A Girl Sits at a Booth Alone: An Ode to Diner Coffee

canva-photo-editor (1)It was a restless Monday.

The dark was creeping up the horizon line. The summer night was manifesting in sweat beads along her hairline. She walked into the diner on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street. Few things in life will stay the same, but diners will always offer the same warm, tungsten lighting, the same curt, yet understanding wait staff, and most importantly: the same unapologetically bad coffee.

The restaurant boasted three rows of booths in the front, and two rows in the back. A glass display case to the far left housed canned soft drinks and Poland Springs bottled water. The old fashioned soda counter had low-rising stools with green leather stretched so tightly over the seats that they looked bulbous to the point of popping. In fact, some had cracked and weathered long ago, and now their foam innards were exposed to world.  The stools lead back towards the kitchen, which gurgled with the faint sounds of Spanish language.

The wait staff donned white shirts, black pants, black aprons folded and tied at the waist. They made rounds roaming up and down the sparsely filled aisles.

IMG_2358She sat down at a booth for two near the door and took inventory of her table. A freshly filled Heinz ketchup bottle stood guard of a small boat filled with 7 packets of sugar and 4 packets of substitute sweetener. The salt shaker sat half-filled, and the pepper shaker looked untouched. All she saw was the quick pass of an apron before a menu and glass of water were in front of her.

Two old women, likely named Ethel and Barbara, were sitting directly in a booth to her right. Both ate french dip sandwiches in the manner and style of a cow masticating grass. The roast beef was cut thin and piled high between the bread. The au jus looked cold. Barbara pulled out her phone and showed pictures of her grandson and his girlfriend.

“Look at the dress on that one,” Ethel commented, “Shameful.”

Our protagonist looked at her reflection in the glass divider. Her back drew a curving line as she bent slightly over the table. Her exposed shoulders were accumulating a bit of color. Shameful.

Behind Ethel and Barbara, an elderly man sat alone drinking Canada Dry and sighing periodically. He wore a red satin tie that gave him the appearance of someone who was 50 years too late for prom.

She then made eye contact with the waiter and ordered the silver dollar special. Two eggs, scrambled. Bacon. Pancakes. One coffee– black. She thought about why she, like so many others, liked breakfast for dinner. Maybe she thought it gave her life some literary significance, like a way to restart the day. A do-over. Perhaps.

The waiter brought over a mug and set it down in front of her. He looked out the window as the coffee swirled around the pot and filled the mug. She paused to stare at the rising liquid. It felt like watching a time lapse video of a growing plant. He swiftly pulled the pot away just as the coffee threatened the rim.

Another waiter brought a plate of butters and syrup in little plastic containers. She stacked them up and made a tower. She knocked them down, and started all over again. She had a knack for constructing the unstable.

Her attention turned towards a vacant back booth. It made her feel hollow. Her brain fished out the memory of a boy who pointed to a speaker in the ceiling and said,

“Africa, by Toto.”

IMG_0329

“What?” she asked.

“The song. It’s called Africa, by Toto. Best song ever made.”

And for a while, she believed that.

By the time she relived their first kiss, a plate was in front of her. Four strips of bacon were sweating on top of the scrambled eggs, and a second plate of maybe a dozen pancakes dominated the rest of the pink marble tabletop. She devoted another moment to thinking about him, how indifferent he had acted towards her in the end. One day, they were at bakery sharing cookies, dropping rainbow sprinkles on the floor, and the next he was making flimsy excuses to cancel plans. Acting like they’d never really known each other. He let things fall apart like rice paper in water. Indifference is cold. But she couldn’t hate him, because he was always, at his base, a decent human being.

…I hear drums echoing tonight, but she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation…

She hummed the refrain as she transferred half of the silver dollars to the second plate. A conversation about architecture moved into the audible foreground. A bony hand swiped away at a phone screen to display pictures of brownstone steps in the West Village. The hand was attached to a woman who was once a man. She was disheveled and her skirt was too big, too floral. Her tank top was too tight. She was on a date, maybe, with an elvish man. His blue tee shirt asked support for gay marriage in Maine. They didn’t fight over the check.

…wild dogs cry out in the night, as they grow restless, longing for some solitary company…

Our protagonist stabbed her silver dollars with metal tines. Minus her persistent memory, she enjoyed her meal. The coffee was a bitter and welcome foil to the pancakes. It was shitty coffee. But she expected it to be that way.

The yellow glow of the light bulbs in their frosted glass shades was starting to make her sleepy. European tourists began to file in, ripe with the thick smell of perspiration and pinched with a thin layer of sunburn. They used the restroom one by one. The woman in the floral skirt used the ladies room and was given no trouble whatsoever.

IMG_1140There were two people sitting alone in the diner. She didn’t account for a man at a table working on his computer. He wasn’t alone. He was connected to the rest of the world. It’s funny, he probably thought he was having time to himself. Earlier, he had picked a fight with manager who had asked for the man to put away his computer or to find a more welcoming coffee shop. But, with much whining and protestation, the man remained in his seat, typing away. The only true singles were the lonely prom date, and our very lost protagonist.

She wrapped her hands around her coffee mug like she was preparing for a tea ceremony. The saucer had accumulated Saturnesque rings by this time, signaling her to leave. She declined a second cup but motioned for the check.

She walked away without any new insights, without a Walter Benjamin style placement of  diners within the social sphere, without having resolved any internal turmoil. She felt rather like a stood up prom date, herself.

She left the diner, and no one had moved. It was the same, freeze-dried experience it had always been. People who overstayed their welcomes, food that was good but not great. Coffee that was familiar and comforting, but only because she had low expectations from the outset and it, therefore, could never disappoint her.

….

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you…
There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do…
I bless the rains down in Africa…
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had…

Hurry boy, she’s waiting there for you…

 

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