Breakfast at the Diner — #48

The first thing I notice is that the “Masks required” sign is gone from the front door. Also gone is a second sign that said, “50% occupancy — 22 customers max.” What’s left is only the words painted on the door: “No checks, no credit cards, cash only.”

All pandemic rules were lifted a few days ago, so anything goes, but I’m still wearing my mask. Good habits are hard to break.

The diner is busy but not booming. Four people are sitting together where I want to sit, on the right side of the U-shaped counter. They’re all young and white, two men and two women, in their late teens or early twenties. College kids, maybe. There are no empty stools between them, which looks strange after a year of enforced social distancing. 

While all that’s rattling in my head, one of them says “Hi” and waves. It takes me a moment to realize she’s talking to me, waving at me.

I don’t know this woman from Eve, but I learned in seventh grade, if a female says hello you damned well say hello back. “Hi,” I say, and give a ridiculously exaggerated wave, while I’m scanning the counter for a place to sit.

Even before the pandemic, I hated sitting close to anyone, and I’d rather not sit close to this waving woman, but there’s no other option. I take a seat with one empty space between me and her. On my other side there’s an empty stool and then Bald-Walker.

Bald says hello to me, and I say hello to him, and that’s all the non-essential talking I’m planning to do for today. The day has other plans.

The 20-ish woman who'd waved is looking at me again, and smiling. 

“Do I know you?” I ask.

“Nah,” she says, cheerfully, “but I’m a people person, and you look like someone I’d like to know.”

“I’m not,” I say, and then Kirstin is here to say howdy and how ya doin’ and all.

“The daily special is a bacon and cheese omelet,” she says, which sounds good but I had it one Friday several years back, and it was good but my usual is better, so I order that. Kirstin pours OJ, and I start reading my magazine.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

There are two middle-aged white ladies at a table near the front of the diner, and I’m not sure what they’re talking about, but one of the ladies keeps saying, “July 2nd is my last day.” She’s said it three times so far, always louder than the rest of their conversation, and once she added “absolutely.”

I’m wondering, it’ll be her last day of what? Life? Marriage? Probably a job she hates, but that repeated line is the only thing they say loud enough for me to hear, so I’ll never know. Whatever it is, white lady, if you hate it enough to raise your voice every time you say it, stay stubborn and make July 2nd your last day. Hope there’s something to make you happier on July 3rd.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Restrictions or no restrictions, Kirstin and Harvey are still wearing masks. Everyone’s wearing a mask as they come in to the diner, taking it off only when their breakfasts come, same as for the last year. There's a mask beside most people's plates, while they’re eating. Bald-Walker’s mask is half in his shirt pocket, half out. Mine is on my face, and will remain until breakfast arrives.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The four 20-ish kids talk to each other, but the woman who waved at me talks to the diner’s other customers, too. She’s not obnoxious about it, she’s just unable to stop talking. She’s outgoing. Cripes, I hate that, and usually don’t tolerate it well.

The wavy woman asks Phil, “Do you come here often?,” as if she’s unaware that the line has other connotations.

I can see a joke flash across Phil’s face, but she’s way too young and he’s way too old, so he answers honestly. “I come here just about every morning, unless I’m sick or out of town.”

“We’d call the cops if you didn’t show up,” Kirstin says, as she’s hurrying past with a breakfast in each hand.

Now the wavy woman asks Bald-Walker what the world was like fifty years ago. It’s a weird question to ask a stranger, but he says, “I’m 82 and I’ve lived here all my life, so let me tell you,” and he starts telling her.

While Bald-Walker explains how much better the old days were, a younger man comes in alone, and sits at a nearby table. He’s white, 30-something, and wearing a shirt with a big ‘M’ on it. Never seen this guy before.

When Bald’s monologue is over, Wavy Woman turns to the new guy, says hello, and asks what the ‘M’ stands for. He says the shirt is part of his uniform, from the car wash down the street, and Wavy Woman asks him if he owns it — not it he works there, if he owns the car wash. No offense, dude, but it's fairly obvious he doesn't own a business.

“No, I just work there," he says, "like Walter White.” And then for five minutes they talk about towels and suds and detailing. It’s boring, and what's worse, it drowns out all the other, more interesting eavesdropping.

All four of Wavy’s crowd are talky like this, but she's the main talker, by far. She’s one of those people who say whatever they’re thinking, without wondering whether anyone wants to hear it. I want to say, please stop and wonder.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

A black man walks in, about 25, wearing a Johnny Cash look plus a cape, and it looks good on him. He’s dressed all in black — black shirt, black pants, black shoes, and a black cape that flutters over his back and down to his knees, like he’s Black Superman. He sits at a table, orders coffee, black, and smiles when he sees me staring. I give him a thumb’s up, and he returns it.

Wavy Woman and her friends have their breakfasts now, which I had hoped would quiet her down, since it’s hard to chew and talk at the same time. She ignores her food, though, and has a question for Black Superman. “Do you always wear that great outfit?”

“No, not always,” he answers, good-naturedly. “All black with the cape is only for the days I’m feeling ‘specially fine.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Bouffant-Walker is here, saying hello to all the regulars, as he regularly does. I’m one of the regulars too, so he and I say howdy, as he makes his way toward his regular table.

Here’s my breakfast and it looks good, with steam rising off the plates. Kirstin’s line is, “Here you go, and is there anything else you need?”

I say nope, start spreading jam on my toast, and Wavy Woman is watching me. She says, “Wow, that’s a big breakfast — and it’s all for you?”

I continue spreading the jam, and then look at her. It takes me a long moment to select my words.

I’ve written that my usual order is the house omelet with toast and hash browns, and a couple of pancakes. Those aren’t silver dollar pancakes on the side, they’re full-sized pancakes on a plate of their own, so I say, “Yes, I order and eat two breakfasts every Friday.”

Wavy Woman isn’t the first person who’s said something about it, when I’m sitting alone and the waitress puts two breakfasts in front of me. Bob himself once asked, “Where do you put it all, man?” The answer is, in my mouth, then my belly, then the toilet. Long as the question isn’t asked as an insult, I’ll answer, and it’s never yet been asked as an insult.

“Don’t you think that’s too much?” She doesn’t look at all like my mother, but the resemblance is uncanny. Like Mom, this woman seems genuinely unaware that her queries could be taken as rude. 

“I eat too much,” I say. “That’s why I’m fat.” She says nothing to that, as I’d hoped, and I continue: “It would probably kill me if I ate like this every day, but I don’t. Six days a week I eat more sensibly, and then on Fridays, I come here and eat like a pig.” I think but don’t say, Is that OK with you? 

A squeaky voice from behind me says, “You get to eat whatever you want.” I’d know that voice anywhere — it’s Bouffant, and I think I love the guy.

“That’s so cool,” Wavy says, still chipper. “Which do you like more, the omelet or the pancakes?” 

I take a deep breath and open my mouth like I’m going to answer, but instead take a slow bite of my toast. Then I start cutting up my hotcakes, pour on some syrup, and take a bite. I’m giving her plenty of time to move along and talk to someone else. She’s harmless, but was I ever as oblivious as this girl? She’s a nice enough kid, but IQ 85.

Now she’s asking Bouffant what it’s like to use a walker, and he says, “I’m sitting down, so why don’t you take it for a test drive?” She does. He shows her the button that unfolds it, and she takes a few steps and then runs inside his walker to the back of the diner, rolling and scraping the floor and giggling, and then back to Bouffant’s table.

“Thanks, mister,” she says. “That was great!”

She says more than that but it’s becoming tiresome, and I’m starting to seriously suspect there's a vacancy upstairs. Wavy Woman could work for the feds, though — she asks questions that are nobody’s business, but she’s so Shirley Temple nice about it, everyone just answers and nobody takes the Fifth.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

This week’s health report from the guy I call Health Report, because he always provides an update: "I got this pain in my shoulder,” he says to Phil, “not sure what it is.”

“Yeah,” Phil says, “I’ve been wondering what it is, too.”

It's a cute moment if it ends there, but it doesn't end there. Wavy Woman interrupts to ask Heath Report if he's seen a doctor about it, which launches a long, droning recitation of HR's medical issues.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Bouffant says, “There’s too much talking here this morning.”

He says it to everyone, as he always does, and I'm the only one who answers. “Yes sir, indeed."

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Maurice asks Kirstin why she’s still wearing a mask.

“People are still worried,” she says. “When most of the customers start walking in without a mask, I’ll stop wearing mine, but for now the mask keeps everyone more comfortable.” she says.

“That makes sense,” Maurice says.

“You had your mask on when you came in,” Kirstin adds. “And you too, Phil. And Doug. And just about everyone.”

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Wavy Woman and the other three talkers have finished eating and paid, but Wavy is still talking. I hadn’t been watching but I don’t understand how she ate breakfast, since she never shut up. 

Now she’s making a point of saying goodbye to everyone in the diner. She says goodbye to some of them by name — “So long, Phil.” “Goodbye, Ignacio.” Maybe she’s planning to be a regular here on Friday mornings, in which case I could start coming on Thursdays instead.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

I’m almost finished with my breakfast, wishing I had a second napkin because I’ve dribbled some orange juice on my shirt. That’s odd — Kirstin always gives me five or seven napkins, but today there was only one, under my silverware. That’s when I notice that there’s a napkin dispenser at the edge of the counter. And a menu propped up against it. And sugar, and mustard and ketchup in squeezers, and a bowl of single-serve jams. 

I’d instinctively taken a jam from that bowl when my breakfast came, but wasn’t cognizant of it until this moment. The condiments and et cetera are on the counter again, not hidden away, not available by request only, not sanitized and steam-cleaned after each customer leaves.

For the first time since forever, I pull a paper napkin from a napkin dispenser, and it feels like a marvel of modern science. Things are going to be normal again? COVID’s been conquered? Cross my fingers, and I’m getting my second jab of the vaccine tomorrow. I pick up the ketchup squeezer, and put a blop of red on my plate even though I don’t want it, just because I can.

And I look toward Frank the Fixture’s empty stool.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

A party of three comes in, Mom and Dad and Baby makes three. The tot isn’t old enough to walk, so you know there’s going to be crying, and sure enough, it starts with a few brief wahs and now there’s a steady wailing.

A crying baby is a bother, of course, but Wavy Woman was worse, and anyway, life is full of bothers. So long as the parents are trying to shush the kid, I’m not going to complain. And they are trying, with “There, there,” as Mom pats it on the back and eventually hands the critter to Dad, who does the same. 

Mom and Dad and baby, and all of us have a right to breakfast. You want absolute silence, you stay at home, or get breakfast to go.

That said, I was glad my breakfast was finished. I leave my green on the counter and say, “Thanks, Kirstin,” and I’m out the door.

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 HampocketsJune 6, 2021 at 4:36 PM

    Oh, man. I don't know if I could have stayed civil if she asked me about how much I was eating. You're a fucking saint.

    1. I seriously suspect she was ... what's the word these days, challenged?

  2. > And I look toward Frank the Fixture’s empty stool.

    Little moments like that knock me out.


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