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Breakfast at the Diner — #43

If one fine day the pandemic ends, and earth resumes its ordinary orbit, and life ever looks again like the before times, the people who work at the diner will work five days a week, and Kirstin will almost always be my waitress on Friday mornings. For now, though, she works four days a week, sometimes 3 1/2, and far too frequently Fridays are without her.

Harvey's a fine chap, sure, and I like him. He's amusingly crude, and so am I, so I enjoy it. But he's Kirstin's understudy, when everyone — probably even Harvey — would rather have the real thing.

"Hey, Chief," he says as I walk in, and I say hey. Slim ticks his head at me from the kitchen, but it’s so subtle I wouldn’t swear it under oath. Harvey knows where I’ll sit, and he’s there before me. "You want coffee, cream and sugar?"

"Nope. Orange juice, please." The only customers are Bald-Walker at a table way in the back, and the almost always-present Phil and Maurice at the counter, and me. I’m at the counter, too, but far from Phil and Maurice.

"The special today is Mediterranean Benedict,” Harvey says, “and I think we still have enough pig to make a pork omelet — that was yesterday's special."

Pondering my choice, I’m suddenly unsure what’s the difference between pork and ham. I ask Harvey, but he doesn’t answer, just stares at me like I’m a halfwit. I stare back, then break the silence to say, "If there's enough pig, give me a pork omelet, and if there's not, make it a house omelet."

"Got it, chief." He walks away without asking about toast, and I don't holler after him to say wheat. Bet he'll bring white.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bald-Walker sits alone and far from the rest of us, so there's no conversation to overhear except Phil and Maurice, and it's boring. Road work is ripping up a lane at a time on the avenue out front, and they agree that’s awful. Maurice’s daughter-in-law makes a marvelous rice pudding. Phil’s neighbors painted their house purple.

I aggressively tune out and read my magazine, until Maurice says, "She was pushing when I was pulling." No idea what that might have been about, but I wonder.

♦ ♦ ♦

Harvey is taking an order over the phone, so Slim delivers my omelet, and announces it: “Pork omelet, with hotcakes and wheat toast.” I say thanks, and don't say, Hey, they got my toast right.

The omelet, though, might be the ugliest damn food I’ve ever paid for. There are puddles of gray grease leaking out of the eggs. In the gray liquid, tiny chopped and caramelized onions swim around, moving just enough to remind me of baby cockroaches. More grease oozes out when I cut it with my fork, and the whole thing is goopy and slippery — and outstanding, of course. It looks like hell but tastes like heaven.

♦ ♦ ♦

It’s 6:30 on Friday morning. Bouffant-Walker usually rolls into the diner about now, but today he’s not here.

And I noticed.

♦ ♦ ♦

A middle-aged white man comes in, sits at the counter alone, and orders. He’s within speaking distance of Phil so Phil speaks. Just you try stopping him. Soon they’re talking about nothing interesting, which is Phil’s favorite topic. He wanted to go to the park but it’s supposed to rain, and this guy interrupts to say, “Yeah, the forecast calls for braille.” Yes, braille – there’s no mistaking what he said.

Maurice glances at me, and I think we’re both thinking that this guy is either drunk or damaged. Phil turns it into a joke, but he doesn’t speak much Martian, so soon he's talking to Maurice again.

Mr Braille sits quietly and finishes his eggs, and then taps his glass with his fork. That's supposed to make a pinging sound, but the diner's glasses are made of plastic. He wants to say something important, though, so now he clears his throat and says, "Hey." When we're all looking at him, he says, "Check your quarters, everybody. They're sneaking some different quarters into the rolls. I heard it on the news."

From seven stools away, Maurice says, "What do you mean, 'different quarters'?"

"Minted differently, I guess.”

“Well, how are they different?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Just check real careful. They might be worth some money in a few years."

Well, yeah — 25¢.

♦ ♦ ♦

Customers come and go, mostly go. When Maurice says goodbye to Phil, there's only Phil and me in the building. He glances at me, and sighs. He wants to talk to someone, but there’s only me and he knows I’m impregnable. Untalkable. I love that about me.

Harvey keeps himself busy, but maybe he feels like he's supposed to make conversation, so he tries. He says a few words to Phil, and then says something to me. I answer with a word or two, but mostly it’s awkward. Then Phil pays and leaves, and it gets awkwarder — I’m the only customer in the diner.

Harvey stocks shelves and stacks plates, and smacks one of the coffee machines twice, because it has a flickering light that’s not supposed to flicker. The last sentence spoken in the diner was “So long, Phil,” five minutes ago. I'd be happy with silence until goodbye, but Harvey says, “It’s just you and me, Chief.”

Great, now I’m supposed to speak. Well, I got nothing, so there’s a pause, until eventually I come up with, “Last Friday, there were twenty people here.”

“Used to be you’d know what time it was without a watch, just from how busy we were," Harvey says. "Now, some days we can’t crack eggs fast enough, other days we’d be out of business if it wasn’t for phone orders.”

“People will come back,” I say. “COVID’s not killing as much as it used to.”

“It killed my brother,” Harvey says. “Just yesterday.”

“Holy crap! Your brother died yesterday and you’re here working today?”

“What else am I gonna do?” he says flatly. “The hospital wouldn’t allow visitors, and now there’s gonna be a funeral but I don’t want everyone's virus hugs. I could drive 200 miles to wave across a parking lot, but I’d rather work.”

“Makes sense, I guess.” Then my rudimentary social skills kick in, and I say what I should’ve already said — sorry, condolences, etc. I am sorry, but if he hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have guessed anything was up. He seems like ordinary Harvey. I marvel at the man’s stoicism.

♦ ♦ ♦

Half an hour ago, a customer walked in and said, “Hey, Harvey, what’s up?”

And Harvey replied, “Ah, you know, same shit as always.”

It was dialog so routine for Harvey, I didn’t even write it in my notes, but I remember it now.

Slipping money under my cup, I say, “Thanks for breakfast, Harvey. Take care of you.” When I leave, there’s only Harvey and Slim in the building.

 

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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