I am a diner person.
I first started going on my own at 13 or 14. My grandparents lived in southern New Jersey, outside of Philadelphia. I would walk through swaths of houses built in the 50s, over railroad tracks, past a small shopping center with a hoagie shop and convenience store, to the Somerdale Diner. It seemed like an incredible distance at the time but it was probably less than a half-hour.
I sat at the counter – long, chrome-edged – drank coffee, and ate muffins toasted with butter. Old men sat nearby. They wore black baseball caps embroidered with the names of ships They had soft eyeglass cases which they’d set near their silverware. I wrote in my notebook. They read the paper, made small talk with the waitresses.
Today, I still prefer to sit at the counter in front of the grill, watching the bustle.
The cook is usually a thin man in checkered pants. He works silently, in constant motion, translating the scrawl of order tickets into meals. He moves swiftly across the entire grill, the way a pianist works over all the keys. He clinks a fork briskly against a bowl scrambling eggs, and then pours them out in a shapeless yellow pool. Metal spatulas slide along the grill, folding omelets into half circles or swiftly flipping pancakes.
Grill presses sit atop pale grey-pink digits of sausage or rectangles of scrapple. A small field of potatoes warms on one side of the grill. Eggs nestle in cardboard flats, next to a small stack of American cheese squares.
The exposed stainless steel of the grill, hood, and fry stations gleam. The fan above the grill runs continuously, a steady exhale. Pop music plays distantly overhead. It’s always a generally unobtrusive mix, fading into the background. Every few minutes, the conversation in the room lulls and lyrics are discernable.
The servers are typically women. In moments of calm, they talk to each about their kids. Their conversation delivered in snippets, the thread picked up again and again over the course of the morning. Tattoos of flowers or names, dot wrists, forearms, occasionally peek out on a neck. The women regularly bark back into the kitchen at some unseen man, named something like Jimmy, Herb, or Roy.
There is a comfortable predictability to what sits behind the counter. The waffle iron stands in some corner. Always medieval-looking, its center black band is thick, stained with use. A pitcher of batter rests on a towel nearby. The coffee machine is routinely a Bunn model with 5 warmers and white basket filters, ruffled like doilies. Styrofoam containers, small and large squares, tower on a top shelf. Near the toaster, impossibly long loaves of bread.
The pictures on the walls vary, but are invariably eclectic. Local pro sports teams or stadiums. A little league team the restaurant sponsored 4 years ago. A newspaper review of the restaurant from several years ago, the article slightly discolored with age. Someone who may be the owner with a celebrity from 20 years ago. A country Americana scene.
The counter is long, with a laminate top. Caddies of condiments – syrup in brown topped glass containers, ketchup in red plastic bottles, salt, pepper – are positioned at regular intervals along the top. Daydreaming, I imagine that they span across time, continue into infinity.