Breakfast at the Diner — #56

"Hi, sweetie," says Kirstin with a smile, soon as I push open the door. Most mornings it takes a few seconds longer than that for hello, but today she happens to be right by the door, behind the counter. Harvey is at the grill in the kitchen, and he shouts, "Mornin', chief!"

Breakfast at the Diner
To Harvey I nod, and to Kirstin I say "Hi, yourself."

Only one option remains at the counter — three empty stools in a row, toward the right side, between Sudden Urge to Pee and an older white woman unknown to me. 'Older' means she's maybe ten years younger than me, in her 50s.

I walk over and take the middle of those three stools, leaving an empty space between me and the rest of the world on either side. Two empty stools would be better, and two empties were required by COVID for a while, but that rule's either been rescinded or ignored over the past few months.

Until the place gets really busy, of course, nobody sits on the stool right next to a stranger. That's an unwritten, eternal rule that precedes the pandemic.

Looking around, I see Phil and Maurice in their ordinary spots, and a few other faces (but not names) known to me. Sudden Urge is working on a mouthful of something, but I say "Good morning" to him, and when he swallows he returns the cliché. I say nothing to the woman at my right, because she's talking, and it's already obvious she's gonna be a talker.

She's yakking at Kirstin, not me (thanks, God), about new hours at the store where she works. Kirstin is listening but not really, and she doesn't wait for this woman to finish talking. She comes to me with sacred coffee, and says, "The special today is a Reuben omelet," as she pours. 

The talky woman is mid-paragraph and it's a long paragraph, so I order silently, by making an OK sign with my thumb and forefinger. I'd like french toast, too, but with Kirstin it goes without saying.

♦ ♦ ♦

ManBun and Lady ManBun come in, talking, smiling, holding hands. They were a couple when I first noticed them at the diner, then they were apart for a while, and it's silly, of course — I don't know them at all — but it's good seeing them together again. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Trying to ignore the lady who's still talking about her job, I'm reading my magazine when Sudden Urge says to me, "You using this cream?" There's a three-inch stainless steel container, closer to me than to him, and it's only good manners to ask. 

"We can share it," I say, and slide the cream toward him. For the rest of breakfast, share we do, pouring from the same creamer, then returning it to the middle point between between us. It's a small kindness, in the shape of a dairy product.

Mostly it's the food, but also that's what makes the diner feel like home. 99% of my life I'm alone in the universe, but in the diner I'm slightly human. One morning a week, it's nice to be nice.

♦ ♦ ♦

The lady to my right prattles on and on, about scheduling at whatever store she works at, about changes to their cash-out procedures, about how mean her manager is. Sometimes she talks about all this to a guy at an adjacent table who doesn't care but also doesn't complain, but mostly she talks to the waitress.

And kudos to Kirstin — she goes about her many duties, makes other customers feel tended to, all while giving this woman some fraction of her attention, even asking a question now and again, as if they're having a real conversation. I'd go mental having to put up with talky customers all day, but Kirstin is like a friendly bartender, all ears and never judgmental.

Some people need to talk or they'll die, like Phil most mornings, and this lady to my right. Too bad for them but luckily for the rest of us, those two are at opposite corners of the counter, too far apart to be talking to each other. 

♦ ♦ ♦

For reasons unknown, my eyes wander to Frank's obituary, which is still taped to the wall, under plastic, behind the stool where he sat for so many years.

Phil is on that stool, talking with Maurice like they usually do, when there's a rare coincidence of quiet. For only a few seconds, Phil's not talking, Maurice isn't talking, and even today's lady who never stops talking stops talking. I'd been looking at the wall behind him, but suddenly me and Phil are looking at each other. I lift my coffee cup in the air and say, "Just remembering Frank. Tell him I said hello."

Phil lifts his coffee cup, too, smiles and turns toward the wall, and to the wall he says, "Yeah, you're kind of quiet this morning, Frank. You doing OK?" 

♦ ♦ ♦

Breakfast arrives, and it's a wonder of sauerkraut and thousand island and eggs. You're thinking it sounds not-so-yummy? My wife would agree — she ordered a Reuben omelet here once, one day many years ago when it was the special, and afterwards she said, "It's a good idea, and it almost works, but it's not a Reuben without rye bread." The diner has no rye bread, only wheat and white.

My Reuben omelet is delicious, though. What it perhaps lacks in rye, it makes up in corned beef and happy memories of my wife. Memories of Stephanie improve anything, even the diner.

♦ ♦ ♦

To that talky lady, Kirstin says "uh huh" a lot and never says "shut up already," but after hundreds of omelets eaten here, I know the sound of Kirstin's voice when she's interested, vs the sound when she's not. And she's not. And neither is anyone.

I'll try not to type about it too much, so it won't be as annoying for you as it is for me, but damn — I've been in the diner 15 minutes and that woman hasn't gone one, without saying something. 

♦ ♦ ♦

"May I have your plate for a moment, please?" It's Kirstin, and she wants my breakfast back? 

"Sure," I say, semi-bewildered.

With only a few bites eaten Kirstin walks away with my plate, and takes it to the table behind the table where Bouffant-Walker will be sitting in a few minutes. She shows it to the customers there and says, "It looks like this." They must have asked about the daily special.

"I'm show and tell!" I holler, and Kirstin laughs as she briskly brings my omelet back to me. Then she rushes back to their table, where seeing is believing, and they both order the Reuben omelet.

♦ ♦ ♦

Happy to have my breakfast returned to me, I dig through the eggs and meat and hot hash browns, saving the french toast for last but spreading the butter straightaway so it'll melt.

♦ ♦ ♦

Right on schedule, it's 6:30 so Bouffant-Walker comes in. As he approaches I say, "Good morning, sir," because he always says good morning to me, and I wanted to beat him to it. 

"Good morning yourself," he says. "Donald Trump needs to be arrested, and how are you doing on this fine Friday morning?"

"Dang right, he does," I say, "and I couldn't be better."

Big Hat will be next, of course. They're more reliable than a train schedule. Bouffant gets here at about 6:30, and Big Hat will pull into the station in another 3-5 minutes.

♦ ♦ ♦

And here she is, happiness in a hat, with a cheerful hello for everyone. She says "Good morning" to me, and adds "You're looking especially chipper," which is not true. I'm wearing the same sweatpants and bad haircut as always, but I grin behind my mask. Maybe she meant the grin.

Big Hat sashays toward her table at the back, singing a song as she goes. "It's a beautiful morning / I think I'll go outside for a while / And just smile." She sits, orders coffee and toast, and talks to Bouffant-Walker. ManBun and Lady ManBun are seated nearby, and almost immediately all four of them are happily chatting.

There's something about Big Hat, and it's not a cosmic mystery, is it? Everyone likes happy people. Simple as that. Even grumpy people like me like happy people, long as they're not too loud about it.

♦ ♦ ♦

A man come in, white, alone, maybe 40 years old, and heads for a table in the Bouffant-Big Hat-ManBun triangle. The only route there takes him past me, and he says "Good morning" as he walks by, but hey, I've never seen this guy before. I have no pleasantries prepared, so several seconds pass before I muster, "G'morning."

By then he's already a pace past my stool, and I'm not sure he even heard me. For Bouffant and Big Hat I have a 'good morning', quick and sincere, but this guy is a stranger. He only gets two syllables, not three.

♦ ♦ ♦

All morning long that lady's been all about her job in some store, working with several high-school kids who cashier and stock the shelves. She says, loud enough for everyone to hear, that it's work that used to be done by people somewhat older, but the store's new manager likes hiring high schoolers. Probably, she says, because they're minimum wage and they don't much stand up for themselves. She doesn't mind working with the kids, and without a hint that the irony is intentional, she explains, "They're not as stale as some old folks."

And then to my surprise, this lady who won't stop talking tells a story that's almost worth hearing! "With all the high school kids," she says, "I don't think the manager knows what's coming in a month."

"What's coming in a month?" Kirstin asks, because asking is part of her job.

"Spring vacation," the lady says, "and all those kids, half the staff, will take a week off at the same time." She laughs. "The store's gonna be so screwed!"

♦ ♦ ♦

After that the monologue is over and that talky lady leaves, and nobody's sad to see her go. Sudden Urge and I wordlessly smile at each other as she vanishes out the door, and the diner becomes a quieter place.

I take a deep breath, absorbing the sweet silence, and notice feminine voices from a table toward the front. I'm old, but it's instinct — when the voices are female, you gotta glance. I turn my head and see a couple of ladies my age or older, gray hair in a bun on both of them. Grandmothers, probably.

One of them says, "My neighbor has the cancer?" and the other says what she's supposed to reply, but something's familiar here. Eavesdropping a little longer, yup, they're speaking Valley Girl, with an uplift at the end of most of their sentences, whether they're asking a question or not. 

Are these old ladies fresh from California, or does the accent never fade? They sound like teenage girls from San Fernando in the '80s — even as they're talking about cancer and death. One of them says, "Chemo is gnarly."

♦ ♦ ♦

I say thanks and start packing to leave, and get several thanks back. The diner is big on "Thank you." There's one from Kirstin as I slip cash under my coffee cup. As I'm walking toward the door there's a loud thanks from Harvey in the kitchen. Then it's "Goodbye, have a great week," from Kirstin again, as I'm almost to the door.

Again I say thanks, loud enough for Harvey to hear. I nod at Phil, and tap Frank's obituary. Feeling especially chipper, I belch as soon as I'm outside, and it tastes of sauerkraut.

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.

Illustration by Jeff Meyer


  1. >"It's a good idea, and it almost works, but it's not a Reuben without rye bread."

    I don't doubt that your omelet was amazing, but I agree with the missus. Rye is my favorite bread, bar none, and a Reuben without it is... lacking.

    1. The diner doesn't carry rye bread as a choice, but yeah, they ought to buy a loaf just for the days they do the Reuben omelet. Rye toast on the side would take it to the stratosphere.

      Still damned good, though.


  2. I have a breakfast question. I'm in Madison 3-4 times every year and I'd love to try breakfast at the same diner you're eating at but there's no Bob's Diner. What the real name?

    1. Nah, but if you want a good breakfast in Madison — or in any city — go to a diner you've never heard of. My highest recommendation.


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