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Breakfast at the Diner — #26

The diner was closed last Friday. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and they're not near any shopping corridor, so they must've figured nobody would bother coming in for eggs and coffee.

Well, I did, cuz in some ways I'm a numbskull. Drove three and a half miles, only to drive right back home again. It's my own dang fault, of course. I could've called. Couldn't have checked the website, though; they don't have a website.

Today they're open, hooray. There's still a cardboard memorial to Frank at his seat, but it looks like it's been knocked off the counter and onto the floor a few times. It's gained stains and splotches, and the cardboard is creased in the corner. The flowers are gone, and two weeks ago Frank's name was spoken from all directions inside the diner. Today, nobody mentions him.

♦ ♦ ♦

There are eight customers when I come in and make it nine. They're all at the counter, leaving no seats with the legally-mandated two-empty-stool buffer between them.

If I was a rebel I'd violate the law, but I'm not a rebel when it comes to COVID-19, so I sat at a table at the front. There a large window with an ugly view of traffic on a busy highway, but I'm facing the counter instead. People are more interesting than cars.

Kirstin the waitress is at my table mere moments later, and she brings a smile and a glass of water, remembering that I'm off the caffeine even when I might've forgotten.

"Good morning, sweetie," she says. "I know you hate being stuck out here in the hinterlands, so thanks for not trying to squeeze in at the counter."

"I know you would've shot me down."

"Yes, I would've," she says, "and you know what else? You're going to have the Tex-Mex omelet, I think."

"That's the daily special?" I asked. She said yup and I mulled it over, and she was right. "Yeah, you're right, that's what's for breakfast."

Kirstin knows what I want, and always brings what I need. If all my remaining teeth fell out, she'd probably offer to chew my food for me. She is the patron saint of waitresses everywhere — gets every order right, reeks of kindness but takes no guff, gets big tips but deserves bigger, and makes a restaurant better than its food no matter how good the food might be. And the food here is pretty good.

♦ ♦ ♦

I look around the place from this unusual vantage point — a table, harrumph — to see who's here, who's likely to annoy or entertain me for the next half hour or 45 minutes. On the left side of the U-shaped counter, Maurice and Knitting Needle are three stools apart but chatting, and there's Frank's stained memorial. At the bottom of the U, sit two old men with their backs to me, but I don't think they're regulars. On the right side of the counter, Q-Man and Jerry are at opposite ends, and between them are the lovebirds, ManBun and Lady ManBun.

Knitting Needle is the only one of these regulars who's never yet bothered me, so I focus my eavesdropping in her direction. She earned her nickname because the first time I noticed her in the diner, she had what looked like a big blue knitting needle in her afro. She's never again had a needle on her head, but once christened by me your diner name is eternal. Well, unless you're The Fixture and you die; then you get a real name. RIP, Frank.

Knitting and Maurice are talking about what incoming President Biden should do about the pandemic. "If he does anything at all, it's twice what Trump has done," says Maurice.

"Biden wears a mask when he's in public," she says. "I mean, of course he does, but even that is better than Trump. You wear a mask, you set an example. Is that so hard?"

Maurice is chewing, and swallows something the wrong way. He starts coughing but you can see it's nothing serious. I look at him as he's rasping and shaking and hacking, and notice that today he's not wearing his oxygen mask. No tubes into his nose. Sometimes there's oxygen and sometimes there's not, depending I guess on how well he's breathing on any given morning.

He finishes his coughing spell, says "Excuse me," and then resumes where he'd left off. "You know what I think?" he says. "I think masks are the absolute answer."

"At least until the vaccine gets here, yes," says Knitting. "Wear a mask and you don't have much to worry about."

"I mean, look at Kirstin here —"

"I am a looker," Kirstin interjects, as she's walking past, carrying breakfast to a customer.

"— and Harvey in the kitchen," Maurice continues with one last miniature cough, "Nine months in a restaurant in a worldwide pandemic, and they never get sick. With all the people coming here every day, and every customer has to take off his/her mask to eat, you've got to think they'd be at a higher risk, but they're still here. Still healthy."

"We're careful, man." It's Harvey's voice, booming from the kitchen, though I can't see him and didn't know he was listening. It's a smallish diner, and the kitchen isn't far from the seating area; they probably eavesdrop on customers more than I do.

"We really are careful," says Kirstin, now making the rounds with a coffee pot. "Bob insisted on it, right from the start, even before they ordered all the restaurants closed. You will never see me without my mask, and I wash my hands so often Bob complains about the water bill." Then she looks over at me, and says, "You are cleared for landing on runway 18."

I don't know what she's talking about, so she tilts her head toward Jerry at the counter, who's standing up, and he's already put cash under his plate. Oh! He's paying and leaving, so I can sit at the counter, where he's been sitting.

Jerry and Kirstin do the ritual 'thanks' and 'please come back soon', and she swoops away his plates while I gather my water and magazine from the table. Kirstin wipes the counter quite thoroughly, before I settle onto what had been Jerry's stool. It's still warm from Jerry's butt, but I don't think that's a likely infection vector.

With the virus on my mind maybe more than usual because of the conversation and Frank's memorial and all, I ponder that I'm inhaling the air where Jerry exhaled less than a minute earlier. And really, so what? I'm in a diner — so obviously, I'm accepting a certain amount of risk. And if Maurice and Knitting are right about masks, then I'm fairly safe — I haven't unmasked since entering the diner. To sip water or orange juice, I briefly pull the mask down, but then it's over my mouth and nose again. The mask never comes all the way off my head until breakfast arrives, when I need perpetual mouth access.

Comfortably ensconced at the counter, I banish all thought of the virus. ManBun wants to chat me up as he always does, but I gently decline with a headbob and a smile and very few words, as I usually do.

Kirstin soon brings new and presumably sanitized salt and pepper and jelly, and my orange juice. Thirty seconds later, she brings my Tex-Mex omelet. Is this heaven? No, it's Bob's Diner.

♦ ♦ ♦

Harvey is up front doing something, but I can hear food frying on the grill so I guess Slim is back there cooking. Harvey and Q-Man are talking about whatever I can't quite overhear, and then Harvey affects a high-pitched, mocking tone and says, "I've been coming here for twenty years." There's laughter from a few people, including Q-Man, but most of us don't get the joke until ten minutes later, when another customer says it: "I've been coming here for twenty years!"

"Why are people saying that?" Knitting Needle asks. She's only been coming here for a few months so she's a newbie, but I'm just as clueless. Kirstin explains that they had a little 'incident' a few days ago, and shares the story.

"There's a lady who's been coming here, well, like she said, for twenty years or so. This time she comes in with her granddaughter, who's just barely old enough to sit on a stool at the counter. She's an adorable child, of course, and she's no bother at all, but it's cold outside and her grandmother is worried about the breeze every time someone comes into the diner, or leaves. She asks me to turn up the heat, and I turn it up two degrees even though I know Bob would tell me not to.

"But it's not enough, and she's getting a little more worked up every time anyone opens the door. I told her, you know, we're a diner, we're open for business, people are going to go through the door, and she tells me again to turn up the heat. Well, the diner has a good heating system, and if I turn it up any higher it'll start baking the customers in the back of the room, so I don't turn it up again, but I tell her I did.

"Then, she and her granddaughter are halfway through their breakfasts and someone comes in and there's a gust of cold air, and she starts yelling at me and telling me she's been coming here for twenty years. I agree with her, yes, you've been coming here for twenty years. Well, then she refuses to pay, so Harvey gets himself involved."

"I love getting involved," says the voice of Harvey from the kitchen.

"He comes up and — very politely, thank you, Harvey — he explains that she's free to walk out without paying, but she'll owe the tab if she ever wants to come back. And as she leaves, she holds the door open extra long, to let a long blast of 20° wind into the restaurant."

I'm laughing along with everyone else, but slightly annoyed that the best show of the week happened when I wasn't here. And I'm also wondering whether, on days I'm not at the diner, they share stories about me, maybe about the day the old fat guy lost his temper.

Knitting asks, "Do you think she's coming back?"

"Probably," says Kirstin. "In my experience, everyone comes back. Even people I think I've never seen before, they come in and eventually mention that they ate here decades back, and I served them."

"If she comes back, though," says Harvey's voice, "she owes us thirteen dollars and forty-four cents."

♦ ♦ ♦

Men. We are vain and stupid, and it never gets better no matter how old we get.

Knitting Needle has paid for her breakfast and gone; she's a 40-something woman and "well-preserved" to use an almost-offensive clichรฉ, meaning she's attractive despite aging like we humans tend to do. Maurice is much older, and much less well-preserved; he's a man that no woman who's not a grandmother could lust after.

And yet — soon as the door closes behind Knitting Needle and she's gone, Maurice reaches someplace I can't see, under the counter, perhaps into a bag. When his hand comes up again he's holding his oxygen tube. He slips it over his head, inserts the split-end of the tube into his nostrils, and takes a deep breath.

Why, that cagey old bastard. He's 70, going on 17. When there's a pretty woman sitting nearby, he keeps his tube bagged and removed until she's gone.

♦ ♦ ♦

Here's my favorite new customer in quite a while. Never seen him before today. He's a young white guy, maybe 25, maybe 30 but that's pushing it, and he's dressed casually. He has a neatly trimmed mustache, no perceptible accent, and if ever I see him again his name shall be: Polite Man.

I hadn't noticed him when he entered and ordered, because there's nothing noticeable about him, but he's eating his food and Kirstin comes by and says, "Would you like a warm-up on coffee?"

He says, very distinctly and erudite, "Why, thank you, that would be appreciated."

She comes by later to ask the eternal diner question, "How's everything tasting?"

He says nothing, holds his hand palm-out, and Kirstin waits. We all wait. And then he says, "Pardon me, I didn't wish to speak with my mouth full, but everything is excellent."

When he's finished, he pays at the register, and amid the pleasantries he asks Kirstin, "Would you prefer I pay in fives or in singles?"

"Why, how thoughtful," Kirstin replies. "Nobody ever asks, but the register always needs one-dollar bills."

"Thank you ever so kindly, ma'am," he says, and with that, Polite Man has left the building, and there's no-one left but us rude, smarmy bastards.

Soon enough, I drink the dregs of my orange juice, pay the tab and tip, and I'm ready to go. I'm tempted to mimic Polite Man's exit line, but instead it's just my usual, "Thanks, Kirstin."

With nods to a few familiar faces eating at the counter, and another nod to Frank's spot, I'm leaving with a fuller belly and in a better mood than when I arrived, same as every Friday except the day after Thanksgiving.

 

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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