American diners are best experienced at about 5:45 in the morning, when the air is crisp and the underbelly that is America at its core reveals itself. I imagine the rest of the world has its equivalents, but I haven’t seen anything quite like the counter culture in which locals and travelers find each other cohabiting among spinning cracked leather or plastic-covered stools, over-carbed locals waking for steaming black coffee meeting travelers along the veins of the great American westward expansion, highways and byways carrying the laissez faire, hyperactive souls of those intent on going somewhere, anywhere else, because in America you simply could.
The diners are still around, though harder to find, and I am as drawn to them today as I was when they were less fusty. The waitresses still call you “honey” or “sweetie,” and their faces if not weathered by a harder life than anyone should have, are overly smooth and naïve and primed for the etching that accompanies the trauma of what at first appears to be a good decision. Oh, the stories those waitresses could tell, I imagine, although I never heard any of them. With the exception of a couple of anachronistic coffee shops in my small town that don’t quite achieve true diner status, I am not, after all, ever a local. I am always just passing through.
I don’t know how the waitresses do what they do, how they manage to crack convincing smiles while pouring the thousandth cup of coffee of the day. But they do what they do efficiently, acrobatically carrying five plates or more at once, taking orders with charm and grace and a gritty grounding that would make a therapist blush. Somehow these heroines manage to instill hope among the hopeless, which is perhaps why they come, to see Flo or Rosie, Ali or Fran, and even from time to time perhaps ignite a small spark in the otherwise stale lives that greet them in the stiff of the morning.
The customers are, for some reason, mostly men. Grizzled men, hard-scrabbled, calloused, simple with big opinions and broken hearts. They are, I imagine, Trump voters, because they are frightened, lost boys, and the Bloviator-in-Chief is someone they know, someone who breaks easily and gets feathers ruffled and calls his big brother to beat you up after school. They know this guy.
One of the more corpulent customers, a man of about 50, or maybe 60, or maybe 40 going on 60, walks over to a booth where a family of three are sitting. The youngest looks to be in her late teens, and the man recognizes them and asks the girl to stand and walk with him over to the counter. She obliges, and he puts his arm around her in a proud, avuncular way, and announces loudly to the five or six other men at the counter that she has just received her degree in nursing from some college. She corrects him, and says she is some sort of technician, but the men all applaud her and she smiles genuinely, recognizing that somehow becoming anything is something to be proud of. Slightly embarrassed, she walks back to her parents in the booth, and they resume their now cold breakfast, speaking in tones I cannot hear from my booth some 10 feet away.
When not threatened, there is a sweet vulnerability to these men, maybe to the species in its entirety. I feel uncomfortable thinking about them as the “other,” but there is a big divide in this country, and as a rule, I am not invited to their homes for dinner nor are they invited to mine. That is a regrettable fact of current American life, one which I know I should work harder at rectifying, but it feels like the gap has become too large.
This all happened on my way to City of Hope, where I was about to receive an MRI to see if my cancer had returned. I never saw myself belonging to that crowd in the diner. But the MRI technician reminded me, now mostly in retrospect, of the waitresses I have met over the years. After being positioned on the table, lying flat on my back, she asked if I was ready, and when I nodded affirmatively she gently rubbed my leg for about two seconds, and that simple gesture calmed me down, like the easy smile of a waitress in an American diner who doesn’t know you from Adam, but calls you “honey” as she pours you another cup of coffee.