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Breakfast at the Diner — #20

I'm ensconced on my preferred stool at the diner, which is a special treat indeed. Usually I settle for my third or fourth favorite stool, because someone's already claimed my most beloved perch, or someone's sitting too close to it. This morning, though, for the first time in months, I've snagged the best seat in the house.

My section of the counter is deserted except for me, but there are six other customers, and Kirstin is busy with several of them. She's resolving someone's complaint, then taking an order, then delivering a meal, so instead of the customary immediate greeting and quick shot of java, I'm on my own, reading my magazine for a few minutes before she gets to me.

"Sorry to keep you waiting, Sweetie," she says when she arrives. "The special today is andouille sausage, and for you we'll make it as an omelet. It's already cooking."

"It's already cooking?"

"Yeah, I was busy," she says. "but I knew what you'd order so it's already on the grill."

I'm not sure what to say to that. I do like the andouille sausage, though. And dagnabbit, she's right. If she tells me that's the special, that's what I'll order. But how — and now I switch from mental to vocal mode:

"How did you know that?"

"Ah, c'mon," she says. "I know you. You usually order the house omelet and hotcakes, but you'll always consider the special. If the special is a Reuben omelet or kielbasa and eggs, you're a maybe — sometimes yes, sometimes no. If it's biscuits and gravy, you're usually no. Cheeseburger omelet or when we do the crazy crepes, you're a definite no. But when the special is the andouille sausage, you're always a yes. Soon as Harvey told me this morning what the special is, I knew you'd order it when you got here. Same as I knew you'd be here, this being Friday and all."

"Uh, thanks," I said. "You're exactly right, of course."

What I didn't say is that sometimes I'm in awe of what this woman does so routinely. Also, I'm glad she doesn't work for the FBI.

I've been coming to this restaurant since before Moses parted the Red Sea, and Kirstin has been working here longer than I've been coming here, so she has my usual order memorized. That's impressive. But she also has all of my variants memorized like an Excel spreadsheet in her head, and she can place my order without me — and get it right? On a good day I am somewhat competent at my dumb job, but Kirstin is eleven miles past competent at hers.

♦ ♦ ♦

Knitting Needle comes in with another woman about the same age, which is middle. I notice them because, well, they're women and by habit and testosterone I tend to notice women. Then they sit at a table and disappear from my brain until ten minutes later, when I hear the friend say, "Sometimes I wonder, what's the point of it all?"

"Who says there's a point?" Knitting Needle replies. "You do your best, and hope it's good enough."

"Sometimes I just want to go kerbang," her friend says, miming a pistol shot to the head, and I hope she's joking. Knitting Needle replies with a burst of laughter.

Nobody wants a suicide-prevention talk in the diner (though that would be preferable, I suppose, to a suicide in the diner), and as they continue talking, a few more sentences make it clear that neither of them is on a ledge. It's only two friends being honest about their frustrations.

"I'm just so bored," says the one who's not Knitting Needle. "I'm married to an OK man, I work an OK job, I make an OK dinner, I'm reading an OK book, and it's all OK. Every damn day is OK, and 'OK' is boring the crap out of me."

Set it to a catchy tune and she's written a much-improved national anthem. Knitting Needle nods and says, "I feel you, honey. I do."

Now, let me change the subject and wax grumpy about that modern-day clichรฉ. I hate "I feel you." You don't "feel me" unless I've given permission, and I've given no-one permission to feel me since my wife died. Try saying, "I understand." Or even "I feel your pain." Say anything, but not "I feel you." Grammar matters, damn it.

♦ ♦ ♦

Outside it's lightly raining, and a wet, windswept woman drips into the diner. She sits at a table near the door, looking ill-at-ease. Kirstin, of course, greets her like she greets everyone. "Good morning, Sweetie. Would you like coffee?"

"I don't have any money," the woman says quietly. "I just wanted to be out of the rain."

"Coffee then?" says Kirstin.

"Really?" she says. Kirstin smiles, brings a cup, and pours, and I do love this place.

♦ ♦ ♦

The phone rings, and I barely notice, because the diner's phone rings a lot, with people ordering take-out because they're skittish about eating inside during a pandemic that's killed 200,000 and is still gathering momentum. People smarter than me, to be honest.

At the second ring, Slim shouts from the kitchen, "Are you out there, Kirstin? I'm in the middle of something." Hmmm. There's just Kirstin and Slim this morning, and I don't see Kirstin anywhere. Like most humans, she sometimes needs to be in a different room all by herself, and I'm guessing that's where she is.

At the third ring, Slim says, barely audible over the sound of whatever's sizzling on the grill, "Ah, well, the machine answers after the third ring." But it rings a fourth time, and he says, "Aw crap, the machine isn't on. Well, they can call back later."

Usually I'm a coward and I'd hesitate until the moment had passed, maybe wishing afterwards that I'd done something, but for some reason this morning I have an idea and instantly decide to do it. Why not? I'd be doing Kirstin a solid. A couple of months ago, a customer walked behind the counter to use the sink, and nobody freaked out. So I lift myself off the stool, beeline behind the counter, and midway through the sixth ring, I pick up the phone. Slim is still working at the grill but he laughs when he sees me, before I even say a word.

"Bob's Diner," I say to the phone. A man's voice says something but I can't understand, because I'm hard of hearing and it's loud near the kitchen and there's static on the line. "Excuse me?" I say, and he says louder, 'Something cheese omelet'. I have a pen clipped to my shirt cuz I'm geeky, but I don't have anything to write on, so I write 'CHZ O' on one hand, holding the phone with the other. The cord under my neck starts strangling me, while I mumble, "What kind of toast?" I've heard Kirstin ask these questions for years, so I can do this. He answers, and I write 'WH'. My next question is "Coffee or anything?" The voice says 'Yup' so I scribble 'COF' and say "That'll be about ten minutes," like I've heard Kirstin and Harvey and Slim say.

I'm doing good, but here's a curve ball. He asks what it will cost, and I don't know. I eat here once weekly, but haven't looked at the menu in years. Ball park guess? "Uh, ten bucks or so." I hang up, forgetting to say thanks, and then Kirstin is chuckling behind me, with a little green order pad in her hand.

"So," she says, "what's the order?"

I look at my hand ('CHZ O WH COF') and say, "Cheese omelet, white toast, and coffee." She writes it down in proper restaurantese, but I'm thinking, Wait a minute, did he say white toast, or wheat? Why did I only write 'WH'? Well, I'm 60% certain he said white, but I'm also suddenly wondering whether 'something cheese omelet' might have been 'ham and cheese omelet' or 'sausage and cheese omelet' instead of just 'cheese omelet'.

"Hash browns or American fries?" Kirstin asks me.

"I, uh, didn't ask." Because I don't even know the difference.

"Most people order hash browns," Slim says, still cooking someone's breakfast. "Let's go with that."

"Cream and sugar?" Kirstin asks.

"No idea." I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

"Did you get a name?"

"Uh, no."

"OK," Kirstin says, handing the green sheet to Slim. "You did real good for a first effort, but you still have to pay for your breakfast."

I sit down at my plate, chug my coffee, and watch as Kirstin wipes down the phone where I'd handled it, because COVID will kill you if you're not careful.

A few customers are looking at me, or maybe I'm imagining it, and yeah, I'm embarrassed and second-guessing what I did. I thought it might be a laugh, but instead I thoroughly screwed it up.

Damn it — but also, Oh, well. You do your best, and hope it's good enough. Now quit looking at me, please. I'm reading my magazine here.

 

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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