You know the place.
It is a vintage diner with stainless steel on the walls, bright red vinyl booths, and a percolating jukebox. Or it has cracked leather seats, patched with spiderwebs of duct tape and laminated menus with prices whited out and redrawn with unsteady lines. It is in a bustling city with people marching outside like frenzied ants. It is alone by the side of the road as if the highway gave birth to it. It is a diner in the east that serves scrapple, or in the west with a breakfast burrito, in New England with fried clams any time of day, or in the south with grits and gravy.
Wherever it is, every diner has a counter. That’s what makes it a diner and not a restaurant.
You can sit alone there. Diners are made for eating by yourself, they serve you with no questions asked- there’s no “are you waiting for someone?” or “let me get this extra place setting out of the way.” Nope. Without a word the waitress turns over your coffee cup and fills it. You remember how you read somewhere that the oldest diners were born outside of twenty-four hour factories to give workers a place to eat regardless of the time. The counter grew up around a grill, a set of stools arranged in a loose rectangle. You look at the grill with heat rising from it in waves and see it is still the case.
Many diners serve lunch, but you don’t know too much about that side of the menu. Your eyes read the italicized words Breakfast Served All Day then glide over the menu without reading it. You imagine perfect pancakes coming soon like whispered promises. The griddle will fry the skins of the ‘cakes toast brown, making a light crunch as you taste the butter, the baking powder, the flour, and the sweet, sweet syrup.
You ponder the holy trinity of the diner breakfast-eggs, bacon, pancakes.
Eggs make Denver omelets that snap with fresh bell pepper and diced ham and onion. Or the eggs cover inch thick slices of Texas toast to make French toast powdered with sugar and served with a single red strawberry. Or you will have the eggs alone or with Tabasco sauce or if you are lucky, you’ll reach for Cholula with the wooden cap.
Salty bacon, with a ribbon of grease, stays covered in its thin coat of fat like a pat of butter sliding along a hot skillet. The pork slides so fast to the back of your throat you have to slow yourself, immerse your mind in its taste. Patty sausage, link sausage, firm Canadian Bacon, Pork Chops, and grilled ham are a chanting chorus of salt, fat, and sage. All of the side meats lie next to one another on the grill in rows, sizzling sunbathers.
Sudden heat sears the hotcakes and brings bubbles to the white surface and pop open like mouths uttering a single silent word. Some of them are wide as dinner plates, and you wonder how the cook is able to turn them before the spatula slices under them like a scythe. The pancake batter made fluffy with egg whites, buttermilk, and oil makes waffles that run down the sides of the round iron.
You take two pancakes, throw a sunny side up egg between them and hide the white like a card trick. Somewhere under the surface war happens and yellow blood drips out one side. You saw into a piece of sausage and make a shish kebab getting every flavor onto one fork and into one bite. The sage explodes with forte before it is quieted by the heavy baritone of the pancake, and the slick egg makes the coda.
Part of you wonders about cholesterol, LDL, and insulin levels, but then the waitress returns and warms up your half cup of coffee. You look at her in gratitude and flash a returned grin, she is your carney at the fair and you are going for a ride.
Half sized glasses of water sweat with condensation, ignored while you reach for cold juice or more hot coffee. Crisp toast is sopped with butter from a paintbrush, the edges hard girders holding the wet insides like pieces of a sail. Lozenge-sized plastic tubs of strawberry, boysenberry, and blackberry jam wait in a wire basket.
Wherever it is, whatever time of day, rain or shine, the people in the diner blend together like mannequins in a store window.
A loud family with a toddler uses the high chair that normally stands neglected in the corner, the guy in the Lion’s club hat eats in a booth by himself and stares longingly at his reflection in the window, a young couple sits on the same side of booth looking into each other’s eyes, and a man in a grey suit reads the business section folded into a rectangle neat as the rest of him.
Somewhere, everywhere in America, a server drops off the food and heads for the coffee pot with an open hand, the cook goes out for a butt, and someone else sits down at the counter. You set the fork down and leave the money by a bill scrawled out in an indecipherable hand. You don’t know how much it is, but what you left is more than enough.
About the Author
Grant J. Bergland
Grant J. Bergland is a high school film teacher and a graduate student in English Literature at Cal State East Bay. His parents met in a diner.