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Breakfast at the Diner — #46

Let’s start with some math and geometry. There are five people scattered at the counter. Under pandemic rules, there must be two empty stools between customers, because just one stool wouldn’t provide six feet of social distance, and it’s always gotta be six feet. To sit at the counter, then, I’ll need five empty stools in a row, but four is the most I can find.

I look at the situation as if looking will change something, and it does. Sudden Urge to Pee glances up and sees the sad look on my face. There’s one empty stool between him and the end of the counter, and without a word he scoots himself and his plate down to that last seat. Now there are five empty stools between him and Jerry the Flower Thief, so I take the center seat of those five.

To Sudden Urge, two seats to my right, I say, “You’re a mensch.”

He says, “I’m gonna look up that word when I get home, and it better be nice.” He’s a kidder like Phil, only funnier.

“It’s Yiddish. It means you’re a righteous dude.”

“Well then, thank you. I had to do it. You looked like you were going to cry.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Kirstin says good morning, and her hair is all fancified and floating around her face. She’s gotten a permanent, I think it’s called, or used to be. It looks nice and I say so, and then wonder whether that’s a weird thing to say.

It starts a chain reaction, though — over the next few minutes, Jerry and Phil and Sudden Urge all compliment Kirstin on her hair. Yeah, well, you guys were all in the diner before me — how come you didn’t say anything about her hair until I said something?

♦ ♦ ♦

“Masks off in two weeks,” Jerry says to Phil. It’s been in the news — local pandemic orders will expire on June 2, and won’t be renewed. Most people around here have been vaccinated, so wearing masks indoors will become a ‘suggestion’ instead of a mandate, and the diner could have as many customers as it has chairs.

“And two weeks after that,” Phil says, “will we have the pandemic back again?”

“Let's hope for the best,” says Jerry, "and leave our masks on."

♦ ♦ ♦

For years and years, I’ve always ordered the house omelet, or sometimes the daily special. When I first got the diner habit, though, I ordered a Denver omelet every week. Well, Kirstin has taken my order most every Friday for all that time, and once in a while she slightly misfires. Today I order “the usual,” and five minutes later she brings me a Denver omelet — my usual, from way back when.

There are seventeen customers in the diner at the moment, and only one waitress keeping all their orders straight. I got an omelet I ordered ten years ago, but I don’t say anything. Only a jackass would. Anyway, it’s a fine Denver omelet. Nice to see it again.

♦ ♦ ♦

A tall black man ducks as he walks through the door, into the restaurant. He’s about 30, but mostly he’s way up there, maybe seven feet tall and with a muscular presence. My wild guess is that he used to be a basketball player.

He sits at a table, orders coffee and breakfast, takes his cell phone from his pocket and starts reading and scrolling. He plugs in earbuds and watches something, laughing every now and again. Nothing's unusual so far, except the man’s height. Then I hear pssst and he’s opened a can of beer that must’ve been in his windbreaker’s pocket.

The time is twenty past six in the morning, and call me quaint but that seems early to be having a beer. Maybe my eyes say that, cuz the guy looks at me. He pulls out one earbud, and says, “It’s 6 in the morning for you, but I just finished a late shift. After breakfast, I’m going to bed.” It’s none of my business anyway, but that makes sense. Enjoy your beer, tall stranger.

Kirstin appears from nowhere, and quietly says, “It’s not allowed, sweetie. It’s the law.” She’s brought one of the diner’s to-go coffee cups, and puts it on the big man’s table. Finger to mask-covered lips, she goes, “Shhh,” and she and he take a moment to understand each other. He pours his beer into the cup, and she tosses his empty can into the trash. He eats his breakfast, drinks his beer, and nothing more is said about it.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bouffant-Walker comes in, says good morning to half a dozen of us, and I’m always included. Always honored to be included, I should say, but don’t. I only say good morning, and Bouffant beelines to his usual table, says his usual niceties to Kirstin, and orders his usual breakfast.

What’s unusual about Bouffant is, he never keeps his inner dialogue to himself. When he’s here, always be ready for something predictably unpredictable. Sure enough, before long he says to no-one, to everyone, “I opened a can of peas, and it was all sliced carrots inside.”

Eavesdropping is best done with a poker face behind the mask, but just this once, a chuckle slips out.

“Not straight-sliced either,” Bouffant goes on. “The carrots were crinkle-cut.” He’s talking to me now, not to the diner like he usually does, because I’m the guy who laughed.

“Wavy-like?” I ask. That’s what ‘crinkle-cut’ means, I think, but I'm not sure.

“Up and down like the ocean, yeah. They make a special knife to do the crinkle-cut.”

He says more about carrots, but I’m barely listening. For one chuckle and then saying ‘Wavy-like’, he’s giving me a brief history of canned vegetables.

I wonder what goes on in Bouffant-Walker’s head, and thinking about his head draws my eyes to his formidable hair. It's a shock of gray rising and rippling like a crop of wheat. I’d complimented Kirstin’s hair earlier, but Bouffant’s is more impressive.

He’s talking about green beans, but I interrupt and say, "I like your pompadour.”

“My hair?”

“Your hair. You have so much of it, and always so puffy and — up."

"It’s a toupee,” Bouffant says. “When I take it off, I’m bald."

"Really?” I ask, and I’m surprised. It looks so real ...

“Nah, I’m fucking with you,” he says. “It’s all mine.”

I have just been punked by an old guy with a walker, who’s now telling me how he teases his hair into shape with a blow-dryer and some 'product'. I take another bite of breakfast and listen to him, sort of.

♦ ♦ ♦

We’re interrupted by the crash of glass shattering on the floor, and a murmur of oh-my and what-the from most of the customers. “Sorry, everyone,” Kirstin says. “I put a jar on top of the soda machine, and forgot that the machine shudders once in a while. Rocked it right off.”

The explosion had been directly in front of Sudden Urge's seat, and Kirstin tells him, “You probably shouldn’t eat that.”

“It’s OK,” he says. “None of it landed in my food.”

“It’s glass,” she says, “so it might be there and you wouldn’t see it. Do you mind?” He surrenders, and she takes his plate and coffee. From memory, she recites his order to Harvey in the kitchen. Then she pours a replacement coffee for Sudden Urge, and says, “We’ll have a new omelet for you in a few minutes.”

Kirstin starts sweeping the glass, and I see the soda machine shudder again.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bouffant has been quiet for a few minutes, so I glance over at him, and he says, “I don’t even like carrots, especially canned carrots.”

♦ ♦ ♦

When his second breakfast comes, Sudden Urge asks for a doggy box. “I ate most of my first breakfast,” he explains. He thanks Kirstin for saving his life, and as he leaves he says goodbye to me.

I say, “Mensch.”

He says, “I’ll look it up.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Two old white men are sitting at a table, and one says to the other, “She puts a magnet on her arm where she got the shot, and the magnet sticks.” The old guy he’s talking to makes a face, like that’s the dumbest thing he’s heard all week, same as it is for me.

The first guy explains that the COVID vaccine contains something metallic and sinister. It doesn’t, of course. This is QAnon nonsense he’s seen or heard, but you can’t talk strangers out of being stupid, so I have nothing to say. Maybe I sigh, though, or groan or roll my eyes or shake my head, because Jerry says to me quietly, “Yeah, me too.”

Just as quietly, I answer, “Some fools will believe anything.”

He says “Yup,” and yawns, and takes a sip of his coffee. Then he pays and leaves.

The COVID conversation might merit a few paragraphs, so to remind myself, I scribble fools blv anythng in the margin of my magazine. Directly above what I’ve just written, is what I’d written a few minutes earlier — the word, toupee. Yeah, some people will believe anything, and ten minutes ago I’d been ready to believe Bouffant’s bouffant was a hairpiece.

♦ ♦ ♦

When I’ve finished my breakfast and swallowed the last of my orange juice, as always I leave payment and tip under my plate. Kirstin is pouring coffee for someone, and I wish it was me. I miss drinking coffee.

I say thanks to her, and she says thanks to me, as we do. Turning to leave, I see Bouffant waving at me, so I wave back, and say, “So long, Carrot Man.”

He says, “I'm a superhero, with excellent eyesight,” and I have nothing to say to that.

♦ ♦ ♦

As I step out, a pretty woman approaches on the sidewalk, and I hold the door for her. She walks in, says thanks and smiles at me. At least, I assume she smiles, but she’s wearing a mask like almost every face for the past fourteen months. I’m assuming she’s pretty, though, so I’ll also assume she smiles.

 

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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