Breakfast at the Diner — #36

It's damned cold, -11° Fahrenheit, with lots of ice for scraping and slipping, plus a few further complications I won't mention that have me running quite late this morning. It's snowing big and fluffy, and the world is slippery so I'm driving 15 mph in a 30 mph zone, and its past 7:00 when I arrive at the diner — almost an hour later than I'd like. I'm walking in the door when I'd usually be home again with a full belly by now.

I don't see Kirstin or Harvey, but Harvey's voice hollers, "Do you want coffee, chief?" I look around, but spot only Slim in the kitchen, looking the other way.

"Orange juice, please," and I say to virtual Harvey, loudly, because I'm not sure how far away he might be.

There's only one other customer in the diner, a youngish white woman. She's alone and attractive but also human so I keep my distance, and sit at the opposite end of the counter.

"Be with you in a minute," says the voice of Harvey, booming from the back of the diner. There's still no actual Harvey, though.

"No worries," I say to the voice in the almost empty restaurant. "I've got all day."

There won't be much to overhear over breakfast, if there's only one other customer and I'm not going to speak to her, so I open my New Yorker and start reading about a restaurant where I'll never eat, in a city I've never seen and probably never will.

Now I've finished the review, so it's been a few minutes, and here's Harvey, live and in person. He's holding a pot of coffee, and pours a cup for me before I can stop him. I'm supposed to say no to coffee, and I already did, but I'm not annoyed. The diner has great coffee, and I'm suddenly looking forward to it.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," says Harvey. "You came at exactly the wrong moment, and I couldn't stop what I was doing." I smile, patient and understanding, before remembering that with the mask on my face he doesn't know that I'm smiling.

"No worries," I say again. Harvey's a good guy, and it's gotta be hectic working at a restaurant with two customers at the same time. "What's the daily special?" I ask. Harvey shakes his head, no, so I order my usual, and withdraw back into my magazine.

If Kirstin was here she'd be asking me questions — how's work, any plans for the weekend, and all that. I don't want to talk about my job, and the only thing I ever have planned for the weekend is my omelet, so I never know what to say when Kirstin asks. Harvey never asks, and most people might not appreciate that but I do.

I sip my coffee, read my magazine, wait for my breakfast. And yeah, I sneak a look at that pretty lady once in a while.

♦ ♦ ♦

A black 30s-ish guy comes in with his kid, and they sit at the counter, together but three stools from me. The kid is kindergarten age, wearing blue jeans and a heavy jacket cuz it's icy cold outside and not much warmer inside. There's no telling whether the pipsqueak is a boy or a girl, and I don't care, but that's why there won't be any pronouns.

Harvey comes over and says, "Good morning" to them, which is extra friendly for Harvey. "You want coffee, Mister?"

They question is clearly aimed at Dad, but they both say, "Yes."

Dad laughs, and says, "Coffee is only for big kids like me."

The kid gets a Mountain Dew instead, and they order breakfast. My instant impression is that they're good together. Dad gives the little one attention, genuinely listens and answers the kid's questions, and seems like a good dad raising a good child.

The kid says, "Can I have a sip?" Dad nods, and he/she takes a tiny taste of the coffee and makes a face. "Why do you drink that stuff? It's nasty."

"It's part of being old," says Dad. "Adults have a hard time waking up in the morning, and the coffee helps with that."

It's helping me. I haven't had coffee in too long, and I've missed it.

♦ ♦ ♦

The diner is dead this morning. None of the familiar faces are here — I arrived late and they've already left, or it's so damned cold they ain't coming. The pretty woman pays and leaves, so now it's just me and the father/kid combo, and they're talking about Spongebob Squarepants, so there's nothing interesting to overhear. Nothing's happening here except my omelet, which is great. And the diner, which is also great.

Other restaurants serve a plausible breakfast, maybe even a good one. Don't tell Kirstin or Harvey, but there's a diner within walking distance of my apartment. I eat their omelets once in a while, usually ordering 'to go' and eating breakfast at home. Their omelets are fine.

When I want something special, though, it's gotta be Bob's. It's the little things that bring me here, and they do all the little things right, which adds up to a big thing, I guess. I've eaten at Bob's many times, and they've never poured me a cup of coffee that wasn't quite right, never brought a breakfast I didn't finish, and never not made me feel welcome when I walk through the door. So I keep walking through the door.

♦ ♦ ♦

"Jeez, where is everybody?" I say to Harvey as he fills my cup with more coffee I shouldn't have.

"It's the cold, chief. When it's double-digits below zero, people stay home."

"Not me."

"Well, you know, smart people stay home. Wish I could've stayed home."

♦ ♦ ♦

An older black man comes in, bringing the cold with him from outside. He sits at the counter, and says nothing but nods when Harvey asks if he wants coffee. Harvey pours, and this gent wraps his cold fingers around the hot cup, lowers his face and breathes in the warmth.

"Do you need a menu," Harvey asks, "or do you know what you want?"

"I'm just having the coffee," he says.

"Well, it comes with refills," says Harvey, and fades back toward the kitchen.

A few minutes pass, and the father says to his kid, "You stay here." He approaches the newcomer, and the two men say a few words, but so softly I can't hear.

The other guy holds his hand up but stays quiet for a moment, then says, "Thanks, man, but no. Thanks." The dad apologizes, and the other man says, "No, no, it's fine." When the dad is almost back at his seat, the other man lets out a single chuckle and says, "My wife's right. She keeps telling me this jacket looks ratty."

It's taken a while but now the scene makes sense. This old guy had come in, shivering, wearing a coat that's tattered and frayed, and he'd ordered only coffee — so the little kid's father had decided he's homeless or hungry, and tried to buy him breakfast. But Ratty Coat really just wants coffee, and instead of being a hero in front of his kid, Dad is just embarrassed. Ratty Coat chuckles again. His jacket does look like something a down-and-outer might wear.

The kid is eating bacon, either oblivious to what just happened or precocious enough to pretend. And that kid's father is a better man than me. I hadn't given that old coat any notice, nor the man wearing it. Hadn't thought twice when he ordered just coffee, and wrapped his hands around the cup.

If I had noticed and suspected, would I have been kind enough to offer to help? Probably not. I take care of myself, and assume others are doing the same. So here I sit, eating a breakfast I pay someone to make for me, looking around the restaurant for people I can laugh at, and taking notes to write these entries, but I didn't notice someone who might have been in need. "Be a better man," I scribble in the corner of a page of my magazine. It's a note to myself for later.

♦ ♦ ♦

Now it's later, and I'm at home, typing the story but pretty sure I'll never be a better man. I'm usually immune to life lessons, so I rip out the corner of the page where I'd written those four words, and thumbtack it to the wall, behind my monitor. It's a reminder. I'll see it, all day, every day, so the message might sink in.

Aaaah, but an hour later that note is already nagging, so I take it down, and re-tack it under the clock, where I'll see it sometimes but not all the time.

Nope, still too often. It feels more like scolding than self-improvement.

It's a week later now, and that note spent a few days over the toilet, but now it's tacked to the wall above the cat food, where I glance at it twice daily, max, but usually don't.


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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