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Diner Revisited 2020

Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Art Institute of Chicago

“A poet could write volumes about diners because they’re so beautiful. They’re brightly lit, with chrome and booths and Naugahyde and great waitresses.” David Lynch (Interview with Brian Hiatt in “Food and Wine,” March 2015)

Josef Stalin once said that a single death is a tragedy, while a million are a statistic. I thought of that this week when I read that New York City restaurants are suing the city for two billion dollars due to the losses incurred by the COVID restrictions and shutdowns. Estimates are that forty-five to fifty percent of restaurants here on Aquidneck Island will not be able to reopen when the dust settles over the corona demolition explosion imposed, necessarily or excessively, by a flourishing bureaucracy. Months, maybe years, and much analysis may determine eventually the wisdom of all the moves. Lives and businesses are holed and many shipwrecked by the torpedoing; some will recover and heal over time. Some will not.

We also heard recently that Reidy’s Family Restaurant in Portsmouth, which closed temporarily in March when the state shut down restaurant dining, will not reopen. Two years ago I posted on this blog a piece titled simply “Diner” on our first visit to Reidy’s and our affection for all good diners. We enjoyed quite a few breakfasts there, especially after Mass on Sunday, so their demise is a bit personal, as it is even more to many others. Crowded, hectic, friendly with a special regard for military veterans and with a crew of regular servers and customers.

While not a ‘regular’ daily visitor as some were for morning coffee and muffin and reading the Newport Daily News, a closed restaurant leaves a hole, especially for the owners, but also for the customers who frequent them and build a stop into their routine. Conversations with other first name regulars, sharing intimacies sometimes not even shared with family. Some of the NYC restaurants signed on for the lawsuit are large corporate affairs, but many are not. However, a place like a fifty something year old local diner has neither the resources nor wherewithal for such legal strategies.

Each such enterprise has an ambiance, carefully designed, or evolved; a vision, someone’s dream and fruit of long, exhausting days and nights. A neighborhood gathering place. Exhilarating days with a collapse into bed afterwards. Hopes rewarded. Years of challenges, disappointments and recoveries, victories, anxiety, and obstacles overcome; persistence rewarded. Friends made with familiar faces. The nearby Dunkin Donuts has a group of its own regulars, who while they cannot yet go inside to their accustomed booth, still gather every morning for an hour or so outside in the parking lot sitting in lawn chairs they haul over in their cars. Reidy’s familiars do not have that option. There is no facility or room for a drive through to sell their great coffee to go. So, what was a large part of a schedule, for some a lonely schedule living alone, is no longer.

As ol’ Joe said, each death is someone’s tragedy, and I wonder today, if with more prudent management and attention to some of the collateral damage from a state bureaucracy and progressive governor,[i] how many of these little deaths were essential to public safety.

“I just feel like the most important conversations I’ve had in my life have been at a diner counter.” Ramy Youssef

[i] The state of Rhode Island despite hour upon hour of public relations daily press conferences is fifth in COVID mortality in the country and worst in the country with over 80% of COVID deaths taking place in nursing homes or assisted living facilities among its most vulnerable when 94% of COVID deaths occur with those having one or more comorbidity factors. All the sanctimonious posturing notwithstanding, the state remains the only state in the northeast still on other area state’s mandatory quarantine list. Meanwhile, so many local businesses are shuttered. It seems the governor paid attention to the wrong vulnerabilities, both among its businesses and citizens.

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Diner

“Everyone is entitled to his own nostalgia.”  James Wolcott

We have long favored funky short order breakfast diners in small towns. Eggs over easy with crisp bacon and superlative home fries, especially accompanied by a ‘never empty’ cup of better than average coffee with the good company of diner regulars, is one of our favorite dates and has been for fifty years. Only a slightly overweight waitress with a quick, knowing smile could improve upon the experience, and often does. Not sure why. This may indicate a skewed character with some undefined deep flaw yet identified. But I’m comfortable with the risk.

Earlier this week we stopped at a local diner we had not previously tried. Another guilty pleasure is checking out new diners. One stop is sufficient to rate the home fries and coffee; the rest of breakfast is hard to ruin. Whether we ever go a second time is almost entirely based on those two criteria. The parking lot was full of clearly local cars with only a couple less than five years old. A good sign.

The menu was on the chalk board and one simple sheet of paper encapsulated in plastic. Each item was unembellished with elaborate description. The specials included an omelet with a spicy Portuguese sausage. The odor was coffee, bacon with a faint overtone of old grease and a combination of worn wood and linoleum curled in the corners. White eight by eleven notices were pinned to a bulletin board and taped on some windows advertising local handyman services, school plays and an upcoming meeting at town hall regarding changing rules at the transfer and recycling station.

The waitress was just this side of indifferent, but wary and quick to our booth. Perfect. Most of the tables were occupied and almost every round red Naugahyde stool on a stainless-steel post at the counter had a behind on it, ranging from skinny to ample with even a few plumber’s cracks. Knowing laughter at the counter with a well-known customer. Our waitress pretended shock, smiled lasciviously, and proclaimed for the room, “And you kiss your mutha with that mouth!” She was not crabbing over towards a safe space.  We were for the most part ignored by the regulars, but it was a benign neglect. Catch an eye and get a quick smile, but the furtive eye was not easily caught. Most were involved in conversation with two or three fellow diners, conversations that started twenty years ago with daily or weekly updates.

“I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” William F. Buckley

In my experience, the regular customers of a local diner are the same everywhere, just different in specifics. This week’s morning crowd was mostly north of sixty, more men than women, some seventies carry over long hair, a couple of beards and a few unshaven, but clean faced maybe a week or so ago. Although the place didn’t allow smoking inside, quite a few of the diners sported a pair of nicotine stained fingers and looked like they’d be more comfortable with a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray near their coffee mug.  Without taking a poll, I assume most did not have many letters after their signature. A half dozen or so looked well educated in their green youth, but their schooling was not at Brown or Rhode Island School of Design, more likely in the Mekong Delta or Khe Sanh.  Three or four of the tin ceiling panels had been replaced with posters honoring diners who no longer could eat breakfast there, grease dimmed posters with names, ranks, nicknames like Doc and Gunny, medals, military outfits and mottos. One customer sat by himself wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and a thousand-yard stare, drinking coffee, but had no breakfast on the counter.

The most recent candidate of the people famously classified the diner’s good folks as deplorables, and the remark may have cost her the presidency.  Their hands are calloused, and their backs stooped a bit with wear and tear. They believe in a functioning border, but for the most part lack xenophobia; working hard was valued, not working was not.  Marriage and family, even though some failed at it, was assumed to be the basic unit of a well-ordered society, and marriage is between one man and one woman with children the natural expectation and responsibility.  Almost universally, they knew something vital was bleeding out in a culture they wanted desperately to preserve. Maybe it couldn’t be well articulated, but they would vote to try to stem the loss. I prefer their company to the sophisticated most of the time.

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”  Harper Lee

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