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Breakfast at the Diner — #23

Harvey nods at me when I walk in, so it's going to be breakfast without Kirstin. Sigh. That means no jam for my toast, fewer refills on coffee, no specials that aren't on the menu, and no charming chit-chat. Harvey's a great cook, but 'charming' just isn't one of his skills.

♦ ♦ ♦

Same as last week, the counter is too crowded. There's only one seat available, and it's the worst seat in the house.

Let me explain the counter: It's shaped like the letter 'U', with about twenty seats all along the outside. Maurice usually sits near the top of the left prong, and there he is. Phil likes that side of the counter, too, and there he is. Where the counter begins curving is The Fixture's stool, right at the front door, but there he isn't. His stool is empty, again.

My preferred spots are along the right prong of the 'U'. I like the distance from too-talky Phil, plus it's closer to the coffee pot so refills come quicker. Today, though, that side of the counter holds Solitary, and Underwear Model, and Sudden Urge to Pee. Since we're all required to have two empty stools between us, that leaves only the bottom of the 'U'.

And man, I hate the bottom of the 'U'. I'll be directly in front of the cash register, where people linger while they're waiting to pay and then paying, talking while they linger and talking while they pay, and handling cash and breathing and misting in my immediate vicinity. The people are annoying, the talking is annoying, and in a pandemic of course all the misting is more than annoying.

If I wasn't a dummy I'd visit the diner a little later in the morning, after the early crowd thins out. Seems to me I made that switch a few months ago, but somehow I've wandered back to being at the diner first thing when they're open. I'm an early riser and a slow learner. "Later, dude" I write in the margin of my magazine.

♦ ♦ ♦

On the right side, where I wish I was, Sudden Urge and Underwear Model are talking about football, currently cancelled by coronavirus, and about Stranger Things, which they both love, but they thought the third season was a little disappointing.

Bored with that conversation, I tune to the left side, where Phil and Maurice are talking about some business that's closing. That's boring too, and I'm barely eavesdropping until it sinks in that they're talking about a restaurant.

Are they talking about this restaurant? I mean, 2020 has been nonstop cheeseburgers in paradise so far, surely nothing could go wrong...

Listening, eating, saying nothing of course, it gradually becomes clear that whatever restaurant they're talking about, the problem is that the lasagna isn't as good as it used to be. There's no lasagna at the diner, never has been, so my Friday morning omelets are safe.

♦ ♦ ♦

Everyone's eating and no-one needs a refill on coffee, so Harvey occupies himself by cleaning something behind the counter. I can't see what he's cleaning, but he's aggressively scrubbing at the side of a pillar that extends from the floor to the ceiling and presumably beyond.

"It's amazing how damned dirty this stuff gets," he says, and he doesn't say this under his breath, he simply says it.

At another restaurant, you'd be grossed out to hear an employee describe whatever filth he's cleaning, but it's Harvey, and he's a bit of a character. Whatever he's cleaning, maybe it's not even particularly dirty, and he's just amusing himself by being unpolished brash. Yeah, he's just having fun with the customers ... is what I'll tell myself.

♦ ♦ ♦

From today's perspective, bottom of the U, everyone's faces are more visible to me, down both rows of the counter. My angle is different, and maybe the lighting is different, too. From this stool this morning, though, everyone seems extra vivid — like they're people, not just voices saying stupid things.

Underwear Model is as damned handsome as ever, but today I can see that he has a few wrinkles beginning to crawl across his perfectly-chiseled face. He's also perhaps a little older than I'd thought, and a little sadder.

Solitary sips at her coffee, and she's certainly blissed out on the caffeine and eggs, same as me and most of us, but ... is there something else, something in her eyes? Maybe it's projection, but I believe I recognize that the rest of her day, like the rest of mine, will be all downhill from breakfast.

Maurice has an oxygen tube running under his shirt and into his nose. He's a hundred wrinkles and a dozen scars, but his eyes are a blue I've never noticed before. He's happy to be here for one more Friday, and I don't know how I know it but I know it.

Phil carries on his conversation with Maurice, but sitting this close to him, there's more to it than words. I can see every twitch on his face, a few whiskers unshaven, and the tiniest little things, like he scratches his nose and behind his ears, every few sentences. I suspect he's nervous as hell behind his funny-man demeanor. He tells jokes because he's lost without a punchline.

Now Harvey blocks my view as he's ringing up a customer, and I wonder about him, too. Of all the faces I can see down both prongs of the 'U', Harvey's is the one face I can't read. It's not so much because he's inscrutable, but because he's the only one wearing a mask.

♦ ♦ ♦

Over the next ten minutes or so, Maurice and Phil and a few others finish, pay, and leave, and different customers come in and sit down. That's what happens all day at the diner, any diner, so it doesn't even enter my consciousness until someone says something stupid, something else which happens all day at the diner.

I glance up from my omelet, and the clientele is decidedly dark. Looking around, I count seven customers, and five of them are black. The only white people in the diner are Harvey and Slim, and me and some youngish man slurping soup at 6:30 in the morning. Knitting Needle comes in, says hi to Solitary, sits at a table and they start chatting, so now it's 6-2.

Maybe we Caucasians have been outnumbered at the diner on some other Friday, but I never noticed. Is it an uncomfortable experience? No, but it's — weird. Race in America is often a weird experience. It's routine for those six, though. They're outnumbered, almost always, when they step into any restaurant, including this one, or visit the library, or a grocery store, or anywhere at all.

I suppose you'd get used to it when it happens every day, everywhere. I suppose a better man I wouldn't have noticed it at all.

♦ ♦ ♦

Knitting Needle orders bacon and eggs with extra bacon, and Harvey relays this info to Slim in the kitchen, but neither man is quite certain what extra bacon should cost.

"Feels like maybe four bucks," says Harvey to Slim, "but I'm not positive. What do you think?"

Hairless Slim says, "Three slices, three bucks, is my guess."

"You think?" says Harvey. "I think you're too nice. I'll ask Kirstin tomorrow, but for today it just went up to $4.50."

Harvey, of course, doesn't do tact, so their entire conversation has been audible to everyone in the restaurant, including Knitting Needle. From her table she says, "Make it three bucks and the difference goes into the tip."

"Deal!" says Harvey. "Extra bacon, three dollars, for the lady at the corner table."

♦ ♦ ♦

Here's another Harvey moment: Someone comes in, makes small talk and places an order to go, and looks back toward the kitchen but Slim isn't there. He asks whether Slim is working this morning, and Harvey says, "Yeah, he's in the back peeling chicken nuts." The customer scrunches his face, perplexed, and Harvey explains, "Chicken nuts is what we call the little tiny potatoes. Hard to peel."

♦ ♦ ♦

Big Hat comes in like a whirlwind, both today and always. She says a friendly hello to everyone in the restaurant, but Harvey's not around at the moment so she bypasses the ordinary "Do you want coffee?" and "What do you want for breakfast?" Instead she stops at the end of the counter, leans over a short wall to the kitchen, and tells Slim what she wants.

Then she tells me, "I'll be in the ladies room if anyone asks." I'm not sure who'd ask, and nobody does, but she does indeed head straight for the head.

Harvey returns from wherever he's been, probably helping with the chicken nuts, and he seems to telepathically know that Big Hat is here. He says nothing, but sets her ordinary table with coffee and cream and sugar, silver and napkins, and salt and pepper.

By the time Big Hat emerges from the ladies room, her breakfast is waiting. She says hello to Harvey, and to Bouffant-Walker, who came in while she was indisposed, and Bouffant and Big Hat chat while she eats breakfast. Their tables aren't all very close to each other, but there's no-one between them so they both talk a little too loud. I drink my coffee, eat my eggs, read my magazine.

♦ ♦ ♦

My study hall teacher steps into the diner, and takes a seat at the counter not far from me. It can't be her, because she was impossibly old when I was in high school, and that was 45 years ago — by now Miss DeLappe must be dead and decomposed. This woman looks so much like her, though, I want to rip a corner from my magazine and chew it into a spitwad and launch it at her.

She has the same grey hair pinned up in the same grey hairstyle, and she herself is the same sort of gray. She's wearing the same glasses, held on her face by the same chain. She orders grits, which I'm suddenly sure must have been Miss DeLappe's favorite breakfast. If this woman had walked into our study hall, sophomore year, and sat behind the desk, not one of us kids would have wondered who she was because this woman is Miss DeLappe.

I wouldn't have been surprised if she scowled at Big Hat and said, "Keep it quiet back there!", but she doesn't say anything, just sits there pleasantly, and that's how I know she isn't really Miss DeLappe.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bouffant steps into the men's room, leaving me as the closest customer to Big Hat, and she starts talking to me. She's a football fan, sad that this week's Badgers game cancelled by the coronavirus. I'm not, and not.

"Have you voted yet?" she asks, then tells me, "I voted against Donald Trump, and it felt so good."

"Oh, yeah," I say. "I voted against him, and it was the best feeling I've had in a long time while wearing pants." Not much of a joke and I didn't mean it as a joke, yet she laughs like I'm Carlin reincarnated.

Then Bouffant emerges, and she and he are talking again, laughing like old buddies. A few minutes later she's finished her always lickety-split breakfast. She says goodbye to me, and to Bouffant, and to everyone in the diner, and then she's gone.

My breakfast is finished and my coffee cup is empty, so I'm leaving, too.

 

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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