There are places in the world where all men are equal. The public toilet, for example, barring the golden pots of the wealthy is one of those places, another is this diner. Opening with the sun, this diner can be compared to an old bar – a morning bar. The bartender of the diner in question is not wizened or wise-cracking like the tapsters of taverns too ancient or exclusive for their own good. He is unassuming; hair slicked back without the greasy sheen, a low voice that doesn’t offer advice unless asked – and he is never asked, because after a trounce in dreams, a crawl through actual pubs, a long haul across state lines, or just a saunter from a cardboard bed around the corner, you don’t need advice, you need bacon and eggs, and the smell of hot coffee in a styrofoam cup. Yes, there’s no chatter between the barkeep and his guests, but there is an invisible string tying them all together to this diner and the neat man in white who is their pastor preaching an unspoken silent sermon every morning; filling each man in the place with the word of the world beyond; everyday at the arrival of his flock they are baptized with coffee, and get their sacrament in the form of eggs over easy.
Here we see two of the flock approach the bar. They’re sloppy with their lob-sided skullcaps, dirty sneakers, and torn undershirts peeking like neighbors from under their oversized sweaters. And yet they squeak when they walk like kittens and their eyes touch-and-go, touch-and-go darting after something lost. They need nourishment so they order, pay, and receive a little receipt slip from the bartender. In this diner, you get a number; there’s no table service. The man behind the counter doesn’t need to explain to anyone, not even the Queen of England, that when your number is up, so are you, straggling to the counter for your rations. Having done their part, our sensitive heroes take their unforgiving seats and wait.
Across from them is a weedy man making a park bench out of two rigid chairs; we’re seeing his day bed, though in truth, anywhere he sprawls can be so-called. Don’t you see? He feels at home in the world. Aren’t you jealous? He sometimes startles strangers with shouted greetings. The lounger knows everybody because as he reposes, hands clasped behind his head, humanity in all its glory parades before him, and by essence of being a part of the panorama, no man can be a mystery. All that’s left of this Whitman’s daily bread is two plates, a crowd of salt packets and crumpled napkins overseen by a large coffee cup, still half full. He doesn’t attend to the blokes who had just fallen into the seats across from him because in the prison of the mind there could be no amity between them. The old television hanging from the wall buzzes with the morning news. Later, it’ll be changed to Telemundo so the lunching migrants can get their fútbol fix.
Just then a black Paul Bunyon steps in, long legs ahead of his body, a Daddy Longlegs wearing sunglasses and a field cap. Before anything, he looks in on his lounging compatriot and there it is: Bunyon’s bellowed greeting is a match being struck; the former’s morning malaise vanishes and he gets back his ghost. Eyes flashing open he returns the greeting using his newfound outdoor-indoor voice. We needn’t understand any words – it is the tones of voice, the quick shuffle, the slap of palms, that paint a soundscape assuring us that everything is right with the world. It’s like when the mailman finally arrives; though he bears no mail for you, his mere appearance balances the axes. The sunglasses stay on Paul Bunyon as he orders the same thing he ordered the day before and will likely order tomorrow.
Outside, sitting on the chairs chilled by night is the only women around. Her disheveled hair, shorts, and purple shirt recollect Madonna’s 1980s couture unchanged but for twenty years of weather. Most of our Madonna’s features are chiseled, but her eyes, nose, and speech retain a sly liquidity. It’s impossible to hear what she’s saying from inside the restaurant – maybe it was a good night for a change; the discussion with her bulging, curly-haired friend, is civil. They don’t eat, just drink in the warmth of the bare morning. The traffic behind them hums. Finally, her legs are under her again.
A dirty car hurtles into the parking lot. Out steps a younger guy, skinny like a stiletto, with a crease in his slacks and a wrinkled shirt. He takes a few headlong steps towards the restaurant, realizes that he has forgotten something, returns to the car, grabs his cell phone and in the next instant stares, dazed, at the menu. His long night is betrayed by glazed eyes and the plunges of his gait. Still, fatigue doesn’t hide the noble quality of a man who may have been, hours before, the smartest guy in the room. Having decided, he begins to tell the proprietor his wishes only to forget his compound order midway through delivery. Embarrassment is unnecessary however, because a capable bartender soothes a tired man with a quiet word. “Is your bathroom open?” the boy asks, motioning to the “Employees Only” sign hanging from the door. “Go ahead, it’s open,” answers the kindly father.
Before the workday begins, a man with a red tie and fat bald head will swaddle in the door, already perspiring. Already ready to go, to make the world over with a booming baritone, in which he lives; he eats while repeating his successful sales mantra – today is the day, today is the day, today is the day I will close, drumming through every bite of his steaming hot American breakfast.
Later, the police on break from fighting crime, will step inside and banter with everyone’s friend, still recumbent on the hard plastic while his tall buddy gets nervous behind his sunglasses.
This is the place where all men are equal because all men who need to eat can, at least, appreciate the screw in a day full of work ahead or night-time of trouble left behind. Especially a man who wakes up every morning while his wife sleeps, combs his hair, puts on his pants (one leg at a time), undershirt, white buttons, apron and goes to the diner. When the lights go on at the restaurant, it is a world beginning afresh every single morning of our lives whether we know it or not. At the little diner where we used to go when my father would ask my brother and I, “Are you guys hungry?” and we would burst with smiles and nods because eating out was still a holiday. There, I would order the Shrimp Special – still on the menu – dig into the side of sweet coleslaw and see myself, years later, writing ideas on a napkin.