I wrote most of this in the Before Times. I have not hung out by myself in a diner in almost two years, merely one of a long list of things this pandemic has stolen from me. I miss it tremendously.
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A few years ago, I was in Baltimore to watch some friends get married, a city I have never spent any time in. So, being in a strange town all by myself, I did what I always do – I found a diner to eat breakfast in.
I have eaten in diners in, I believe, 28 states and they are always the same. In a real sense, they are like churches, with a public liturgy, a crowd of regulars, a common text and while there are many choices, we all have our favorites.
You have your 23rd Psalm, I have my ham and cheese omelet with a side of fruit.
Like churches, which are easily identifiable as such, there is a common architecture for diners as well: Formica tables and broad expanses of glass facing the street, a counter that serves the single folks, the pot of coffee, the orange juice machine.
The elements of the service are similar from place to place, too. Just like a chalice or altar is immediately recognizable, so also are the thick white china mugs in a diner, perhaps the most perfect device ever invented for consuming coffee. Coffee tastes better from a heavy porcelain mug with a thick lip, and if the server is on it, she will run hot water in it first to warm the mug up, keeping your coffee warmer longer.
In the Church of the Diner, they welcome regulars, but are happy if today is the only time you come in. Unlike most churches I have attended, they welcome newcomers with no expectation you will ever return. They are content for you to join their community just for today, to participate as much or as little as you want, and trust you will leave happier than when you arrived.
“I don’t know you or your story, fella, but you look hungry. Come on in,” they seem to say. And so I do.
As a child, I was castigated for bringing an outside book to read during church, but at the Church of the Diner, my book is welcomed, as is my scruffy, unshaven face and my coffee stained t-shirt.
They were not offended that day in Baltimore when I did not want to be part of the crowd, but instead was content to sit in the corner with my book, drinking coffee and periodically staring out the rain-streaked window as I watched the world come alive.
I have long thought that Diners are one of the last bastions of egalitarianism left in this country. The Judge will sit in a booth next to a plumber who sits in the booth next to a homeless man who is buying his coffee with spare change given him by a kind soul.
As I looked around, I wasn’t proven wrong. The other diners are diverse. There is the shift-worker eating a meal before heading home. A sex-worker sitting at the counter, drinking coffee. A table of rowdy folks in their early twenties haven’t made it home yet after a Saturday night out. A collection of old men sit at a corner table, flirting with the waitress and occasionally laughing a bit too loud – a scene you get the feeling has happened daily for years.
Everyone is welcome at the church of the diner.
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At a diner near my old house in Raleigh, a server passed away suddenly. I did not really know her – she had waited on me several times, and we passed the time of day, but at diners I am often just the observer, sitting in the corner with a book, listening to the ambient chatter, soaking in the presence of others. So I did not really know her the way other regulars did.
On the counter near the cash register was a picture of her, a candid snapshot downloaded from her Facebook profile, because who has actual paper photos of anyone these days? And in the weeks after her death, a jar sat there, taking up a collection for her funeral expenses. I always added my change in the jar, and sometimes, an additional 5 or 10-dollar bill. After all, in the Church of the Diner, we take care of our own.
There are faded newspaper clippings on the wall near the cash register: Obituaries of regulars, commendations received by police officers who are regulars, a spelling bee victory by one of the kids who come in with their parents.
Like any church, they have their nutjobs. The people who can’t make it through the day without a drink, the people who take advantage of community to hustle and scheme. The annoying person who won’t leave you alone, when it is obvious you want to be left alone. Amazingly, there are diner fanatics as well.
There is a woman who regularly came into a diner I used to frequent. I was there once or twice a week, at random times, and she was there fully 50% of the time. She knew the names of all the servers. She had the menu memorized. She had, a server told me, been coming in for years and had applied to work there many times, and never got called in to interview. But she was undaunted, and kept coming back. That was some years ago, but in my head, I imagine her still devoutly going into that diner on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh.
A mentor once told me that communities eat together, celebrate together and mourn together. And he told me that while we were sitting in a diner.