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Breakfast at the Diner — #34

The parking lot is full, and the parking lot is never full, not since before the pandemic. I park two blocks away, walk to the diner, and it's as busy as the law allows — there are ten customers inside, and I'm the eleventh, which means nobody else can enter until someone leaves.

Maybe I should be the one who leaves — the counter is full, and I frickin' hate sitting at a table. But why do I hate the tables? Because there's quicker and more frequent access to coffee refills at the counter, where Kirstin and the coffee pot are always nearby. I'm not drinking coffee, though. So a table would be OK. I guess.

All the tables are empty except one with two fat guys toward the back, so my options are many, but I don't want a table, damn it. I want to sit at the counter, where I always sit. I sigh and sit at a table instead, by the windows up front.

Kirstin says "Howdy" and "Sorry you're stuck at a table." She brings orange juice and takes my order, so everything will be all right.

From this seat, I'm looking at mostly the same faces as always, but from a different angle, dominated by the blue-jean-covered butts of two old guys at the counter. Behind their behinds, everything is normal. Phil is telling Maurice a joke, and Knitting-Needle and Underwear Model are having breakfast together, and —

Hey, there's no stool between Knitting and Underwear. Those two are illegally close, unless they're a couple. Are they a couple now? They're talking, laughing, and he takes a bite off her plate. It's 3° outside and a bit brisk in the diner, but that warms my spirits. Those two met here in the diner, months back. They were strangers then, but now they're eating breakfast together. Ain't that sweet?

♦ ♦ ♦

There's a disagreement between the two men closest to me, the butt-men, and they've decided to settle it by arm-wrestling. Loser buys breakfast for the winner. They nudge their plates aside, lock hands, and the battle begins.

Isn't arm-wrestling a violation of COVID protocols? I would think so, harrumph, unless they're husband and husband.

Their grunts draw attention and some slight cheering, and Phil shouts, "$5 says the guy in plaid wins!" There are chuckles but no takers, because both the arm-wrestling men are wearing plaid.

♦ ♦ ♦

Lady Ex-Manbun comes in, and someone's paid and left, so there's room for her at the counter, just past Phil and Maurice. Kirstin says "Good morning," and Lady orders coffee and oatmeal.

"Uh, oh," says Phil, "the killer oatmeal."

I don't get the joke, which happens often when Phil's talking. Lady doesn't get it either, so Kirstin explains: "It started with Alex, in the 1990s. He would always order oatmeal with a side of bacon, and one morning he came in, ordered oatmeal with a side of bacon, and then he went home and had a heart attack and died. Same day!"

I foolishly think the story is over, but Kirstin takes a breath and continues. "And there was Wally, and the Phil before Phil started coming in."

"I'm not the first Phil?"

Maurice says, "And Jennifer. Don't forget Jennifer."

"Hit by a car, killed instantly," says Kirstin. "She always ordered oatmeal with blueberries."

"And that nice old white lady?" Underwear Model asks.

"Rebecca," says Kirstin, who knows the name of (almost?) everyone who's ever eaten here. "She ordered the oatmeal just once, the very last time she ate here."

"They all ordered oatmeal," says Phil, "and they all died."

"Oh, and Donnie," says Kirstin. "Scrambled eggs with a side of oatmeal, every time. But I'm not sure it was the oatmeal that got him. He had cancer, you know."

Lady Ex-Manbun makes a face, maybe concerned but more likely just playing along. She says, "It's all coincidence, right?" while Kirstin clatters a coffee cup on the counter and pours.

"Well, of course," Kirstin says, "Just coincidence, eleven times over."

Lady bravely does not change her order, and when her oatmeal comes she asks for brown sugar, pours it on top, takes a few bites and doesn't keel over.

Kirstin makes the rounds with more coffee and chat, and asks, "How's the oatmeal?"

Lady says, "Mmm — to die for."

♦ ♦ ♦

Breakfast is fine, of course, but I'm eating more quickly than usual, and not having such a good time. Maybe it's all the talk about death, maybe it's the crowded diner, maybe it's all the customers coming and going and loitering at my table.

This is the dumbest table I could've chosen — right by the door, so everyone comes in, stands there looking around the place, and breathes on me. People who are leaving lollygag at the cash register, two or three feet from me, breathing. Everyone is masked, but still, there's altogether too much damned breathing in this restaurant right now.

The fat men from the back of the diner come up and pay, but instead of leaving they stand around because Phil is telling them jokes, and the three of them are laughing and talking and breathing. You can't see the coronavirus in the air but you know it's there.

I'm waiting for the fat guys to leave but they're never going to. I chug the last of my orange juice, put cash under my plate, wait a little longer, but I gotta get out of here. "Thanks, Kirstin," I say over my shoulder, and "Excuse me" to the fat guys as I squeeze between them and out of the building. My heart is beating vivacissimo and I'm angry and worried and stupid all at once.

Stupid, mostly. Almost every Saturday-Wednesday, it occurs to me not to go to breakfast on Friday. By Thursdays, though, I'm looking forward to it, and on Fridays I simply wake up and drive to the diner — not going never crosses my mind. Come Saturday it might, but never on Fridays … until today.

Now I'm sitting in my car, adding a few words to my notes, and the words I've just written came from Lady ManBun: "To die for." I don't want to die for pancakes and an omelet.

We're ten months into the pandemic, the headlines are still scary, and now there's a new, more contagious strain of the disease going around, and Doc Fauci says people should maybe wear two masks at the same time.

Last summer, when local restrictions were lifted and Bob's Diner re-opened, for the first few weeks I didn't even wear a mask for breakfast. I wore masks other places, of course, but at the diner it seemed silly — you can't cover your mouth while you're eating.

Then I wised up, started wearing the mask as I was entering and leaving the restaurant, so I wasn't breathing unfiltered air exhaled by strangers and staff as I come and go. Since Frank the Fixture died, I've been leaving the mask on all the way through breakfast — pulling it under my chin to shovel in food, and re-covering my mouth and nose between bites. That's kinda clumsy and I'm the only one in the diner who does that, but I'm alive and well. So far, anyway.

♦ ♦ ♦

After finishing this morning's breakfast I come home and click around, do some internet sleuthing, and upgrade my defense. I'm not going to stop eating at Bob's once a week, but I want to live to tell the tale, so I'm ordering disposable KN95 masks. They're similar to what doctors and nurses wear, and next week at the diner I'll have two KN95s on my head instead of the flimsy cloth thing I've been using.

It's still a gamble, though. Even with better masks, it's stupid to eat in a restaurant. So I'm stupid. If COVID comes for me, when I'm hospitalized or dead, you just go right ahead and comment under this post, "What an idiot he was." I won't argue.

 

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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