Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Great American Diner

Of the American diner Henry Miller wrote, “Everything is at its worst in this type of eating place.” We must allow Henry his verve, but need not accede to his accuracy. For if everything is at its worst at the diner, it is also at its best. Best, that is, in the American sense of the word.

Meaning not subtle or shy or in modest quantities. Whether a slice of apple pie or a t-bone steak or a bottomless cup of thick black coffee, it is robust, it is big, it will fill your belly and put hair on your chest and send you back on the road to wherever you're going (or think you're going) feeling like you never left home, or, for that matter, have been anywhere beyond than the huge, brawling, un-pin-downable network of greasy truck stops and gloomy gas stations snared in a harness of highways, biways, thruways, freeways, parkways, and superhighways that we who live here call America, as in the United States.

Not all Americans drive trucks, of course, but in our hearts we're all truck-drivers, renegades, mavericks, cowboys. We get on those highways and start driving and next thing you know, we're looking for a place to eat. Like the real cowboys they once served the chuck wagons are gone; so are most of the orange-gabled HoJos. Our only surviving hope is the diner.

I speak of those gleaming stainless-steel, streamlined wonders along the highway (even if they're not alongside a highway, they ought to be), shining brightly as if fresh from silicon molds, trying (but not exactly succeeding) to look like Pullman cars; since that's what they used to be, back in old days when two-bit entrepreneurs fashioned greasy spoons from discarded rolling stock. Rip out passenger seats, add a counter, stools and griddle, pour in a hundred gallons of liquefied lard and voila: Restaurantus Americanus.

You’ve been there. As a boy you spun on the stools, kicking the chin of the trucker next to you, who gave you your first bona fide dirty look. As a teenager you had your first slice of apple pie a la mode there, the one in the glass and chrome hat box? No mere apple pie, but a patriotic metaphor: Land of the Free; Home of the Brave. And though not exactly free, at fifty cents it was a bargain.

As for brave, you had be brave to order it, having no idea how long it had been sitting there, turning to rubber in its glass tomb.

But you had to be brave anyway, since America was a dangerous place back in those frontier duck-and-cover days when the Federal Highway System was born, a land of hungry refugess looking to stake a claim, willing to die and kill for one, and hungry, too. Dreaming of fallout shelters and ketchup (“catsup”) bottles lined up in rows.

A young man on lunch break from your very first job, you flirted with the waitress, Margie, Connie, Jan or Meg. For her time stood still: so long as she wore too much mascara and called you Dearest or Honeybuns or Sweetheart, chewed Juicy Fruit, and stowed an abbreviated pencil behind her ear--all was okiedokie with the world. She was your surrogate mom. She was everyone's surrogate mom. And the country had an Edible Complex. Oh what longings, appropriate and otherwise, Meg could inspire while dishing out two over easy whiskey down and a burger with fries.

Now you've grown older, beyond those fine ketchup-slathered truckdriving days. You stand and wait for a booth, hang your coat neatly on a brass hook, search in vain for a seat neither split nor sticky with duct tape, and study the superlaminated menu as if you didn't know everything on it by heart, order a tuna salad instead of a burger (opting for mercury poisoning versus cholesterol). Sit back, or slump forward, read the newspaper, follow the headlines. As she stoops over your wife the waitress dares still to call you honey: for it means nothing now, an appellation as hollow as God in the mouth of an atheist. Nor does the pencil behind her ear yet point quite so firmly heavenward.

But the counter still gleams, and the stools spin however wobbly with time on their axles, and the food is still exactly, miraculously, the same. There's that same slice of apple pie you resisted ordering twenty-five years ago, with the same glutinous glob of jellified apple oozing outward. There's that peach melba, and that lemon meringue, and that...what the hell is that, anyway? There’s the Coke dispenser, and the Hamilton Beach blender, and the stainless-steel cow full of milk, and the inverted Bromo bottle, bluer than blue, and goosenecked soda fountains, and black-knobbed syrup squeezers, and Sylex coffee orbs, and the sign over the chromium register:

If You Believe in Credit,
Loan me Five Bucks

And the sacred ubiquitous bottles of Heinz: precious frank fluid, elixir of burger, lubricant of liverwurst, myrrh of French fry, frankincense of hash and egg. What diners bleed when cut.

Whether it's Detroit or Milwaukee, Biloxi or New York or the lonesome prairee; whether called diner, cafe, coffee shop, restaurant, or luncheonette, it's the same, still the same, ever and always the same; whether the waitress is Greek or Polish or Hungarian or as midwestern as the Kellogg's rooster; whether the blue-plate special is pierogi or goulash or moussaka or barbequed pulled beef w/ sauteed collard greens, it's still the same, always the same. Because the menus are as overstuffed as the filet of flounder and the coffee refills are on the house; because the tuna platter comes with a mound each of coleslaw and potato salad; because, however mightily they try, they owners can never quite spell soup du jour right, and offer pie a la mode with ice cream.

Because the diner is there when you need it, and you need it more than you know, though you may not appreciate it. For the diner will always be nothing more than a means to an end: the end being a full and slightly queasy belly.

And that's what counts, for whatever diners lack in sophistication they make up for in consistency. Just over the hill, around the bend, at the next exit, the next corner, the next intersection: radiant with wasted light, lodged in the dark underbelly of the American dream. Through times good and bad, the diner will always be there (we hope): a beacon of comfort and familiarity in the limitless, highway-crossed, desolate American night. To warm and feed you; to fill your stomach and empty our bladder. But mainly to make you feel like you know where you are, wherever you happen to be, despite never having been there ever before: a place where you feel as if you’ve come back where you belong.

The Diner: America's home away from home.

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