Breakfast at the Diner — #22

Ah, dadgummit. When I come to the diner this early, there should be plenty of empty seats, and there are — every table is empty — but men are sitting on stools all along the counter. There no place for me to squeeze in.

I'd never take a stool right next to someone unless we're dating, and during the pandemic it's illegal to sit within two stools from some stranger, but every third stool is occupied ... so I stand like a statue of a fat guy for half a minute, calculating my move like chess.

Guess there are two options. Option one, the only legal option: I could take a seat at a table. Up front by the window the tables offer a lovely view of the traffic outside, but dang it I don't want to sit in one of those hard wooden chairs, and the coffee refills come less often.

Option two: there's a guy at the corner stool whose plate is almost empty. He'll be leaving soon. I could sit two stools from him, in violation of safety and the law and common decency. If I sit down and glare at him maybe he'll leave a little quicker.

Yeah, it's a first-world problem, but I'm annoyed. Kirstin says good morning to me, and instantly understands my dilemma. She makes a sorry face and says, "Breakfast is just as tasty at a table, honest."

I don't believe her, though. "You know what? I'll be back."

That third option surprised even me, but I retreat to my car, listen to the radio, turn on the dome light and read my magazine, while also watching the diner's door. Fifteen minutes later, when four people have left and only one person has entered, I'm pretty sure I can get a good seat. Stepping into the diner a second time, yup, here's a stool with plenty of socially distanced elbow room.

"Good morning again," says Kirstin. "Thought you'd stood me up like a bad blind date."

♦ ♦ ♦

Most of this morning's conversation is about football, and I enthusiastically don't care. I'm not a football fan. Against my will, though, I absorb the fact that the college team is playing their first game of the season today.

There are three men wearing red shirts in the diner, and that's not a coincidence. Red and white are the college team's colors, but white is boring so it's always red. Back in the pre-pandemic era, on game days you'd see thousands of people wearing the rah-rah uniform — red — and walking toward the stadium. There will be no spectators at Camp Randall today, of course, but people still gotta wear red.

A red shirt is sitting near Maurice at the counter, and they're talking, but not about the same thing. The red shirt is talking about football, but Maurice is a grumpy old grump like me, and high-risk like me or maybe more so, so he's talking about the virus. "How can it be safe," he asks, "to play a full-contact sport while a pandemic is out of control?"

The man in the red shirt says, "Ah, it's probably not safe, but the players are young and tougher than most. They'll be all right. Anyway, we gotta beat Illinois."

Maurice goes quiet, but only for long enough to chew and swallow his next bite of whatever's for breakfast. "If even one athlete on either team has the virus, then every time anyone is tackled, it means a few more of them have the virus. By the end of the game how can everyone on both teams not be infected?"

"I hear you, man," says the red shirt. "Honest, understood, it's a risk, but we can't cancel football. Life goes on, you know."

"For the living, yeah, life goes on," says Maurice the high-risk cynic. "For the dead, not so much."

I'm keeping quiet. Ever been to Wisconsin? Football is a religion here, so you have to be careful what you say, and I'm such an atheist when it comes to football.

Also, obviously, I'm sitting in a restaurant, with my mask down under my chin while I'm eating, six feet from some stranger whose mask is in his pocket. Maybe while eating an omelet at the diner, I forfeit the right to complain about pandemic football.

Maurice is complaining, though. "And beyond the players, beyond the coaches and officials and staff, you know the fans will be tailgating, and big screens will bring people to crowded bars and restaurants, and people who care about football more than common sense will host viewing parties to watch the game on TV..."

Red Shirt shrugs and swallows a shot of his coffee. "So you won't be watching the game?"

Maurice raises his eyebrows, tilts his head one way, then the other, and says, "Well, I didn't say that."

♦ ♦ ♦

Kirstin seems a bit off this morning. She gets my order right, of course, and gets everyone's order right, but there are 25% fewer "Sweetie"s-per-customer than on a normal morning. She forgets to bring the stainless steel container of creamer for my coffee. Phil has to ask for hot sauce, and complains about it, or maybe it's a joke — with him, it's hard to tell.

"I've been coming here since high school, and you know I always need the hot sauce." High school for Phil must've been 25 years ago, and today's the first time she's ever forgotten his damned hot sauce. He'd say Cal Ripkin was lazy when he sat down instead of playing his X-thousandth consecutive game.

Maybe Kirstin isn't feeling well, or more likely she's just sleepy. Hell, it is 6:30 in the morning, and still dark outside. I'm not complaining, and I'm not going to ask her what's wrong. It's none of my damned business. Hope she feels better, though.

A crazy thought occurs to me: Is Kirstin a friend of mine? Close call, but I'd say nope. It's a weird social situation, having the same person bring me the same breakfast week after week, year after year, sometimes listening to her stories and sometimes telling her mine, but it doesn't make her a friend. I like her, and hope she doesn't hate me, but she's the lady at the diner, and I'm the house omelet and hotcakes.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bald-Walker is talking to someone half his age, someone new to me, but they're friends or family. The topic is archery, and maybe I knew that there are organized bow-and-arrow competitions, but they're using jargon I've never heard — cushion plunger? Flemish twist? String-walking?

Bald is following all this quiver talk far better than I, and it's soon apparent that he's the younger man's father. He knows all about archery because Bald-Walker himself used to compete at ... at whatever a bow-and-arrow competition might be called.

It makes me pause and ponder. See, I've seen Baldie in this diner forever, but to me he's always been an old, frail, flimsy man with a walker. Like all of us, he wasn't always what he is now, but it's odd to think of Bald-Walker as young, athletic, and drawing back a bow.

♦ ♦ ♦

I'm awfully late introducing Big Hat. She's been coming here forever like me, and it's impossible not to notice her, but difficult to write about her. Each time I've tried, I bang out a few paragraphs, and think, nah, she deserves better, and hit 'delete'. She's here once or twice a month, though, and when she is she's the most interesting element in the diner, so let's try, try again.

She is black. She is skinny. She looks about my age — mid-60s. And she is happy, but not low-key happy like any of us on a good day; she's high-key, almost exuberant yet somehow not annoying. She says hello to Kirstin like they're old friends, and maybe they are, but she also says "Bonjour" to Bald-Walker, and "Shalom" to Maurice and "Good morning" to me and most of the others.

She's wearing a mask, of course, but you know there's a big smile under it. On her head there's always a black ten-gallon cowboy hat with a brim that's double-wide. As she walks past my stool, the overhang from her hat causes a brief indoor eclipse of light from the ceiling. I've named her for that hat, because she's worn it every time I've seen her, but that hat might be the dullest thing in Big Hat's wardrobe.

Trying to describe what she wears, though, is where I've flailed and failed writing about her previously, so just envision a "top-5 list" of the loudest, wildest, most colorful shirts, pants, shoes, and jacket imaginable — florescent fabrics, shiny and reflective sheens, frills dangling everywhere, ribbons clipped to her hat, or last week she had tiny bells like on a dog's collar. Got all that in your head? Well, she's wearing random items off that list every time she comes to the diner. Some of it looks new, some is vintage, the colors aren't coordinated, there's no cohesive theme or attempt, and the effect is fabulous. She looks interesting, and she is — the opposite of most people on Earth.

Same as every other time I've seen her, after she breezes through the entrance and says hello to everyone, she walks to the very end of the diner, and settles alone at the last table by the back door. I don't know what she orders, but it must be something quick and easy, because Kirstin brings it to her within just a few minutes. Coffee and toast, I'm guessing, based on how quickly it comes and how soon she's finished.

If someone is sitting near her table, they're usually drawn to Big Hat (because who wouldn't be drawn to Big Hat?) and there'll be dialogue and laughter. This morning she's alone at the back of the diner, and she quietly sits and sips her coffee, eats her breakfast. As always, she leaves ten or fifteen minutes after she arrives, and always with the same flourish of "Adios" and "Goodbye" and "See ya soon" and "Thanks, Kirstin."

While she's in the diner, though, Big Hat owns the place almost as much as Bob.


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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