

"No, sir. The problem is, police keep killing unarmed black people, and getting away with it. That tends to make them angry, imagine that. We'll have riots until someone stops the cops from killing black people again and again."

They continue lightly arguing about something that probably means little to either of them in their three-piece vested world, but their opinions grow more and more stupid, so I'll end my coverage here, while one of them was still making sense. Let's let the rest of their conversation fade away into my coffee.

♦ ♦ ♦

I pay the bill and leave a tip, and I guess Bouffant ate his breakfast quickly, or maybe I lingered over my coffee a little longer than usual, because we're both leaving at the same time. He's having some trouble with the door.

My wife used a walker before she used a wheelchair, so from experience I know that doors can be difficult while you're maneuvering inside a metal box. I consider holding the door for him, but he's made it through that door a thousand times, and he knows what he's doing. I wait behind him, and it isn't a long wait.

Now we're both outside and walking the same direction on the sidewalk, until we go our separate ways at the crosswalk. He starts across the street, and as I turn left to walk toward my car, I say, "Adios."

He says, "Thanks again" and walks onward, and I'm wondering, what's he thanking me for? And "again"? Is he thanking me for picking up the pepper he dropped a month ago? Is he sarcastically chiding me for not helping him with the door? Or is he just piss-poor at making conversation, like me?

I jot down what just happened, onto a scrap of paper on the warm hood of my car. Then I climb inside, buckle up and start the engine, drive home and type it all up — another damned fine breakfast where I didn't even mention the breakfast.

 

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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