Breakfast at the Diner — #47

In the diner’s dining room, the walls are tiled to match the floor — big checkerboard on the floor, smaller checkerboard pattern on the walls. Bob can’t hammer a nail into the tile, so these checkerboards are the ambiance, and the walls are mostly bare.

The Fixture’s obituary has been taped up for months, behind the stool where he sat. There’s a clock over the pass-through to the kitchen, and a sign that says, “Cash only.” That’s the diner’s decor. It's basic.

Today, though, something has been stuck to the wall with brown packing tape, near the front door. A laminated page with handwriting in neat penmanship, it’s a letter to the diner, and I stop and stand to read it:

“My parents took me to breakfast at this diner when I was a little girl. It was Faye’s Diner then. Later I came to the diner with my boyfriend, who became my husband in 1979, a month before Faye’s became Bob’s.

We ate at Bob’s Diner every Sunday morning until my husband was transferred to Arizona, where we raised our children and retired. After he died, I visited Wisconsin again, and it’s wonderful that the diner is still here, so I could have one last breakfast at Bob’s.

Everything was perfect, and I talked to Bob Junior, who was charming, and to the delightful waitress, Kirstin. Thank you all so much. Your diner is what the world needs — a friendly place where good people serve good food to good people. Please don’t ever change.”

♦ ♦ ♦ 

At the counter I sit down, and Kirstin skips ‘good morning’ and goes straight to, “Isn’t that a great letter?”

“Everyone loves the diner,” I say.

“It’s from that nice lady — you were here the morning she came in.” 

“I knew it!," I said. "It’s that lady who came in looking for some waitress who used to work here.”

“And I knew you’d know it,” Kirstin says. “You always write in your magazine, but that morning I think you wrote down everything she said.”

Aw, crap. I try to be discreet while taking notes, but I do take notes, and of course Kirstin has noticed. There’s not much she doesn’t notice.

“Today’s special is green eggs and ham,” she says, deftly changing the subject. I smile and look over her shoulder, at the whiteboard sign on the shelf. It says, “Today’s special: kielbasa and eggs.”

“I’ll have the kielbasa, please” I say.

“In an omelet,” Kirstin says, “with wheat toast and pancakes and here’s your orange juice.”

♦ ♦ ♦

There are nine other customers, and of course they’re all talking with their mouths full, about every stupid thing in the world. I’m not eavesdropping, though. Not this morning. While my breakfast is cooking, I’m back at the letter on the wall, scribbling all of it onto my magazine’s margins. Gotta get it right when I type it later.

♦ ♦ ♦

Big Hat comes into the diner, literally singing a song — “Good Morning, Starshine,” from Hair. She’s rocking it, but at a quiet volume, and nine out of ten customers approve. Only Hangover Harry, way in the back, doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. No surprise — he’s always bleak and prickly, and he doesn’t like anything that makes sound.

Big Hat usually sits in the back, too, and as she approaches Harry she sees the pain in his eyes, and lets the song fade out. She says good morning to him, but softly. By the time my breakfast comes, they’re sharing a table, and he doesn’t seem to mind.

You don't hear much singing in the diner, and I’ve never seen Big Hat speak so quietly. Nobody’s ever seen Harry crack a smile, but he’s coming close this morning. Strange things are afoot at the diner. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

Bouffant-Walker comes in, and says hello to me and everyone else. Knitting Needle and Underwear Model are having breakfast together, and he squeezes her hand. "Damn good coffee," says an old black man who says that all the time, "as always." Phil and Maurice share a joke and a laugh, and here's my breakfast, and it looks great. I'm eating and reading and enjoying it all, same as every Friday since forever.

Kirstin comes around, pouring coffee refills for everyone but me because, damn it, I don’t drink coffee any more. “How’s your breakfast tasting?” she asks.

“Perfect, of course." As if there’s ever any doubt. She starts making a pot of coffee, and while she’s fiddling with the machine I say, “Hey, Kirstin, I read that letter a second time —”

“I noticed.”

“That old lady said she ate here when she was a kid, so I’m wondering — how old is this diner?”

"George Washington ate here," Kirstin says. Then she stops and looks at me, smiles right through her mask, and says, “I'll tell you what — after you finish your breakfast, I'll show you the diner museum." And she walks away, leaving me wondering what she meant.

I eat my eggs, read my magazine, and customers come and go, talking and talking and occasionally shutting up. Half an hour later my plate is empty, and I say, “Thanks, Kirstin,” and reach for my wallet.

"Don’t be leaving just yet,” she says. She steps out from behind the counter into the dining room, and crooks her finger at me. To Harvey she says, "I’ll be back in a minute. You have the conn." 

Harvey’s voice from the kitchen: "Hey, I always have the conn. Sometimes I let you have the conn…"

Unsure what’s up but what the heck, I follow Kirstin to the back of the dining room, past the restrooms, to a door marked 'Staff Only’. I've never been through that door, of course, so I hesitate, but Kirstin says, “You answered the phone once, so you’re staff.”

She holds the door and I walk through, into a narrow hallway. On the right there’s an open walkway to the kitchen, and on the left are three doors. The first door has a sign that says, 'Boss only,' and in smaller letters, 'Solicitors will be served as sausage.'

The door is wide open, and Bob is sitting at a cramped desk, keying numbers into a calculator. He looks up, sees us, and to Kirstin he grumbles, "We're doing tours now?"

“I’m showing Doug the museum,” she says. 

Bob says, “Oh,” and thinks it over, then gets out of his chair and joins us in the hallway. I am an old man, sometimes confused, but right now I’m especially bewildered. I wish I was in my car, driving home. 

Kirstin says, "Bob was behind Door #1, and there’s nothing interesting behind Door #2, so let’s open Door #3.” It creaks as she pushes it, and the room is dark, but they both step inside. I follow, with no notion what to expect. 60 jars of mayonnaise? A portal to another dimension? I’m a loyal customer so they’re not going to mug me, but I ain't sure about any of this.

Bob yanks on a cord dangling from the ceiling, which flicks the light on. It’s just a room, old and musty, with boxes and shelves, a mop, two brooms, and a bucket on wheels.

Kirstin points at the wall, where four framed but faded monochrome photos are hung in a tidy row. They're pictures of the diner, and in the corner of each snapshot a year is written on the glass. Now I understand — this is the ‘diner museum’ Kirstin had mentioned, and she’s the docent.

"2001," she says, pointing at the first picture. It’s a photo of the diner, taken twenty years ago from across the street. There’s exactly no difference between the picture and the diner today, except that it’s springtime now, and in the picture there’s snow on the ground. "That's when Bob took over, after his parents died,” Kirstin says. “I’d already been working here for ten years.”

“I decided to give her a second chance,” Bob says.

Kirstin smirks at that, I assume, but she's wearing a mask so there's no knowing. She points at the second picture. "1979," she says, and the writing on the glass agrees. It’s another photo of this building. The image is yellowed, and the 'Bob's Diner' sign looks new, not faded like it is now.

"That's when my dad bought the restaurant," Bob says, "and renamed it Bob's."

“There’s no awning over the front window,” I say.

Bob explains, "Yeah, we added the awning in the ‘90s." 

Kirstin points at the third picture, and reads, “1941.” This photo was taken inside the building. The angle is tall, so it must’ve been snapped by someone standing on a table. I’m hunched over, my face right up to the glass that covers the photo.

In the picture, the restaurant is packed, and most of the customers are smiling or waving at the camera. The men are wearing suits and ties, not the t-shirts and blue jeans of today, and the women are in dresses, not slacks. It’s the same checkerboard on the floors and walls, though, and the same U-shaped counter. It looks like the same tables and chairs and cash register. Probably the same salt and pepper shakers. The diner in the picture is unchanged from the diner where I just ate breakfast, except there’s a different clock.

"This was before any of us worked here,” Kirstin says. “Before I was born. That lady in front, smiling at the camera, that's Faye. It was Faye's Diner.” 

In his gravelly voice, Bob adds, “And the woman behind Faye, carrying four plates? That’s Alice. She was our first employee. She'd been working for Faye, and she stayed on when my dad bought the place.” He chuckles. “We’re not family, but to me she’s ‘Aunt Alice’.”

"I remember Alice, clear as a bell," Kirstin says. "She used to serve me breakfast whenever I ate here, before I worked here."

And now I understand. The letter on the wall at the front of the diner? It was written by an old lady who ate here when she was a little girl, and she came back for another breakfast at the diner a few months ago. Like Kirstin said, I was here the morning that lady came in. She asked about a waitress she remembered, named Alice ... and there’s Alice, half an inch tall in the background of an old black-and-white photo, framed and hung on a wall in the diner’s back room.

“Whoa” is all I can say, like I'm Keanu.

Kirstin takes a step back, and points to the last and oldest framed photo on the wall. "1938," she says. In this picture, again snapped from across the street, the building isn't as long as it is today; the back rooms where we're standing must’ve been added later. The cars parked out front are all priceless antiques, to my eye. There’s no sign, but there’s lettering across the front window. It says, 'Donaghy's Market'.

"This was originally a grocery store," Kirstin explains. "They sold bacon and eggs like we do, but you took them home and cooked 'em yourself."

In the photo, the front window is gray, reflecting a foggy or snowy day, so there’s no view through the glass to 1938. Probably there were a few aisles of meat and produce and whatever stores sold back then. It's a small diner now, and would’ve been a small store. 

Bob says, "Read the back of it," so I carefully take 1938 off the wall, and turn it over. The backing is thin, brittle cardboard, with faint cursive writing that says, "Donaghy's, 50th anniversary, 7/8/1938."

Doing the math, I say, "This building went up in 1888?”

"And that's why the plumbing is shit," says Bob, with his deep, sandpaper voice. He chuckles, and then walks back to his office.

"So this diner was a grocery store," I say, mostly to myself but Kirstin is welcome to overhear. "For fifty years, selling provisions before people had electricity, or telephones."

"Before frozen food, before recorded music," she says, walking out of the mop-room museum. “Nobody’s sure when Faye bought the store and made it into a diner, but it’s been at least 70 years.” Still kinda Keanu, I follow Kirstin down the narrow hallway, again into the dining area.

Back at my plate I say, "Thank you, Kirstin." I should've said more, but my brain was empty and full at the same time. “I appreciate it.”

Eating at the diner once weekly for so many years, I sort of know the people who work there and the people who eat there, and now I know a little about the diner itself. Kirstin knew I’d be interested, and she knows I’m taking notes, so she’s probably guessed that I’m writing about the diner. She didn’t ask about it, though, and I don’t think she will. I appreciate that, too.

I pay for breakfast, and wonder what my omelet would’ve cost in 1941. Is the diner still using the same recipes? And my stool that was wobbly last week? Hell, it’s entitled to wobble. It’s older than me, and I wobble all the time.

I nod and wobble out the door, maybe the same door people walked through to buy bread and milk and sundries when William McKinley was President. Before getting into my car, I walk around the building of bricks and mortar and memories, the grocery store that became the diner, where I reckon I've eaten about 700 breakfasts.

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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  1. Captain HampocketsMay 31, 2021 at 6:07 AM

    Fantastic Diner entry. Maybe the best.

    1. It was a crazy morning and I couldn't do it justice, but thanks.

  2. oneofthebuttsistersMay 31, 2021 at 7:00 AM

    They're always good but this is *literature*, Doug. Very moving, but I'm still laughing at Harvey has the conn. Totally Harvey.

  3. Another excellent diner story. Do you think you'll ever show Kirsten what you've been writing about the diner for so long?

    1. Oh, my. The thought hadn't seriously occurred to me. Most of what I write I keep to myself, and don't even publish it here.

      Thinking it over for a minute, yeah, that's a cast-iron no. If she liked what I've written or if she hated it, either way, it would change the whole breakfast vibe for me, and I like the breakfast vibe.


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