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Breakfast at the Diner — #38

Harvey is behind the counter, and he's taking someone's order but he acknowledges me with a cordial tilt of his head. I sit at an empty stool, look around, and slip into my magazine. In the middle of a letter to the editor, Harvey startles me back to the diner with, "Hey, Chief."

He's standing in front of me, holding his order pad and a pen. Apparently we're skipping all the ordinary dialogue about coffee and the daily special. Very efficient. I like anything that gets breakfast in front of me a little quicker.

"Good morning," says me. "I'll have OJ, the house omelet with wheat toast, and two pancakes."

"Banana walnut?" Harvey says. Translation: 'Today's special is banana walnut pancakes.'

"You darn tootin'," I answer. Translation: 'Yes, banana walnut pancakes, please.' Never say no to a few hundred extra calories.

Harvey says "Got it," and walks to the little reach-in refrigerator. He pours my orange juice, walks back, slides it onto the counter in front of me.

What I'm thinking is What the hell? Why am I being punished? Am I going to have to send an email to my Congresscritter? Why does there keep being so damned much Harvey in my breakfast, instead of Kirstin? Harvey, Harvey, Harvey, three weeks in a row. But all I say is, "Where's Kirstin?"

Harvey says, "Vacation. Bob let her have an extra week because he's a pussy."

"Hey, language!" a voice booms from the kitchen, and yup, it's Bob, namesake of the diner.

He's not cooking — Slim is tending the grill — but Bob pokes his head over the partition to scowl at Harvey, so I give Bob the same nod Harvey gave me when I walked in. Bob nods back. That nod gets passed around a lot here.

"I'll be in the office," Bob says to Harvey, and then disappears behind the partition, presumably into the office.

♦ ♦ ♦

Other than Kirstin, most of the regulars are here. Phil is telling a joke to Knitting-Needle. Hangover Harry is sitting by himself, way at the back, but even from here I can see his frightfully bloodshot eyes. Maurice, who's still tubeless, is listening to Health Report.

"My elbow has started making a noise when I do … this," he says. "Did you hear that?"

I didn't hear it, but Maurice says he did.

♦ ♦ ♦

Hey, here's Bald-Walker. Not to be confused with Bouffant-Walker. They're equally white and old, but Bald-Walker is more frail and has less hair, and there's a Biden bumper sticker over his walker's front bumper. The bumper is tiny, so I can only see the bottom third of the letters.

Baldie hasn't been in the diner for a while, at least not on my Friday mornings, and he's looking precarious. No worries about that, though — he's looked precarious for years, and only twice have I seen him come close to toppling. As he enters, Harvey says "Hey, Chief."

Bald pauses by the door, looks at the wall, and says, "What happened to Frank?"

Well, Frank died months ago, but what he means is, what happened to Frank's obituary? It had been laminated and taped to the wall, behind the seat where Frank sat so often I called him "The Fixture," but now the obituary is gone and the wall is just an empty wall. I hadn't noticed, until Bald-Walker noticed.

Harvey says, "The tape got tired, and overnight it fell off." Bald grunts and walks toward the back of the restaurant, slowly, each step wobbly.

I'm thinking, That's Frank's final epitaph: 'The tape got tired, and it fell off'.

♦ ♦ ♦

There are two middle-aged men, one white, one black, sharing breakfast at a table near the front window. They're buddies and regulars; I've seen them eating together now and again.

The black guy has a low rumbling voice that cuts through the diner's cloud of background noise — clinking silverware, the murmur of conversation, something sizzling on the grill, all the other sounds. His voice is easy and pleasant, like Sam Elliott as The Philosopher in The Big Lebowski, but what he's saying sounds like therapy.

He's talking about his father, some unspecified trauma at a beach, and other cruelties he's endured, and now he's been laid off. If I say anything more it would be a HIPAA violation, but his spirits are as low as his voice.

He's with a friend, though. The other man's words aren't many and don't carry as clearly over the diner's noise, but he's listening, and he gives a damn.

I'm fifty feet away and don't know either of these gents, but I want to give both of them a rib-crackin' hug. The damage of western civilization is universal, and it's difficult making your way through without being dragged down. It helps to have someone who listens. Those two have each other. Maybe I've got you.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bob is back from wherever he's been in the back of the building, and mutters "Good morning" to a few people, including me, as he walks to the front of the diner. He's holding a roll of tape and a piece of laminated paper, and with the screeching sound of heavy tape unspooling, soon the paper is stuck on the wall. It's Frank's obituary, back where it was.

Phil says, "Hey, Frank, good to see you again." And I agree, but don't say anything. Bob smiles, takes an empty stool, and leaves the roll of tape beside him at the counter.

"Hey, Chief," Harvey says. "You want coffee?" Harvey calls a lot of the customers 'Chief', even the actual chief.

"Yup," Bob says. "And a Denver omelet, white toast."

Bob isn't in the diner as often as he was before the pandemic, but always when he's here he has breakfast at the counter, alongside the customers. If you don't know he's the owner, he looks like just another middle-aged man drinking coffee and muching eggs. Well, he's bigger, meaner, gruffer than most, but all the regulars know him, and he has twenty-year ongoing conversations with some of them, mostly about football or fishing.

Maurice and Phil talk to Bob about football, and then a few more customers come in, see Bob, and they start talking to him about fishing. Later, Handlebar-Mustache sits at the counter, and Underwear Model sits adjacent a few minutes later, and soon they're talking about how Biden won't get much through the Senate unless they defang the filibuster. Underwear Model turns to the diner's owner and says, "What do you think, Bob?"

Bob says, "I try not to talk politics with people I like. When I do, I end up not liking 'em so much."

♦ ♦ ♦

Two customers come in together, regulars apparently, a white couple, he and she, in their approximate 30s/40s. To me they're strangers, but Harvey seems to know them.

They're talkative, and they want Harvey to know that they spent a few weeks in Iowa, taking care of a sick relative, and just recently returned. The man and woman take turns telling pieces of Iowa, and Harvey uh-huhs like he's supposed to — uh-huh, uh-huh — whenever they pause. They say more, and he uh-huhs again. After their third burst of the Iowa story, Harvey says something about a wreck that happened outside the diner a few days ago. "The Honda was crumpled real bad, but the old guy walked away, came in here and had coffee while he was waiting for a tow truck."

Harvey's not interested in that couple's Iowa story, and not interested in pretending to be interested. I respect that. I'm also not interested, but they're customers so someone should probably play the role of 'interested', and here's Bob to the rescue:

He's been eating quietly, uninvolved in this conversation, but now he jumps in with a question about their trip to Iowa. The woman answers Bob's question, and Bob asks another. It sounds like Bob wants to know, but I don't think he does. He says another short sentence and goes back to his omelet à la Colorado.

The inner workings of a good diner must be complicated — supplies, equipment, licensing, inspections, recipes, hiring, taxes, building maintenance, and a zillion other things that all come together in my omelet experience every Friday morning. One of those zillions is listening when customers want to talk.

Me, I just want to eat and be left alone, maybe listen and take notes, but some customers need to he heard. That's what that couple needed, so Bob let them know they'd been heard. Having been heard, now they stop talking, so Bob's made three customers happy.

♦ ♦ ♦

Breakfast is over, I'm ready to go, so to annoy Harvey I say, "Check payable to Bob's Diner?" I say it straight but it's a joke. Everyone knows the diner doesn't take checks or plastic.

Harvey answers deadpan, "Check payable to Up Your Ass."

"Hey, language!" says Bob, but he's smiling.

♦ ♦ ♦

Walking to my car, I pass the diner's back door, where Slim is leaning on an outside wall. He's enjoying a cigarette, maybe. I don't see the smoke, but smoking is the only reason to loiter outside when it's this cold. He sees me and says, "Thanks."

"Thank you, sir. You always make me a damn fine breakfast." I hope they split the tips, cuz I'd want Slim to get his share, but I don't say that or anything else. I keep walking, cuz it's cold and I don't want a conversation.

Slim and I have probably spoken before, but I don't remember it. I know nothing about him. Slim's just Slim, the quiet guy in the kitchen. He short-order cooks breakfast, it's always terrific, never drops a shell in my omelet, and he never says much. Good man.

Slim's breakfast in my belly means the day is off to a good start. I crank the ignition and drive out of the parking lot, which means looping around the building, so when I turn onto the main avenue I drive past the diner's front window, and always glance inside through the glass as I'm driving off.

In this morning's quarter-second snapshot, I see Harvey wiping the counter, Maurice sipping his coffee, Phil pointing at something, and Bob laughing. And I catch myself chuckling, too, without even hearing the joke.

 

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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