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Breakfast at the Diner — #39

Kirstin offers an exuberant hello when I walk into the diner, and I'm happy to see her handing out menus and napkins and a pleasant outlook, and protecting the customers from Harvey's surliness. Harvey is a good guy and a good cook, but breakfast is better when it's not served by a surly sailor.

I find my stool, park my hiney, and Kirstin asks me, "Where've you been? Haven't seen you for a while."

"I've been here. Been here every Friday morning. Where the hell have you been?"

"A week and a half in Florida, where they have a thing called sunshine, while the rest of the world has winter. And then a week and a half in Chicago, where they don't." While she's saying this, she's pouring orange juice I haven't ordered yet, and laying out everything I'll need: salt, pepper, napkins, syrup, and strawberry jam — the flavor I prefer, though I've never told her. "Today's special is the andouille sausage, and maybe you'd like it as an omelet?"

I pretend to think it over, but of course she's right. "Make it so," I say, "and it's good to have you back."

She doesn't write anything in her green order pad, just tears off the top ticket, walks it to the kitchen, and passes it to Harvey. I guess she wrote my order while I was looking for a stool.

♦ ♦ ♦

A young white guy comes in, sits down, and orders two big Cokes, but he's by himself. Kirstin says, "Are you waiting for someone else?"

He says cheerfully, "Nope, it's just me."

"Well, I'll refill your Coke when it's gone. You don't need to order two."

"That's OK. Just two big Cokes, please."

"Coming right up," she says, and Kirstin brings him two big Cokes. It's 6:15 in the morning, 40° outside and not much warmer inside, but he's a thirsty fellow. When he's drained both glasses, he promptly pays and goes. He was in and out of here in less than five minutes.

Kirstin didn't say anything about it, but I overheard the total when she rang him up at the register, and I'm pretty sure she only charged him for one large Coke. He got a good deal, and I don't think he even noticed.

♦ ♦ ♦

Usually I'd say 'white woman' or 'black woman' or whatever, but this lady is an undefinable shade of ethnic, so I'll just say a woman walks in, and she's not wearing a mask. Kirstin is way at the back of the room taking someone's order, and nobody says anything, but a few customers look up with raised eyebrows, maybe including me. This lady and I make very brief eye contact, and she looks suddenly startled, reaches up and taps her face. She whispers "Oops," turns and leaves, and she's back a minute later, properly masked.

♦ ♦ ♦

There aren't many things you can rely on in this world, but Bouffant-Walker always rolls into this place at 6:30 or so — except today, and it's weird when he doesn't. There's also no Big Hat, no Maurice, not even Phil, who's almost always here. The diner is quite busy, but in the absence of our dear departed Frank the Fixture, these other absences are more noticeable to me, perhaps. They're not friends, but they're my co-eaters, and I miss 'em when they're gone.

♦ ♦ ♦

Kirstin is here, though, and she brightens the place more than the fluorescent lighting. My omelet is fabulous (no surprise), and the hash browns are perfect, and the hotcakes seem especially fluffy and buttery and magnificent.

♦ ♦ ♦

There's always been a clock on the wall by the milk shake machine, and I don't wear a watch or carry a phone so that's how I know Bouffant is late or absent. But it's not the same clock. I couldn't tell you whether it was black or white or purple, but it was definitely the old-fashioned kind of clock that had hands, and it's gone. On the same spot on the same wall, there's now a different clock, with electric numbers instead of hands.

Could you hear me sighing? Probably. The diner ought to always be all-analog, but instead the 1980s are creeping in — first they replaced the radio with a boombox, and now they've replaced the tick-tock clock with an LED clock. What's next? A digital cash register? A website? An app? Mutter, mutter, mutter...

♦ ♦ ♦

Knitting-Needle and Underwear Model are having breakfast together at a table. ManBun and Lady ManBun are at the next table, and Sudden Urge is seated at the counter, corner stool, very nearby. All five of them are talking to and over each other, but with proper diner etiquette, their conversation is just loud enough for them to hear. I have to concentrate and tilt my head to follow along, and I do, I'll admit.

Underwear Model got pulled over by a cop on his way to the diner. Third time he's been pulled over this year, he says, and it's only March. His crime? He has a nice car, but he's black and this is America.

♦ ♦ ♦

Damned Good Coffee comes in, sits down, and orders breakfast — and coffee, of course. Just the Hash Browns comes in shortly thereafter, and now they're seated near each other, talking, and I'm curious to see whose catch phrase will be spoken first.

Kirstin is pouring coffee for both of them, and D.G.C. stirs in sugar while Hash Browns asks Kirstin about her vacation. D.G.C. takes a sip, then another, but doesn't say anything yet; he's listening to Kirstin tell about Florida and Chicago. He takes a second sip, savors it, swishes it around, closes his eyes, smiles slightly and takes a breath, just as Kirstin says to Hash Browns, "Let me guess."

He says, "Just the hash browns, honey."

"It never changes," says Kirstin, "but one of these days you'll surprise me."

"Damned good coffee," says Damned Good Coffee, and damn, I would've wagered five bucks on Damned Good Coffee to win, but I would've lost.

♦ ♦ ♦

Kirstin checks on me a few minutes after bringing my breakfast: "Is everything OK here?"

And I say, "There's no coffee, damn it," though of course I hadn't ordered coffee and it's not allowed.

"That's your rule, sweetie, not mine. If you want coffee, I'd be happy to pour."

"Nah. I've heard it's damned good coffee, but I'd better not. I'm sleeping better without it, fewer headaches, and just generally healthier, I think."

"You did drink a lot of our coffee over the years," she says. I say nothing to that, and she continues. "Six or seven refills was your normal, but I brought you 14 refills one Friday."

I blink and say, "Are you serious? You kept track?"

"Well, I don't keep a spreadsheet or anything, but it's something I need to know. I used to start brewing the next pot soon as you showed up." Again I say nothing, just blink and maybe smile, and again she continues.

"See, there's three kinds of coffee customers: there's the one-cuppers, one and done. There's eaters — they want coffee with their meal and always want refills, but they leave when the plate's empty. And there's the loiterers, who don't eat, or hang around after they've eaten, and just keep drinking coffee. Among the eaters, I think your 14 refills is the record, but of course, the loiterers have you beat."

♦ ♦ ♦

Toward the back of the diner, far from me but not far enough, there's a table with four loud talkers. I'd have to hum and wear earplugs to not hear every word they say. I abhor loud talkers at the diner, and these four are talking loudly about lima beans. There is nothing anyone wants to hear about lima beans, but everyone hears about it anyway, because all four of them are fascinated with lima beans. Loudly fascinated. From what I can't help overhearing, two or maybe three of them are lima bean farmers from Delaware. Now they're talking about lima bean tillage. Now they're talking about plant diseases that affect lima beans.

And heroically, from the kitchen, I hear Harvey singing a song. "When I was a youngin' in my teens, my mouth used to water for lima beans." He's singing it softly, but loud enough to be heard, and my laughter gets a chunk of sausage stuck in my throat. Harvey sings that same line, waits a few ticks and then sings it again, and there's more laughter and the loud talkers grow quieter. Harvey has worked a minor miracle.

I wasn't sure whether he'd invented that rhyme, so back home I Googled around, and found a song called "Lima Beans" with that same line in it, by someone named Eddy Ware, circa 1954. Pretty sure that's the song Harvey was singing. He only sang the first line, but the song goes on and on, same as the lima bean talkers.

♦ ♦ ♦

There's a middle-aged white couple at one of the front tables, by the window, and they're talking about someone who died. They're sad and grief-stricken, and I think we can all concur that I'm an ass for listening and taking notes, but the man says something so strange that I just have to jot it down.

It was, by all accounts, a tragic boating accident. Mistakes were made, and they should've been wearing life jackets, and neither of the people at the table can understand why it happened, but the Lord works in mysterious ways. All this is the normal talk of people grieving, but then the man says, "And he was a really good bowler, best on the team. That's what really hurts."

♦ ♦ ♦

Phil is usually here before me, but this week he shows up just as I'm finishing my last few bites of pancake. He says hi to a few people but not me, asks Kirstin about her vacation, and she says to him the same line she's said twice already this morning: "A week and a half in Florida, where they have a thing called sunshine, while the rest of the world has winter. And then a week and a half in Chicago, where they don't." Hundreds of customers are going to ask Kirstin the same question, so why shouldn't she recycle her answer?

Phil says, "We thought maybe you were dead from COVID." Phil tells a lot of jokes, and some of them are funny, but some of them aren't.

"Sorry to disappoint you," she says, "but I'm alive and well. Actually, we're kind of proud of ourselves here. A year into the pandemic, and nobody who works at the diner has gotten sick."

"Hey, I was hospitalized!" That's Harvey, shouting from the kitchen.

"You had gallstones, Harvey, not the COVID."

 

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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