To the Diner, by Francis Levy
Have you ever attended a funeral on a gray morning in February with just a few flakes of snow swirling in the air and then afterward retired to a nearby diner with some of your close family or, depending who was buried, friends? That’s the thing about diners. You don’t go for the food, but for solace. The little booths are like confessionals in which you spill out your angst, or relief — in this case at not being the one who was grimly reaped.
You don’t go to diners for the food, though there are some exceptions, but for company. If you haven’t yet been initiated to the wonder of diners and are wary of the converted silver train cars that some occupy, try to imagine being part of a congregation and sitting in the pews of a church.
Barry Levinson’s “Diner” (1982) epitomizes an institution that is basically a repository for memory. The diner that the childhood friends all repair to in the movie represents a place of almost iconic significance where life decisions are made. What more fitting place to memorialize someone who has just passed away?
When you make a reservation at some trendy new restaurant you’re going for a culinary experience, and if the food’s good, it’s going to get in the way of conversation. Try to think of all the meals you’ve had in top-notch restaurants where “Oh, that foie gras was great” or “What a sauce” dominated the conversation and nothing really was accomplished when it came to resolving your broken heart. Why would you want to go to a three-star Michelin restaurant after a funeral or other milestone? The deceased or departed would be quickly forgotten amid the aromas and scents of some chef’s unusual cuisine.
When you walk into a diner you immediately smell coffee, bacon, frying eggs, and hamburger, odors that require little expenditure of thought or energy.
One thing about diners that’s also true is that while they don’t feature prepacked fare like Wendy’s, Burger King, or McDonald’s, their menus are characterized by a certain predictability and familiarity. You’re going to have your appetizers (Buffalo chicken wings, nachos, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks), your omelette section (Western, egg white, feta, Spanish, portobello, cheese), your triple-decker sandwiches (chicken salad or tuna club), your specials of the day (roast turkey or chicken, meatloaf, eggplant parm), your salads (Caesar, Greek, mixed), and soups (matzo ball, chicken noodle, pea). And no restaurant can call itself a diner without the spinning carousel of seven-layer and chocolate mousse cakes and apple and lemon meringue pies.
Today many people go to Starbucks or seek out establishments with catchy theatrical names like Tea and Sympathy. However, if you’re going to script a scene in which a couple are meeting to get a romance off the ground you have to go to a diner, and preferably one with a smart-alecky waitress who isn’t offended by the fact that her clientele haven’t come for the quality of the fare. You can’t smoke in diners these days, but you still get the kind of sturdy saucers and cups that were made to accommodate cigarette butts. Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee” is, after all, just the kind of song that used to be found when there were jukeboxes.
Next time you want to hook up with that special somebody or other to whom you’ve written your little note in French, Un rendezvous, tu et moi, vers deux heures l’apres midi? don’t shoot for ersatz French places with names like L’Express or L’Odeon. Instead meet your beloved at the Good Stuff, 14th off Sixth, or the Gracie Mews on 80th and First, or one of the many named after Greek gods like the Aphrodite, the Dionysius, or the Apollo. The fluorescent lighting won’t be dark or romantic, but there’s a timeless quality to these 24-hour establishments.
Fitzgerald famously said, “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” When you’re sitting in a diner, you can be anywhere or nowhere, and that’s just the spot your search (for whatever it is you’re after) will begin.
Francis Levy is the author of the comic novels “Erotomania: A Romance” and “Seven Days in Rio” and of the forthcoming “Tombstone: Not a Western.” He lives part time in Wainscott and blogs at TheScreamingPope.com and on The Huffington Post.