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Breakfast at the Diner — #27

We recently bid farewell to Frank the Fixture, and now his cardboard memorial is as gone as he is. The obituary is still taped to the wall behind the seat where he always sat, but his space at the counter is now just another stool and a stretch of Formica. Anyone could sit there.

I don’t. Instead I walk around the counter’s curve, to my preferred side of the counter. I like any of those seats, and the further from the breezy door and noisy cash register the better.

Today I’m on the fifth stool from the end. There’s an older white guy three stools to my left, and an older black guy three stools to my right. Both are strangers to me, but so’s the whole world.

Kirstin says hello, and brings me two glasses, one of water and one of orange juice. “The daily special is kielbasa,” she says, “and we can make it for you as an omelet.” She knows, and I know, and probably even you know that’s what I’m going to order, and indeed I do.

I have my OJ, my magazine, my glasses are on my head, and I pull my notepad from my pocket to jot a much-shortened version of all the above, but I’ve forgotten my pen. I’ll need to excuse myself and dart out to my car, but I don’t want to say ‘I forgot my pen’, because that might lead to a conversation about why a pen is needed, when eating breakfast at a diner. Instead I say, “Whoops, forgot my wallet. I’ll be right back.”

“Ah, you’re good for it,” Kirstin says. “You can pay when you come in next week.” Didn’t expect that. We’re in a big city here, but sometimes the diner feels like it’s in a small town.

“My wallet’s in my car,” I lie, cuz my wallet is in my pocket, but I’m out the door, and return a minute later with a pen, and a back-up pen.

In my momentary absence, it seems we’ve sparked a conversation. Kirstin is explaining to the guy to my left, “No, you’ll have to pay when you leave, and there might even be a surcharge for askin’. We only offer emergency credit to long-timers like Ted” — she points at me — “not newcomers like you.”

“I’ve been coming here for five years!” he says with a chuckle.

“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” Kirstin says. “No credit until you’ve been around here for a while.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Kirstin brings breakfast to the man to my right, and she asks him, “Do you need any ketchup or hot sauce?”

Until today, every time I’ve heard that question the answer has always been yes or no, or one or the other, but this man says, “I brought my own.” He reaches into his jacket pocket, and pulls out a bottle of hot sauce. The diner’s hot sauce comes in a red bottle, and this bottle is tan, so I guess he’s picky about his hot sauce.

Kirstin is never fazed, of course, and instead she seems delighted. “Oh, you’re the hot sauce guy!” she says. She reaches down to a shelf just off the floor, nudges a few jars and cans out of the way, and brings up a bottle of hot sauce, matching the brand that this customer brought in. “You forgot this the last time you were here, and I’ve been saving it for you.”

He says, “Oh,” like he’s surprised but also not certain he wants hot sauce that’s been sitting at room temperature for — who knows, days, weeks, maybe months? She sets the bottle on the counter, next to his other bottle of hot sauce, and he says, “Thank you for not just tossing it out.”

“Hot sauce doesn’t need to be refrigerated after it’s opened,” Kirstin says, and then she slips around the counter’s corner to help someone else.

The man looks at his two bottles of hot sauce on the counter, and with Kirstin out of sight he lifts one of the bottles, brings it close and reads the small print, and I think I hear him say “Huh,” under his breath.

He shakes the bottle, unscrews the lid, and pours some of the old bottle’s contents onto his eggs. The bottle he brought today gets slipped back into the pocket of his jacket.

♦ ♦ ♦

On my other side, the man who wanted credit is now talking to someone who’s seated on the other side of the counter. I don’t know who he’s talking to because the coffee station is between us.

The diner has two big coffee brewing machines, and a grinder, and another thing the size of a dresser drawer — I don't know what it is but it says ‘coffee’ on the side. These four devices, grouped together on the island inside the U-shaped counter, make an obstacle that’s both tall and wide, so I can’t see who Credit Denied is talking to. For a moment I imagine he’s talking to himself, but then someone answers.

It’s a woman’s voice, but is she young or old, black or white or some other shade, pretty or undesirable like me? There’s no knowing unless I stand up, but I’m eating breakfast, and also too lazy to stand up.

He's talking and talking, and I'm thinking how I'd hate to be her. I’d always prefer to be left alone, but I'm fat and ugly so eating alone isn't difficult. It would be hellish indeed if I were an attractive female, and men were always intruding and trying to talk me up.

This unseen woman, though, is carrying her half of the conversation, so I guess she’s a voluntary talker. She answers every question he asks, and asks just as many.

What’s said between her and that balding white man is all business — where do you work, how long have you been there, how is your workplace handling the challenges of 2020, etc. She uses exactly that phrase, “the challenges of 2020,” when she asks that question.

Call me the King of Snap Judgments, but coupled with this woman’s crisp, cheerful speech pattern and too much business jargon, saying “the challenges of 2020” makes me suspect that she’s a ‘human resources’ executive. Sight unseen I’m beginning to dislike her.

Credit Denied mentions that he recently bought a new car, and she wants to know what make and model and what went into his decision. I’m wondering, Who would ask that question of a stranger at a diner?, and dang if she doesn’t immediately explain, “I’m a marketing executive.” And kaboom, I’ve lost all interest in their conversation.

♦ ♦ ♦

What’s this? My omelet was delicious until it was about 3/4 eaten, but the bite I just took tastes like a wet dog smells. Too late, though — it’s swallowed before the odd flavor registers in my mind.

I cautiously lift the next forkful toward my mouth, study it like Hot Sauce studied his hot sauce, and then I put it into my mouth. I toss it around with my tongue. It tastes like it should. Tastes like an omelet. Quite a good omelet, actually. Fancy sausage, yes. Onion, cheese, eggs, yes. I wonder what was in that previous bite, but I don’t wonder enough to say anything. Nah, I’d never want to be a difficult customer.

For the next several bites I’m giving the food more attention so nothing else peculiar slips down my throat ... but soon that bad bite is forgotten (or it would be forgotten, if I didn’t have it in my notes). Two hours later I’m still alive.

♦ ♦ ♦

At a window table, a wiry, 20-something guy is having pancakes with, presumably, his girlfriend. Together they have a dozen visible piercings and tattoos. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but ouch. He's talking with his mouth full, about being a delivery driver for GrubHub or EatStreet or ChowNow or whatever.

"Lots of people have not lots of money," he says, and a piece of pancake drops from his mouth to the table. "My orders are down, my tips are down. Most people want me to leave the food at the door, and it's easier for them to tip less when they don't see me face to face."

“If people can’t afford to tip,” says the tattooed woman, “they can’t afford to have their food delivered. That ought to be the law.”

♦ ♦ ♦

In the old days, pre-pandemic, there were often twenty or more customers in the diner. These days, the maximum allowed by law is eleven, and that number is rarely approached. Right now, though, there are ten of us eating breakfast, and someone says, “This place is hopping this morning, ain’t it?”

Kirstin replies, “Yeah, business has been picking up the past few days.”

That’s good news, I guess — every day you hear about more restaurants going out of business because of COVID, and I don’t want this place padlocked.

But maybe it’s also not-so-good news? By all accounts the virus is getting around better than ever, infecting and killing more people every day. It seems peculiar and just plain dumb that more people would be eating out, even as the situation grows more dire, as the body count keeps going up.

People are so stupid — eating breakfast in a restaurant, what a bunch of idiots. Oh, wait …

♦ ♦ ♦

When Hot Sauce pays and leaves, I can hear his two bottles of hot sauce clanking together in his pocket as he passes behind my stool.

♦ ♦ ♦

Guess it’s time for me to leave as well, so I gather my stuff, slide my payment and tip under my plate.

On my way out I notice that the marketing executive is almost exactly what I’d anticipated — a white woman in her thirties, wearing what I’d call a power-suit (I don’t really know what that means; it just looks ‘office super-swanky’). Credit Denied left the diner ten minutes ago, so she’s reading a magazine, just like I always do, only mine is In These Times and hers is Harvard Business Review. Well, lah-di-da!

I hadn’t anticipated the geometry, either. From my angle, where I sat at the counter today, with the coffee contraptions between us so I couldn’t see her, I hadn’t realized that Ms Marketing was seated at what used to be Frank’s spot.

 

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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