It’s always One Thing or Another … a lighthearted look at aging, life, and the absurdities of it all.
I recently read an article about New York City’s disappearing diner culture. The writer lamented the loss of a sense of community diners gave the city over many decades, falling victim now to ever-rising rents and changing tastes. (The concept of community that takes place outside a smartphone is apparently strange and foreign to many people today.)
This, one day after ending a visit to relatives by having breakfast in a Richmond, Virginia, diner. When we walked into the place I immediately looked around at the colors inside. The exterior, in black and red, had told me I could expect something exceptionally diner-ish. The booths were red and black, the tables yellow. The two waitresses were distinctly post-punk, with tattoos and neon hair. The crowd, as is usually the case in diners, consisted of people who knew each other from years of eating there. Only first names were necessary, if names were needed at all. And each of them – men, women and children – looked as if they’d enjoyed lives filled with grits and hash browns, without a single kale salad from cradle to grave. My kind of people.
That may sound odd coming from a late-50s, progressive gay man, but I was forged as a Hoosier in a northern Indiana town and there are parts of me that cannot be dislodged by having fled to California at nineteen. I don’t regret having had a solid sense of myself before I was exposed to Los Angeles. I’m happy to have had a clear identity within which I could choose to try on others, discarding those that didn’t fit. Beneath it all I am an Indiana kid who loves a diner and a good obscenity.
Diners have been my idea of stability, comfort, consistency and calm ever since I was a fifteen-year-old poet filling spiral notebooks with teenage angst at a local diner while the waitress refilled my .25 cent coffee several times. I like to go to diners in most places I visit, and if I don’t it’s only because time and circumstance did not allow it, including the circumstance of being places that don’t have diners! There’s a local diner two blocks away where I will be going once I’ve finished writing this. (Local shops, stores, barbers and dry cleaners are the very stuff of neighborhoods to me.) I’ll order my favorite—two eggs, toast and turkey bacon, with tomato juice over ice.
The waiter or waitress will know me (in New York City you can find men serving in diners, something uncommon outside large cities). The cashier will smile and tell me to sit anywhere. The cooks will be familiar as they move quickly from grill to grill. There will be lots of people at the tables, and even though I will not recognize more than a few of them, they will feel like my friends … because a diner is one of the few places in life where it’s possible to believe we’re all in this together.
I wonder how different the world would be if we met in diners instead of on Facebook or through apps designed for brief encounters. Might we be less frightened of each other, less suspicious? Would I see my own assumptions and prejudices as baseless, or at least some of them? Would I stop wanting to take back anything, including my country, from the person sitting at the next booth? It’s only a thought experiment, but a worthy one. Instead of imagining others in their underwear, a rumored trick of public speakers, I’ll imagine them ordering toast and scrambled eggs with a side of fries, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll manage somehow to get along … thanks to a diner.
Mark McNease is the author of the bestselling Kyle Callahan Mysteries and the recently launched Detective Linda Mysteries, as well as the co-editor and publisher of the anthology Outer Voices Inner Lives (Lambda Literary Award finalist). He’s also the co-host of The Twist Podcast, and the co-creator of the Emmy and Telly winning children’s program Into the Outdoors.