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Breakfast at the Diner — #42

I'm early to beat the rush, but the rush got here before me — the diner is surprisingly busy. There are perhaps twenty customers, which is legal (the COVID minimums have been raised to 50% of capacity) but it's more than usual for 6:10 in the morning.

There are empty seats at the counter, but none with the mandated distance. There are unoccupied tables, but I wanna eat at the counter, dang it. I'm almost ready to twirl and leave and come back later, but I pause because something's wrong with this picture, and it's not just how busy the place is. Takes a moment for me to figure out the problem...

Four people are seated side-by-side at the counter — average, dull-looking people, but there are no stools between them. That's weird. It's not allowed under COVID rules, unless they're all from the same household, and maybe they are. I don't care, much, but just the fact of four people sitting so close together bewilders me. It's been a long time since I've seen anything like that, except in the movies.

Someone behind me says, "Excuse me," cuz I'm standing in the doorway. I hate people who block the doorway, so I hate myself. I mumble an apology and step aside, let them into the diner. Then I walk back to my car, still weirdly dazed, to read my magazine for a while. Sure, I'm finicky, but breakfast at the diner is my only excursion every week, and I want it the way I want it.

Five letters to the editor and two short articles later, I'm back, and now there's open acreage at the counter. Where I sidle in, ManBun and Lady ManBun are to my left, with no stools between them, but two stools between them and me. They say, "Hello, Domingo," and I nod at them without saying anything. Eventually they'll get the message.

"Welcome back," says Kirstin.

I say, "I wanted a counter seat, so I waited."

"And you got what you wanted," Kirstin says. "Today's special is the Tex-Mex omelet." I give her a thumbs up, and she giggles and says, "Say no more, say no more."

She darts away to give my ticket to the kitchen, and without my asking, she's left a glass of orange juice. I imbibe, read more of my magazine, and look around the diner — my second-favorite place in the city, behind only my recliner at home.

♦ ♦ ♦

At a table, there are two white men, both wearing suits. The diner is a casual place, so the suits are a warning that they might be asses, and indeed, it's soon obvious that they're in management. What they're saying is all business, with all the buzzwords — cutting costs, eliminating waste, improving productivity, streamlining efficiencies. They've stopwatched the workflow, and now they're deciding how to extract a few nickles more profit.

"We can eliminate the visual inspection of every piece," one of them says.

"98% pass inspection," says the other, "so there's no point." There's no point, unless you're an unlucky schmuck in that 2%.

"Even factoring in the increased complaints and repairs, we still save money."

"I'm also not seeing much value in step five, or steps seven through nine," says the other suit.

They go into detail about eliminating those steps and, probably, the people who perform those steps, but I can't bear to eavesdrop any further.

They're typical management dolts — they've never done the work, but they know how to do it better than the people who do. Have they spoken with any workers, to ask them what might help on the line, and what's a waste of time? Nah, there's nothing to be learned once you decide you know everything.

♦ ♦ ♦

Sudden Urge to Pee settles in at the end of the counter, three stools to my right, and he says to me, "Good morning."

"Morning," I say, glancing up from The New Yorker.

He's still looking at me, and he's smiling. "Just 'morning'?" he says. "You can borrow my 'good' if you need it."

Oh, an optimist, I think to myself. I am immune to your powers. I say, "Good morning, sir," and give half a smile, then return to my magazine, and he says no more.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bouffant-Walker is on his way to his favorite table, saying hello to Phil and Maurice, ManBun and Lady ManBun, and then it's my turn. I nod and smile. Saying hello to other customers at the diner seems excessive and unnecessary, but if he's handing out hellos I guess I want mine.

"I didn't see you last Friday," he says to me. "I was worried."

"Uh, I came late." Do I need a note from my parents?

"Early bird catches the worm," he says, still rolling along, without any pause at all. To Kirstin he says, "Does the diner have worm omelets?"

She hadn't been near enough to hear the beginning of this odd conversation, so she looks perplexed, but only for a moment. "If you want worms, we'll get you some worms." She's accustomed to Bouffant, and anyway, she's heard it all.

Bouffant says hello to Sudden Urge and a few others at the back of the diner, and then he sits at his table. There might as well be a sign that says, 'Bouffant table', because he always sits there unless someone else takes that table first.

Kirstin brings coffee and asks him the diner questions, and I watch without eye contact and wonder about Bouffant.

He's an old white guy, with towering white hair, a slight speech impediment, and some unspecified disability, I guess, since he uses a walker. And he's lonely, I think. He always eats alone, but he tries to talk to other people, and when they don't talk to him, he talks to himself.

"I forgot to ask the bus driver for a transfer," he says to no-one now, "so I'll have to pay again for my ride home." Yeah, he's a weirdo, but if you're weird in the right way that's a compliment, and I don't mind the ways he's weird.

Most Fridays, Bouffant gets here at about 6:30, but when he doesn't show up I've never missed him and asked, like he asked me this morning.

♦ ♦ ♦

Here's the old man I call Health Report. He comes in, sits at the counter, and says hello to the people on either side of him. They all seem to know each other, and soon they're talking, as normal people tend to do but I usually don't. The topics are baseball and birds and the weather, but you know what I'm waiting for and it doesn't take long.

One of the others provides an opening by saying, "So how are you doing, Chet?" Or whatever his name is.

He answers, "My left knee has been bothering me, and the doc says my intestines are too long."

Maybe I'm not immune to optimism after all, because every time I hear about that man's many miseries I'm reminded of my own general good luck and reasonably good health.

♦ ♦ ♦

My omelet is excellent, of course, and so are the pancakes. What always gets me, though, is the hash browns. I'm not generally a big fan of potatoes, but these are the best hash browns in the world, right here.

You know who doesn't get excited by potatoes? Anyone eating at Denny's or Perkins or IHOP. Those places reliably screw up the tubers every time. My wife called them "hash tans" — shredded potatoes somewhat warmed but barely browned, usually just the top millimeter, leaving everything underneath a gray mush. That's what they serve at the chains, but never at Bob's Diner.

The hash browns here are browned all the way through, and a little crunchy, never mushy, always delicious. The texture varies — sometimes they'll use the big-slicing side of the potato-grater, and sometimes the delicate-slicing side, but they're always superb. Seasoned perfectly and fried in butter you can taste with every bite. Damn, I do love those potatoes.

♦ ♦ ♦

What stays with me from breakfast this morning, though, more than the hash browns, is the image of those four people sitting side-by-side. Perfectly ordinary people, but with no stools between them. No social distancing. And no masks, since they were eating.

Before the pandemic, that would've been 'so what?', but today it was a jolt. A swallow of jalapeno. People being sociable with other people was never normal for me, but it was normal for everyone else, and I miss everyone else's old normal. With the pandemic that never ends, it's been a long time since I've seen that.

 

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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