Breakfast at the Diner — #51

For weeks, the road to the diner has been ripped up for construction, and I’m weary of driving on dirt, so this morning I drove a different route, approaching from the east instead of my ordinary north. This took me past a big retirement center, several stories tall. Ten years ago you would’ve called it a nursing home, but ‘retirement center’ is the new nomenclature. 

Apparently, Bouffant Walker is one of the retirees. He’s standing under the shelter, at the bus stop in front. You can't miss his shock or white hair, standing almost straight up. I’ve occasionally heard him talk about “the home” where he lives, and now I’ve accidentally found it.

I’m running late, and it’s about 6:05 AM. Bouffant reliably arrives at the diner by 6:30, and from this I deduce, he’s waiting for the bus that’ll bring him.

Pulling my car over and offering him a ride flashes across my mind, but — nah. Nothing against the guy, but he’s somewhat out of whack, and giving him a lift would almost make him a friend, and cripes, I don’t want that.

Do I?

Too late now, I’ve driven past. Also, my car is a catastrophe inside. His bus would be there before I could clear the passenger seat, so — onward!

♦ ♦ ♦

With wicked new COVID variants on the move, a sign has been posted on the front door. Again. Handwritten with a thick felt pen on cardboard, it says: “Masks required. If your not wearing a mask, do not enter. If you disagree, eat somewhere else.” Perfect, except it should be you’re, not your.

Inside there are seven customers, but like last week, I don’t see Kirstin. From the kitchen, Harvey shouts a greeting at me, “Morning, chief,” and then he adds, “With you in a minute.”

There’s ample room and not many customers, so I can sit at the corner of the counter I like best. This morning I’m perched on my very favorite stool. It's been a month since I’ve won that prize, not just a stool near the best stool, so I’m a happy hungry old fat man, eager to answer all of Harvey’s questions — yes to coffee, house omelet please, wheat toast, hotcakes.

He isn’t asking, though. He’s still in the kitchen.

Looking around, I see there’s no Slim. Usually it’s Kirstin the waitress, and Slim and Harvey are in the kitchen. When Kirstin’s not working, the restaurant runs with just two workers, Harvey taking your order and Slim cooking it. That’s been the drill since the Clinton administration, but is it only Harvey this morning? Working alone, taking everyone’s orders and cooking everyone’s breakfast?

Nah, that’s impossible. Slim must be on the toilet.

Harvey said he’d be with me in a minute, but it’s longer than that before he comes from the kitchen with four plates in his arms, and delivers them to four customers. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he says to me.

“No worries.”

“Coffee, chief?”

I answer, “Yes, and a house omelet please, with wheat toast and hotcakes.” Harvey scribbles on his green order-pad, pours my coffee, but he doesn’t take my ticket to the kitchen. Instead he approaches a newcomer, pours him a coffee, and takes his order, too. He pours coffee refills, and makes a fresh pot.

Then he announces, “Back in a minute,” steps into the kitchen, and starts frying eggs for me and the other guy.

Either Harvey is running the diner alone, or Slim is having a dang difficult drop in the men's room. I’ve been here more than five minutes now, and Harvey is the only employee I’ve seen. Breakfasts are sizzling in the kitchen, though.

A customer comes in, and Harvey says to him loudly from the grill, “Good morning, chief — with you in a minute.” Hope you're not in a hurry, I think but don't say.

It's fun watching Harvey play two, maybe three roles, like he's Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove. I’m enjoying the show, the coffee is great, and I haven’t even opened my magazine yet.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Maurice and Phil are blathering at each other, as always. For years it was M and P and The Fixture in that corner; now it’s M and P and whoever sits nearby. They're talking to each other about nothing interesting, as they usually do, which is why my favorite stool is at the counter’s opposite corner.

Knitting Needle and Underwear Model are eating eggs together and talking, laughing at a table in the back. There are three men I’ve never seen before, one black, one white, one who’d check “other” ethnicity, and all with tables between them.

Hangover Harry walks in, looking miserable of course, and from the kitchen Harvey says, “How ya doin’, Harry. With you in a minute.” Well, we all know how Harry’s doing. Shitty. Just look at his pink and puffy eyes. I’ve always assumed he’s a drunk and I might be dead wrong, but whatever’s up with Harry, he is not a happy dude.

He sits with one stool between us. That's closer than I’d like, but under the current pandemic rules it’s allowed, I think. "Good morning," I say to him, and he nods and looks at the coffee pot. Sorry, man, there’s no-one to pour. He keeps staring at the pot.

♦ ♦ ♦

Harvey comes out of the kitchen, arms full, and slides my breakfast onto the counter in front of me. Almost cheerfully he says, “Bon appetit, buddy.” To Harry he says, “Just a minute,” and then he’s gone, delivering another customer’s breakfast from his other arm. Then he’s back, saving Harry’s life by pouring him a cup of coffee.

He pours more coffee for me, too, and I ask, “Why are you working alone, man?”

“Slim called in sick,” he says. “What the hell else am I gonna do?” And then he’s taking someone’s order.

♦ ♦ ♦

My breakfast, of course, is extremely good and exactly right. The diner never disappoints, and right now the diner is Harvey. Watching him here and there and everywhere, it reminds me of the US Postal Service. Something about snow and rain and gloom of night, and the swift completion of his appointed rounds. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Two pretty women come in, probably university students. Harvey is in the kitchen, and he hollers, “Morning, ladies. With you in a minute.” If I know Harvey, he’s disappointed he won’t have time to flirt with them. Together, they might add up to his age, and he’d like that math. 

Me, I barely even glance at them. I’m a scoundrel at heart like any heterosexual man, but I make an effort not to be obnoxious about it. And yet, without even taking a third look, I can tell you that one’s blonde and one’s brunette, they’re mid-20s, the blonde is wearing a skirt to the knees, the brunette is in jeans and has long fake eyelashes, and neither is wearing a wedding ring.

♦ ♦ ♦

Here’s Bouffant Walker, walking and rolling by. Harvey hollers, “With you in a minute,” and I'm not sure about this. If customers keep coming into the diner, will Harvey be able to keep up? He hasn’t complained yet, though. Hasn’t muttered anything amusing under his breath like he usually does. He's too busy for muttering.

Bouffant says good morning to me, to everyone, in his almost Porky Pig squeaky voice, and my coffee has me in a good mood so I reply, “Good morning, sir.” The ‘sir’ is because my mother always stressed good manners, plus I don’t know Bouffant Walker’s name.

He takes his ordinary table, and I wonder if he saw me drive past him this morning. If he did he doesn’t mention it, and he’s already talking to the wall. 

♦ ♦ ♦

I’m a nut for old movies, so I ought to be intrigued that Phil and Maurice are talking about their favorites, but it’s mostly Casablanca. They agree that it’s good, and it is, but everyone knows that. Maurice says it would be better in color, and Phil gives away the movie's ending, out loud, in front of everyone, even Hangover Harry.

The movie is 80 years old, almost as old as Maurice, but the spoiler rule should still apply, ya bastard. I say nothing.

♦ ♦ ♦

A third young woman comes, and joins the other two. “With you in a minute,” Harvey says. That’s the morning mantra. Harvey shouts it to everyone who comes in.

He’s got a system — he takes orders and pours coffee, makes more coffee and clears tables, and then he says, “Back in a bit,” and darts into the kitchen to chef up all the orders. Several “in a minutes” later he delivers the food, does another round of taking orders and pouring coffee, and then he says, "Back in a bit" and he's in the kitchen again. It’s not ideal, but it gets breakfast on your plate.

Should I be surprised, or not at all surprised, that none of this seems to phase Harvey? He doesn’t sound stressed. If anything, he's swearing less than he usually does. He’s Harvey-at-the-diner, same as ever. Less chatty today than most of the time, but that’s OK. I don’t want to chat with him.

The slow service and “in a minute” doesn’t seem to bother any of the customers either, except one older white man in a suit. He comes in, looks around, and Harvey says, “Morning, chief — with you in a minute,” same as he’s saying to everyone, but the suit frowns.

Even cooking in the kitchen, Harvey knows what’s what and who’s who, so he adds, “Gonna take longer than usual.” That line works — the suit turns around and leaves, exactly as Harvey was hoping. 

♦ ♦ ♦

My coffee isn’t refilled very often, but Hangover Harry leads the way. Without a word he rises off his stool, slowly walks behind the counter, and pours his own refill. From the kitchen Harvey says, “Cream and sugar?” 

Taking that as permission, when Harry returns I go behind the counter, and pour myself to a refill, too. And since I’m there, I pour refills for everyone at the counter. I’m not doing table service, though.

If this was a different restaurant maybe I’d be annoyed, but it’s entertaining, and I’m impressed by Harvey.

He won’t survive the lunch rush, though. R.I.P., man.

♦ ♦ ♦

Near Bouffant, there’s a middle-aged white woman at a table by herself, talking on her cell phone in a Southern accent. She goes on and on about everything insignificant — someone got a permanent, someone else argued with someone else, and so on. Everything in this woman’s life is insignificant, but she describes all of it in detail. It’s less annoying with a Southern accept, though.

After ten minutes of this piffle, she suddenly says, “OK, we’ll talk later,” and clicks off. In my mind’s ear, I’m certain the voice on the other end had been saying, “Gotta go, Mabel. Seriously, gotta go,” and I’m grateful to the voice on the other end. Then Mabel makes another call.

♦ ♦ ♦

“Cavalry to the rescue,” says a grouchy, gravelly voice at the diner’s back door. It’s Bob, the owner. Harvey is at the grill in the kitchen, and Bob is immediately behind him, reading the tickets. Then Bob taps Harvey’s shoulder and says, “I got this.” 

“No onions in the Denver,” Harvey says as he leaves the kitchen, and then he’s up front, saying “How ya doin’, chief” to someone who just came in. Now he’s making a pot of coffee, back to being the diner’s second-best waitress, and Bob’s your uncle. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

After that, Harvey gets chattier and occasionally profane, and spends too much time at the women's table up front. Bob doesn’t say anything, but that’s normal. He never has much to say, unless he’s out front eating with the customers.

As I was leaving, though, I heard him say to Harvey, “Slim better be damned sick.”

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. This morning I left an extra fivespot.


Breakfast at the Diner   

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  1. Zippidy doo-dah, I thought the breakfasts had been canceled! Happy brekfast is back and this one is delicious!

  2. I loved this. Thank you!

  3. Always love the Diner tales, butyou now that.

    When I still lived in NJ, I did the graveyard shift at 7-11. 11 PM to 7 AM, alone the whole shift. Dead until about 4:30, when the early risers came in. I had morning chores to do - taking the freshly-delivered bagels and rolls, slicing them, slapping Cream Cheese or butter on 'em, wrapping them, making a few hot dogs and hoagies, and keeping up with, IIRC, FOURTEEN standard sized glass coffee pots. By 6 AM, the line was constant, and impossible to keep up with.

    We had three or four regulars, who'd come in, take a courtesy cup, drink their free coffee, and take care of the coffee for me. It was a great system. Saved the owner a few bucks on salary vs free coffee, saved my fat ass from keeping people waiting.

    1. Did your helpful regular customers get anything for their trouble, beyond quick access to their coffee fix?

    2. I mean, the coffee was free, and unlimited. They could hang around and bullshit amongst themselves as long as they wanted, with free coffee.

  4. Heck this is good. I want to work at the diner. Everyone seems to drip competance and who ever heard of the boss covering a shift?

    1. I haven't worked in a restaurant since I was a kid, but the boss *anywhere* covering a shift is against the laws of physics.


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