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Breakfast at the Diner — #35

I bought some new and improved masks after last week's panic attack, and they fit much more snugly than the cloth masks. My face is wrapped tight as an unopened package of franks, and it feels seriously safer, especially since I'm wearing two. Parked at the diner and walking toward the door, I feel stupidly invincible.

Once inside the restaurant, of course, I'm just another high-risk schmuck, but the diner is less crowded than last week. More safety in smaller numbers, and this week there's room for me at the counter, so cough on me if you must, I'll be fine.

♦ ♦ ♦

Kirstin and I say good morning to each other, and she tells me what the special is, but adds that I don't want it — not because it's bad, just that she's memorized what I like and what I don't. And she's right. A spinach and cheese omelet is not for me, so I order my usual, and she tells me it's already cooking.

♦ ♦ ♦

An old white lady comes in, alone and gazing all around the diner. Not the quick glance you'd give if it was your first time here; she's studying the ambiance and architecture. She sits at the counter, and Kirstin says, "Good morning."

Old White Lady says, "Good morning, and — does Alice still work here?"

"No, not for a long time," Kirstin says.

"Well, I had to ask. I used to eat here, and Alice was always good to me."

"Must've been a while," says Kirstin. "Alice was the waitress two waitresses before me."

"I remember Alice." It's Maurice talking, from around two corners of the looping counter. "Nice lady, great waitress, a long time ago." I discretely uncap my pen to start taking notes, but now the old lady and Kirstin and Maurice are all talking too fast for me to keep up.

The gist of it is, this lady says she was a regular customer here, until forty years ago she got married and moved to Arizona. Forty years ago? Now she's visiting friends here in Wisconsin, so she's stopped in to say hey to Alice and see if the diner's breakfast is as good as she remembers. There's no Alice to say hey to, but there's always the diner.

Like us old people love to do, Old White Lady talks about things that were. Kirstin's a good sport so she listens, asking occasional questions between taking orders and bringing food for other folks, and Maurice adds his recollections on the price of scrambled eggs way back when, and about a heavy-drinking cook who worked in the kitchen before Harvey and Slim were hired.

I'll avoid boring you with too many details, but to me it's not boring. The diner is a safe space in a big, mean city, and hearing stories about people who worked here or ate here, took refuge in this room forty damned years ago, ate the same breakfast, probably used the same plates and silverware I'm using this morning — it makes the diner feel almost eternal. Our ancestors ate here, and maybe our descendants will eat here, too.

"It's amazing how much the place hasn't changed," Old White Lady says. "Same tile on the floor. Same stools, same counter. I was afraid Bob's Diner might be gone, or worse, all remodeled."

"Remodeling costs money, so that'll never happen," says Kirstin. "Nothing changes at Bob's Diner," says Kirstin, "especially not Bob."

The customer opens her eyes wide. "Is Bob still here? I would love to say hello."

"He's in the office, and he hates to be disturbed when he's back there, so I'd be delighted to disturb him." Kirstin laughs, and says "I'll be right back." To Harvey in the kitchen she adds, "I'm going to see Bob. Keep an eye on the front." Harvey grunts a response; he understands but doesn't like it.

A minute later Kirstin returns, and Bob follows. Kirstin introduces Bob and Old White Lady, using the lady's real name because of course she's already asked and memorized it. Everyone seems confused, though.

"I'm pleased to meet you," says Old White Lady, "but you're not the right Bob."

"I'm Bob Junior, but I'm the only Bob you're gonna get," he says. "My dad passed away." I knew Bob had taken over the diner from his parents, but I hadn't known he was Bob Junior. He doesn't seem like a Junior.

"Oh," she says. "I'm sorry to hear that. He was a good guy."

"Yeah," says Bob. "I try to be half the man my dad was, and that's the best I can muster."

"I remember you as a little kid. Weren't you usually sitting at the back table with a book?"

"That was me," says Bob Junior, and he laughs, a frightful and rare sound. "Kirstin tells me you're looking for Alice Doyle?"

"Yes," the customer says, "but it's been so long, I'm braced for bad news."

"Well, we're out of bad news this morning. Would you settle for some good news?"

And again, too many words are spoken more quickly than I can write things down. Alice quit the diner 25 or 30 years ago and moved to Canada, but guess what? She and Bob still keep in touch. They're literally pen pals, regularly exchanging letters for all those years. Bob says, "If you write a note or something for Alice, I'll include it with my next letter to her."

Who could've guessed that Bob, a man of few words with 'please' rarely one of them, had such a sentimental streak?

Bob and Old White Lady don't talk for long, but it's long enough, and then he excuses himself and returns to the office. As he walks away, she opens her purse, pulls out stationery and a pen, and starts writing. Her breakfast is only 2/3 eaten, but she ignores it until she's poured everything from her heart onto a single sheet of paper, front and back. I wouldn't tell you what she's written even if she was close enough that I could read it, but she wasn't so I couldn't anyway. Old White Lady is a happy customer, though, I'll tell you that.

Down the counter, Maurice has been looking at her without saying anything more, but now he says, "Hey, did you used to sit right where you're sitting now?"

"Yes, I did," she says, looking up from the writing. "I was so happy when I walked in this morning, and not just the diner was here, but my favorite seat was empty."

"I think I remember you," Maurice says. "You sometimes would talk about your job at a doctor's office?"

"Well, almost," she says. "It was a dentist, but he always said 'Dentists are doctors'. Did we know each other?"

"Nah," Maurice says, "not hardly. You had breakfast here many times, and you sat where you're sitting, and I sat where I'm sitting. That's about all I remember."

Does Old White Lady remember Maurice? Maybe she does but doesn't want to, or maybe she doesn't and doesn't want to hurt his feelings. She just says, "It's good to be sitting here again," and returns to the note she's writing.

When she's finished, she signs the note with a flourish and asks for a doggie-box for the remnants of her meal. She boxes the food, walks to the cash register, and Kirstin comes over, says, "I hope you enjoyed your breakfast," and rings her up.

"Breakfast was wonderful," she says, and hands her note to Kirstin. "Would you please give this to Junior?"

"Of course I will," says Kirstin, "and I'll make sure to call him 'Junior'. He'll love that."

"Thanks for everything, and Kirstin, you remind me of Alice. Please tell Junior I said thank you, and I'm happy that the diner is in such good hands."

Kirstin says, "It was great meeting you, [lady's name]. You made my morning. Now, don't wait another forty years before coming back."

♦ ♦ ♦

The door closes, that old white lady is gone, and it's all been mildly mind-blowing. Everyone knows that the diner has been here forever, but we don't often have a time traveler from before Kirstin, from when Bob was 'Junior'.

"Maurice," I say, wondering whether I've ever said his name before, or even spoken to him till now. He looks up at me, as surprised to have heard me say his name as I am to have said it. "How long have you been coming here?"

He looks up at the ceiling, calculating his answer. "Since before it was Bob's Diner," he says. "45, maybe 50 years."

"Damn," is all I say. A few minutes later I nod at him as I'm leaving, and then I'm outside. It's cold this morning. Winter in Wisconsin. But it was warm inside.

 

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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