I underwent a couple of medical tests today. I had to fast. I was done at 3pm and I was famished. So, I went next door to Denny’s. I think I’d been there once before. But if felt like the first time. I thought it was a fast-food joint, where I’d order at the counter. It wasn’t. It’s actually a diner.
I have a love affair with diners. It might be because I grew up with parents born in the 50’s who listened to surfer music and took us out regularly for burgers and milkshakes. Back in the day, they’d have rollerskater girls bring the food right to your car window. That’s gone now, but the nostalgia remains.
I ordered a coffee since I’d been fasting all day and hadn’t had a sip of caffeine yet. I opted for a simple cheeseburger and fries. No milkshakes for me though – turns out I don’t tolerate sugar as well as I used to. Even this meal was going to be a stretch since I mostly consume lean meats and veggies every day. But it’s a diner. You either have all-day breakfast or a burger and fries. Those are the unspoken rules.
Every dinner has its regulars. Every dinner has its charismatic waiters and front of house staff. Every dinner has a bitchy line cook. The “big boss” was in today. She’d casually pop by at each table and strike up a conversation with the few regulars that were there. The 34 year old man who’s had three seizures. He just learned he has diabetes. “Then, you can’t eat this!”. Even a diner owner knows their food isn’t good for you. It’s delicious, it’s greasy, it’s salty, but it’s terrible for you. “It’s ok, I ordered a big plate of broccoli.”, he replied. The trucker next to me ordered a curry soup. “Soups have really changed these days.” I’m not sure if he thought that was a good thing or a bad thing. He looked like Santa Claus and part of me wanted to sit with him. I don’t even know if he was a trucker. He looked like one, so my imagination went there. The owner then distributed fresh new napkins to each table. “You, and you, and you, and you, and you.” The service was exceptional.
Diners are simple places and I love simple. Straight to the point. Beef that tastes like beef. Apple pie. They didn’t have apple pie, though. In fact, nothing there was homemade. We could argue that Denny’s is not a diner at all. It’s just another corporate restaurant. But in a town where almost all of the diners have disappeared, it’s all we have left.
Beyond the comfort food, I suppose the thing I love about diners is the community. The regulars, their relationships to each other, how they get along with the waiters. How they care for each other, how they laugh together. How they know each other’s business. Eating alone affords you the chance to listen in on their conversations. To overhear a regular and a waiter talking about another waiter who had cancer. “I pray for him each day.” To listen to their shared concerns. It’s beautiful, really.
I haven’t been around diners much as of late. I’ve been doing the healthy thing. Boxing, running, yoga, eating well. Sure, there’s a small sense of community at the gym, in the park, on the cyclist paths. But most of my time eating is spent alone or in restaurants that offer healthy options. You’re not gonna get to listen to anything interesting at a sushi bar. You might, but it’s just not the same.
Diners, in my opinion, are the beating heart of the middle class… which is why I’m sad that so many of them are disappearing. A step above a fast food joint, but placed firmly below anything fancier – the diner is where ‘regular folks’ go. You don’t have to pretend there. Think about that for a moment, a diner is a place where you don’t have to pretend. Nobody cares. Even if you’re flamboyant, in the end, they don’t give a shit. They just want a cup of coffee, a slice of pie and a newspaper. Diners feel like home to me.