Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ode to the Neighborhood Diner

At the risk of sounding like a defective CD—harping on casualties of the new millennium and the modern age—I nonetheless feel compelled to put in a good word for my favorite diner and others like it. The cozy neighborhood Greek diners of New York City, including my very own special haunt—once upon a time ubiquitous and thriving institutions in all five boroughs—are on life support.

I am fortunate to still have a snug and welcoming nook to go to when I feel a hankering for bacon, eggs over easy, and home fries for breakfast, or burgers and French fries for lunch. I rarely deviate from my usual when I get there because the usual is a big deal in the diner milieu. It's a comforting constant in a sea-changing world. But here's the real rub: It’s not really about the food, although I must admit that the truly bottomless cup of coffee—and a flavorful and aromatic one at that—is other-worldly.

This holy place that I speak of has been around for decades. The original two Greek giants still loom like Colossus over the dining space. And, yes, like a microcosm of life itself, the diner has had its ups and downs through the years. Its owners, too, have bore witness to a mother lode of changes in the neighborhood and, naturally, their clientele as well. The men at grill's edge have watched countless customers grow old and battle all kinds of infirmities. They’ve seen tragedy befall a cross-section of their bread and butter without so much as fair warning. Not too long ago, the diner's alpha male said to me: “When I don’t see people for a while…I worry.” He didn’t see me for a while...and he worried. I fortuitously returned for another act. Others have not been so lucky. Indeed, a fair share of the restaurant’s regulars have quietly slipped away with the passage of time and gone to that Great Greasy Spoon in the Sky. You know: with lemon meringue clouds and celestial rivers of rice pudding and Jell-O....

But it's not only the diner’s never-ending story of ravenous patrons—looking for both food and ears to chew on—who are growing old. I had a full head of hair when I ordered my first hamburger there. Its proprietors, too, are not immune to the inexorable and remorseless sands of time. And when they exit center stage for good, this little diner in my hometown, with its old-style hospitality and unique urban ambiance, will sadly go with them. And we will never see their likes again....

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