The Diners

I LOVE eating breakfast in diners. Love love love.

The food is solid and cheap, and the service fast and sassy. Plus I get to overhear everyone’s medical history as the old people loudly list all their ailments and procedures. What could be better?

It’s a constant battle to not order too much, to not over-indulge. Something about the greasy corned beef hash, the giant fluffy pancakes, the sloppy sausage gravy, the sausage links that are burned on one side… that food calls to me. It speaks my language. Every plate, every bite is a tiny flashback to the table of my childhood. Back when things were simpler. Maybe not better, but they were simpler.

And the people watching. Oh, the glorious people watching. Today’s highlight is the tiny girl in bright pink roller skates, joyfully announcing to anyone who gets near that today is her birthday, and that she is wearing roller skates, and she ordered a pancake all by herself.

I’m usually one of the few “young” people there after 8:00 am. And by “young,” I mean not white haired and clearly retired. It’s a very white bread mix, too. So I’m always sure to overhear some wild stuff, usually very conservative political opinions. And that’s good for me, I suppose. My friends all tend to be skewed to the liberal slant, so I get a bit of an echo chamber. I don’t have a lot of sources for new ideas, just all of us clapping for our own agreement. Agreement is nice, but we need to hear from outside our known spaces, to hear different viewpoints. And the diner never fails to provide.

Today, in fact, I overheard that Trump is actually winning in all the polls but The Liberal Media™ outlets are all  lying to give Hillary supporters hope. I don’t think that’s even remotely true, and frankly it’s a dangerous lie. I think it’s indicative of a presidential campaign run by a man who has built his life on lies. A very successful life, to be fair. I just hope enough people don’t fall for it come November.

But it’s not all crazy politics. A few weeks ago I got to watch my waitress have a long one-sided conversation with a white haired pensioner who clearly needed someone to talk to. The waitress was young and energetic and had been bouncing to and from her tables, but she took the time and sat and listened to the woman’s long list of problems and fears. The woman had been sitting silently by herself since I had come in, but once she had an ear she rolled smoothly through tales of health scares, friends who never called anymore, car repairs, a brother who was moving away, grand kids who were on a bad path. With everything she spoke easily of her late husband, in that beautiful way as if he was still there in all her thoughts and decisions.

The waitress expertly worked in some well-timed confirmations, like “Oh really? That must have been terrible.” Mostly she sat and just… listened. At first I admired her act, listening so intently as if she cared. Eventually I realized why she sounded so convincing – she actually did care. It wasn’t an act. An actress would have left after five minutes. An actress would have made an excuse – her tables were waiting – and it would have been totally acceptable. But she truly, actually, genuinely cared. She stayed and stayed, long after the polite waiting period. Long after it was uncomfortable.

It was a privilege to watch her taking time for one of her regulars. My coffee got cold and my breakfast was late and I didn’t mind a bit. She was practicing a magical and important art, serving a purpose with a long history throughout human existence. She had become therapist and sounding board and pseudo-family to one of society’s forgotten and vulnerable. For those few minutes, she was the heart of this giant village we’ve become. And that will warm you more than the coffee.

I eventually got my food and I enjoyed it. Then as I walked up to pay my bill, I noticed that the older woman had left a 50-cent tip. I think she had only ordered a coffee, and had sat for maybe an hour. I don’t know her, I don’t know her finances, but I’m guessing 50 cents is probably a pretty generous tip. It certainly didn’t seem on level with the service she had received. I’m pretty sure no amount of money could really repay what that waitress had done. But just in case, I may have tipped her a ridiculous amount on my bill. Maybe. You never know. Things happen.

I’m going to keep going to diners and ordering too much and hearing too much and maybe tipping too much. I hope to continue for many, many years. Who knows, maybe in forty years I’ll be bending some waitress’ ear. Probably a waitress who hasn’t been born yet. Maybe I’ll tell her about that crazy blog I used to write, and all my friends who read it and commented. Maybe I’ll still talk like you’re all there with me, even if you aren’t.