Havens On Earth


Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Cheers was the place where “everyone knows your name.” The idealization of the friendly neighborhood bar, a sanctuary where the price of a beer bought you more than a beer; it bought you respite from life.

There are so few real sanctuaries available to us common toilers. Neighborhood bars, of course. But, what about a place where no one needs to know your name? A place that puts you right at ease, at once friendly, familiar, yet anonymous. Such places are imbued with a kind of magic, a low-intensity magic, to be sure, but tangible in its ambiance and aromas.

They call such places diners.

The classic diner stands out as unique among all other architecture. Usually it’s in the shape of a railway car, sloped clean lines, determinedly art deco, meant to resemble diner cars on trains, which had a well-deserved reputation for good and tasty food, due in no small part to their all-black culinary crews. They were ubiquitous once in the Northeast United States where they existed in industrial areas and served round-the-clock factory shifts. Good food served all day … no kitchen breaks. You’d be hard-put today to find a working factory, much less one with round-the-clock shifts served by a 24-hour eatery.

In addition to the classic venues you can include local coffee shops and hash houses, delicatessens and cafeterias, all of which have survived. Not so the marvelous automats of Times Square, where you could drop a coin into a slot and take a chicken sandwich out of a tiny window in the wall.

But the neighborhood diner did more than serve industrial-sized appetites. It was the setting for nascent love stories, where a guy brought his date after a movie and treated her to a burger and a shake, or if they were a bit more mature and sophisticated, a cup of coffee and a slice of pie.

The pretty waitress who served the fantasies of the line workers might also yearn for more than a flirty chat with a special regular.

Diners also served as havens on the highway. Long before the so-called fast-food era, before McDonald’s and Burger King made dining on the road just more-of-the-same, diners welcomed travelers, lonely and road-weary, and they too could sense the magic. For while each diner was unique, each offered that same coddling welcome that conveyed the idea that here you will find respite, here we are all strangers and the best of friends. Stay as long as you want; have another cup of coffee; have another piece of pie.

The sprawl of fast-food franchises was based upon the notion that travelers would embrace the familiar. One Burger King looks the same as another and geography has nothing to do with it. It was just like the one at home, no surprises. Makes one wonder what allure there was in traveling if you only drove from one bland venue to another, nothing to distinguish them.

And while diners offered comfort, no two were exactly the same. In fact, they had personalities of their own.

Diners have survived into the 21st century, but they are fewer and farther between. The best remain the neighborhood sanctuaries, even neighborhoods that have changed economically and ethnically.

The branded fast-food franchises, however, have taken their toll on the homely highway havens. Still they persevere along swatches of interstates and turnpikes, most especially in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, just off the storied parkways of New York State, and western Massachusetts. Often, though, you have to keep an eye peeled for them.

Are there bad diners? Can’t say I’ve ever found one, even including a few greasy spoons. Even the inferior ones do one or two dishes better than anyone else. The offerings are homely, comfort food. Order the mac and cheese, or meatloaf and gravy, hash and eggs. If they screw up one of those standards, well maybe something iswrong. But only if they forget the warm rolls and pats of butter.

Diners have fed me some of my best ideas, and fertile settings. Such inspiration is in no way unique to me; consider Edward Hopper‘s “Nighthawks.” Or try to recall how many times the late, great Rod Serling set a Twilight Zone episode in an upstate New York diner. Serling, who lived in the area, no doubt, loved diners, and had frequented them in his neighborhood.

That he could as easily introduce space aliens to the confines of a small-town diner as he could a traveling salesman, speaks to the fertile ground diners offer as a story setting.

Taking the cue from Mr. Serling, I had a pair of angels visit a diner on Christmas Eve. Just another pair of customers.

I would invite any writer, most especially one of erotica, to sit in a diner for any length of time, take a look around and conjure a story from the souls who have found a special kind of sanctuary there, along with a burger and fries, or a coffee and a corn muffin, be they customers, waitresses, short-order cooks, or weary wanderers.

You can bet some, if not all of them are hoping that by the end of the day, there’ll be another soul, another warm body to rub up against, and help keep the blues at bay for another day.

I suppose you could set a story, even an erotic story, at McDonald’s or Burger King, but I can’t help wondering whether the sex would be hurried, the way meals are prepared and hurried. Romance? Impossible. Romance can’t be hurried; it has to simmer a bit. And it can’t be supersized.

I don’t know if younger generations will, or will have the chance to discover the special magic of diners. Maybe the magic won’t work for them. But what are we to make of the chains like Johnny Rockets, or the car-hop take-off featured in “Pulp Fiction” That emulate an earlier time.

Perhaps one generation’s nostalgia ignites the next generation’s curiosity.

As for me, I’ll pass on the Happy Meal for a meal that makes me happy … if only for a while.

Robert Buckley
March 2009

“Cracking Foxy” © 2009 Robert Buckley. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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