Breakfast at the Diner #57

Walking into the diner, the seat situation is ideal —  my favorite stool at the counter is unoccupied, and even better, no-one's within half a dozen seats of my preferred seat.

Breakfast at the Diner

"Good morning," Kirstin says. "I saved your favorite seat for ya." 

Pretty sure I've never told her that the second-to-last seat on the right side of the counter is my favorite, but somehow she knows, and as I settle in she asks, "How's every little thing?"

"Perfection," I say, "and about to get better. What's the special?" Right behind her there's a 'daily special' board, but all it says this morning is, "Daily special:"

"Sorry, nothing's special today."

"Well, you're here," I say and she smiles. She cracks a dumb joke back at me, I smile, too, and then order my old standby, the Denver omelet plus pancakes. She scribbles it, takes the little slip of paper to Harvey in the kitchen. I open my New Yorker, but also look around the diner.

I do love this place. So many memories of great breakfasts, and another one's on its way. The diner is old like me, with cracked tiles on the floor, faded paint on the wall. Old, but at peace with itself.

Very little in the building has ever been replaced or remodeled. Even the salt and pepper shakers are probably original equipment, and I dunno why, but my eyes fall on the milk shake machine. 

Shakes haven't been on the diner's menu since I've been eating here, but still the shakemaker waits, forgotten but beautiful. It's almost art deco, stainless steel that swoops and bends back time...

♦ ♦ ♦  

A little girl is eating breakfast with an adult man and woman, at least one of whom is not her parent. Don't ask how I know, cuz I don't know, but you'd know it too.

The kid is nervous and well-behaved. She sits straight without being told to. The woman semi-fawns over her, and I decide the woman is the man's girlfriend. The girl's meeting her future stepmom, and she eats hotcakes, and squirms.

♦ ♦ ♦  

A couple of times, people have come into the diner unmasked, and Kirstin has asked them nicely to cover up. Usually they do but if they don't, Harvey has barked, "Mask on or get out."

Those days are over, though. The state-ordered mask mandate is gone, as are most of the masks. Harvey still wears one, but Kirstin doesn't. 

COVID is over, or so people want to believe, but I'm still masked, except while eating or sipping coffee. Of a dozen customers there's only one other whose face is covered. Everyone else is eating eggs and drinking coffee and absorbing the diner's intangibles, which hopefully doesn't include the virus.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Kirstin has a brief moment when she's not doing something, so I snatch it from her by asking a silly question. "If I asked for a milk shake, could that machine make one?"

"Well, I don't know," she says, looking at it, tilting her head and thinking it over. "It's not even plugged in." She jets away to bring someone french toast, but she's back in a moment, and adds, "It's never been plugged in, for as long as I've worked here. It might short-circuit."

No shakes at the diner.

♦ ♦ ♦  

At the table with the girl, her father's fiancée reaches across and gently dabs at the kid's mouth with a napkin, blotting up syrup or something. She looks at her father, makes a face that says, You owe me, but she's a trouper — she gives her father's girlfriend an attempted smile, and the woman seems to believe it, but I don't.

♦ ♦ ♦  

My omelet's here, and Kirstin tells me it's a co-production. "Harvey started it," she says, "but he had to run to the boys' room, so I finished it." The omelet is spectacular, of course and as usual. 

"Your toast will be up in just a minute," she says, but I hadn't even noticed it's missing.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Two men come in together, labor types in plaid. They sit at the other end of the counter so I can't vouch for it, but Phil says, "Whoa, you guys both smoke, don't you!" He says this with exactly the right tone to make it sound conversational, not like "Jeez, you stink," and it works. Soon everyone on that side of the counter is talking about who smokes and who doesn't and who used to and who died of cancer.

Two seats from Phil, Maurice has oxygen up his nose, and I wonder, is smoking what led to that? It's not a question anyone would ask, of course, but Maurice volunteers that yup, smoking gave him that plastic tube, that metal canister.

Maurice has been at the diner for as long as most of the stools, so he offers a historical perspective: "In the '70s, there were ash trays all along this counter," he says, "and almost everyone smoked as they ate. It wasn't until the '90s, when smoking in restaurants was banned, that you could smell the food when you walked in here."

I wasn't at this diner then, but once in the '80s I tried to impress some now-forgotten woman with an expensive dinner, only to have it ruined by clouds of tobacco from a nearby table. I can vouch for the stink.

And what an uproar from Republicans, lawsuits even, when suddenly there were rules against smoking in public. How dare you deny me the right to a cigarette during my meal and a couple more smokes afterwards! 

Left all that unsaid this morning, of course. I don't talk much at the diner, especially when my mouth is full.

♦ ♦ ♦  

At 6:30 precisely, Bouffant-Walker walks in, and makes his way toward the back of the restaurant. As he walks and rolls along he says good morning to the people he knows, which is most of the people in the diner, even me.

I give a good morning right back to him, of course. Even a hermit says hello.

Bouffant's voice is odd and squeaky, a sound I've never adequately described but I'll try again. It's a voice Mel Blanc couldn't pull off — male, upper tenor, with an accent vaguely 'elsewhere' and a crackle in his vowels and something's always muffled about it, like he's talking around a sleepy tongue, or there's an ice cube in his mouth.

His voice annoyed me for the first six months we were eating at the same time and place, but we've been eating almost together for so many years of Saturdays, now his voice belongs here as much as the sizzle and smell of bacon.

He sits at his usual table, and Kirstin is there with coffee before he's had a chance to ask for it. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

A few minutes later, Big Hat comes in. She's humming a song I don't recognize as she almost dances her way toward the back, and takes a table two behind Bouffant.

He's happy to see her, and they talk, a little loudly because they're ten feet apart and they're old, probably both hard of hearing. The extra effort of speaking up proves too much trouble, so after she orders but before her food arrives, Big Hat picks up her coffee and joins Bouffant at his table.

Never seen that man smile so big. Big as her hat.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Once in a while, even at Bob's, everything isn't perfect. An omelet might be a smidge overbrowned on the bottom, or there's no strawberry jam and I'm tragically forced to settle for grape.

Breakfast is excellent today, but after the hash browns and omelet and hotcakes, slipping into the afterbliss, I remember the toast. Promised in a minute, it had never arrived.

Do I complain? I do not, nor do I even mention it. Things get hectic, toast gets forgotten, but the time for hey-where's-my-toast was half an hour ago. Life has moved on, and breakfast is over.

♦ ♦ ♦

Breakfast is over, and I put money under the tab, the tab under the plate, say thanks to Kirstin, and before leaving, I look around the place.

Something is different about the diner today. It's the same people, same food and chairs and checkerboard tile on the floor, but what's different is me. Life is moving on, and soon breakfast will really be over.

I came to Madison with my wife, because she was homesick. We lived in California and then Missouri, but she'd grown up in Wisconsin, thought the midwest was marvelous, and this city was her favorite in the world.

Me, I didn't care where I lived, long as it was with her, so we came to her beloved Madison. And point of order, it was my idea, not hers.

Once settled, it quickly became my beloved Madison, almost as much as hers, and then, we didn't know as we moved here, but this is the where she'd die.

She's been gone for three years, and Madison has helped me get through it. It's a joy that everywhere I go in and around this city, it's someplace we were together — and that certainly includes Bob's Diner.

I'm old, though, and getting older. After older comes dead, and I don't want to die in this city where — now that Steph's gone — I know nobody.

So a decision's been made, and I've started packing. In a few weeks, the apartment will be empty and the car will be full of everything, and I'll drive back to Seattle, where I grew up and still have family.

So I'm getting ready to say goodbye to Wisconsin, and to this diner that made my wife and I smile every Saturday for so many years.

Coming in alone, the diner has made me smile once a week even without my wife, and many weeks it's been the only thing that did.

Depending on how quick the packing goes, I'll eat two, maybe three more breakfasts at Bob's Diner, and after that I'll be gone. The diner is what I'll miss most from Madison, other than my wife, of course.

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 been a long while, but pages and pages of notes are still waiting, so why not type 'em up?

  2. Replies
    1. Why, thank you. Sometimes I know when something's good or bad, but usually I am clueless.

  3. No date, I'll assume this just happened...

    1. I don't remember what I was thinking or why, but it looks like I never put dates on any of the Breakfast entries, so I'm sticking with it.

      It happened a year and a half ago.

  4. Thanks for that long lost Breakfast at the Diner entry. I just finally got to it. It was a nice surprise and a blast from the past.

    1. Hey, thanks and you're welcome. Not quite "long lost," just long delayed in writing, and there are a few more coming soon.


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