Breakfast at the Diner #55

I walk in, look around, and don't like the look of this. There are several empty stools on my ordinary side of the U-shaped counter, but someone's eating breakfast next to every empty stool. Damn pandemic has been here for so long, I'm not even sure what the rules are these days — is it legal to sit next to a stranger?

The question is moot. Even before COVID-19, I'd never take the stool next to a stranger. Need me some space.

There are three empty stools in a row on the near side of the counter, where Phil's sitting. My choice, then, is between eating at the counter but near Phil, or sitting at one of the empty tables. Phil's looking at me as I stand, and this is not my imagination — he's reading what I'm thinking, same as you are.

"Good morning," I say to him, but intending to say no more, as I sit myself two stools to his left. 

Phil's a nice enough guy, but he's talky so of course he says "Good morning" back to me, and he also says something about the weather. "It's cold out there," or something equally fascinating. It's January in Wisconsin, so of course it's cold. I give him a slight smile and nod, and Kirstin pours the cup of coffee I'll need.

"Today's special is homemade corned beef hash," she says, "and I think that's what you'll have."

"That's what I'll have."

"In an omelet?"

It's tempting, but I'm in an over-hard mood today, so, "On the side, with eggs over-hard please."

"And two pancakes," Kirstin says, walking away.

I raise my voice just a bit to catch her attention. "Nah, french toast."

She stops, turns, and raises an eyebrow at me like I'd ordered Vichyssoise. "Full of surprises, you are," she says.

♦ ♦ ♦

There's a hairy white man about 30 years old, sitting near Phil at the end of the counter. Since he's near Phil, Phil's talking to him, because that's the way of the universe. That was part of my calculation, when I chose my seat — Phil will talk to that guy, instead of talking to me.

"What our machine does," that guy says, "is a nuclear fusion reaction," and he elaborates at length and in detail I can't keep up with or spell right. I'm listening in, because that's the way of me, but I'm increasingly skeptical of what he's saying.

"So you're Homer Simpson," Phil says.

"Not quite," says the hairy dude, and continues with the technical talk. Either this guy works at a nuclear facility, or he wants people at the diner to think he does. There's a small nuke at the University, I know, but it's been decommissioned. Anyway, I'm not interested, and even Phil looks like he wants out of that nuclear conversation, but the guy keeps talking. Excellent — you can dish it out, Phil, all the words at all the breakfasts, but can you take it?

♦ ♦ ♦

On the other side of the counter, where I wish I was, two middle-aged white men in suits are discussing the roll-out of a new and improved whatever-they-sell, but apparently it's not as improved as they'd hoped.

One of them explains to the other what's wrong with it, but the other man already knows. He's said twice already, "We need to get it into production. We can address any issues afterwards." Sounds so American I want to salute the flag — get the customers' money first, and after that, maybe, tinker and try to make the product worth the price.

♦ ♦ ♦

A twenty-something white guy comes in, wearing plaid shirt and big-rim glasses. He looks around, sits at a table alone, and starts reading a book, so I like him already. Kirstin says "Hello, honey," pours him coffee, takes his order. He wants two pancakes, and she says, "I should warn you, our pancakes are big — plate-size and thick."

He looks surprised, and downsizes to just one pancake. Kirstin isn't here seven days a week, but she could tell just by looking at the man, it's his first time at the diner. 

♦ ♦ ♦

My breakfast arrives, and looks marvelous. Maurice arrives, too, this week without an oxygen tube up his nose so he's doing marvelous too. He looks briefly annoyed, though, because some schmuck is sitting where he always sits, and that's me. 

I give him a shrug and a 'sorry' face. My side on the counter was too crowded, and your seat was empty. Fair's fair. Phil is glaring at me, too, because usually it's the Phil and Maurice Show on these stools.

Corned beef is my first bite and it's as good as it looks, and other than that I'm reading my magazine. There are tables in the back, Maurice. Go have a seat. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Kirstin brings a plated pancake to the new guy at the front table. A few minutes later she's back, pours him a coffee refill and asks if everything's OK. She's being Kirstin, giving stellar service with a friendly, mildly chatty demeanor.

He's never rude, but you can tell he's just not having it. He keeps reading, thanks her but barely lifts his eyeballs off the page. On his second refill, he says thanks again, and she says, "Shucks, it weren't nothing," but he reads his book — Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini.

Hairy Nuclear has finally shut up, and Phil says something to the new guy with the atheist book. He looks up, says nothing, but gives Phil a slight smile, just like I did ten minutes ago. It's a rough morning for Phil.

I understand this guy at the table, though. He's a reader, and maybe he's shy. He wants the breakfast and coffee and his book, without a side order of conversation please — not with Phil, not even with Kirstin. I know him because he's a younger me, like the first time I came in here, a billion years back.

My wife wasn't even with me on day one, here at the diner. I came alone, brought a magazine, ordered coffee and an omelet. Kirstin — it's always been Kirstin — sorta startled me with her Kirstinness, but when I didn't have much to say she let me alone. Same as every Friday since then.

This new guy will get used to it, too. Come back a few times, and you're one of us even if you have nothing to say.

♦ ♦ ♦

One of the seats on my preferred side of the counter opens up, and I briefly consider moving myself and my breakfast there. That would allow Maurice to move himself and his breakfast over here, Phil-adjacent, but nah. Too much trouble. I'd probably drop my plate on the way.

Then it's too late, as a youngish black woman comes into the diner, and saddles into the seat I'd been eyeing. Youngish, to me, means she's 35 or so. She's wearing overalls and a painter's cap, and I decide she's an electrician. No evidence backs me up, but it's my decision and it's been decided.

♦ ♦ ♦

Something's amusing in my magazine, and I chuckle quite quietly. To myself, but Phil says, "Something's funny."

I glance at him and say, "Not you," and regret it instantly.

This is why I generally say nothing. When I say something it's usually the wrong thing to say. I was just being a smart-ass, but with two words I've eviscerated him, so I add a grin to lighten the blow.

Phil is here, eating breakfast in the diner almost every time I'm here, and always making conversation with whoever's nearby. That's why I never sit nearby. His idea of conversation is usually making a joke. Sometimes it's a funny joke, often it's not, but being the jokester is what defines him, so my joke was cruel, not clever.

We've said maybe fifty words to each other, Phil and I, in almost twenty years of breakfasts here. He's not as funny as he thinks he is, but he didn't deserve "Not you," and I can't apologize because we're men and in public.

I can tell him what I was laughing about from the magazine, though, so I push The New Yorker toward him and tap at the cartoon.

He laughs, and after that there's a conversation between us. It's cordial. He tells a joke, and I laugh, and the joke was actually sorta funny so it isn't a charity laugh. A few minutes later, we've said a hundred words, and he lets me escape back to the magazine.

♦ ♦ ♦

A tall and skinny black man comes in, and doesn't even hesitate deciding his seat, like I always do, like most customers do. Instead he says something too boisterously, speaking across the room to someone I assume he knows — the electrician.

He walks over toward her, still talking, and now he's standing next to her, still talking like they're old friends, and she distinctly interrupts, "Do I know you?"

He smiles and says, "You wish you knew me," says his name, and holds out his hand for shaking. Now I understand what's happening, but Kirstin is a mile ahead on that highway. She'd been doing something at the sink when he walked in, but now she's suddenly at the counter, and leans over and claps her hands, once, two feet from the man's face. 

"Out," she says like a drill sergeant, and she points to the door. All her ordinary Kirstinness has vanished.

Immediately there's an echo, in Harvey's voice from the kitchen, "Out, she said."

This man who imagines himself a player holds his hands up in an extended double high-five, and curtsies and says, "OK, OK, I saw this fine lady and—"

"Out!" Harvey shouts from the kitchen, accompanied by a loud clanging sound. Maybe he threw a spatula on the grill?

The man laughs, but he's walking toward the door, and then he's gone without another word. 

Kirstin says, "You OK, honey?" 

"Me?" says the electrician. "Never better, but thanks for the help."

"That stuff happens," says Kirstin, "but it doesn't happen here."

I think it over for a while and decide Kirstin's right. There are rude gents at the diner sometimes, same as everywhere, failed pick-up attempts and occasionally successful, but never one so crude and brazen. It doesn't happen at the diner.

♦ ♦ ♦

Breakfast is uneventful after that. The nuclear guy pays and leaves, and on the other side of the counter, soon everyone's gone except that electrician lady.

If I'd come half an hour later, I could've sat over there, where I prefer sitting, and I wouldn't have had a five-minute conversation with Phil. No complaints, though. Maybe I'm even glad we talked. He's not the comedian he thinks he is, but Phil's not radioactive.

People are always coming and going at the diner. There are about as many customers as when I first walked in, but mostly they're different people now. A couple of men in suits walk in, and a pair of grandmothers, and a college couple holding hands. Bouffant-Walker arrives, says hello to the regulars but nothing to the new guy. Big Hat comes in moments later, and sings hello to everyone, including the new guy. He looks amazed as she dances past, and I can understand that, too. She's a sight he's never seen before — all wrapped in pink and yellow, under that hat as huge as Texas. One of these mornings, maybe I'll have a conversation with Big Hat.

♦ ♦ ♦

Usually when my food's gone I'm gone after the last bite, but I slept lousy last night, so when Kirstin offers another refill of coffee I say, "Yeah, one more please." Glad I did, else I would've missed what happened next.

The electrician lady leaves a tip, then settles her bill at the cash register, and says, "Thanks, again" to Kirstin. They grab each other's hands, and there's a second shared.

The customer walks out of the building, and before the door has closed, Kirstin says, "Harv," and he darts out of the kitchen, through the dining area, and after her out the front door. Same as I caught on slow to the earlier incident, once again I have no notion what's happening, except that it's happening fast. Harvey was a blur through the diner.

He's back in thirty seconds, at a more leisurely pace. When he comes through the door, a blast of cold hits me, or I probably still wouldn't have assembled the clues. On my drive to the diner, a voice on the radio had told me it was 5° out, but Harvey was wearing a t-shirt, under an apron. No jacket? Why would he go outside in the subfreezing cold in a t-shirt?

He walks back toward the kitchen, and that's when I notice that Kirstin is there, working the grill while Harvey had been outside. They say a few words to each other, and what I hear for sure was Harvey saying, "It's all good," and finally everything adds up.

They have a system, Kirstin and Harvey, to keep ladies like the electrician safe. Harvey had gone outside to make sure the troublemaker wasn't loitering in the lot, maybe between her and her car, and Kirstin had stepped into the kitchen so nobody's hotcakes would burn. They were watching out for that lady, and she'd never even know.

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.


  1. I hope there will be more entries. I'm all caught up and love this feature.

    1. It's been feeling like there are about three more stories to tell before it's all played out, but I've been thinking '3' for the past 9-10 entries.


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