Saturday, October 22, 2011

Diner Elegy

It’s been three weeks now since the sun, which held sway over my neighborhood solar system for a very long time, quietly passed from the scene. As I walked the surrounding streets this morning, where a small diner—the most special of greasy spoons—endured for some thirty-five years, I conceived this analogy. You see, every time I was in the area—alone or with family members or friends—the diner, even when not eating there, was the epicenter. It was a comforting constant in a sea of change.

For twenty years, I patronized this place. In fact, it had a different name for part of the time, and a very brief span when somebody else took over—the man responsible for the name change. But imagine, if you will, a diner in New York City run—more or less—by the same handful of people for decades. The owner of the place, who shouted a greeting when you entered, cooked your food, and then said good-bye was there for almost every single minute the place was open, which was seven days a week. The diner closed only on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Others who worked there were equally familiar and longstanding employees, including a waiter who would see you coming from across the street and have a piping hot cup of coffee on the table before you even walked in the door. And the bottomless cup of coffee was truly bottomless here from beginning to end, even when business was down. And when business was especially brisk, you never felt rushed. You could sit there all day, if that is what you desired, because that’s how regular customers were treated.

The reasons my all-time favorite diner, which will never again be replicated, shut down are multifold. It’s the kind of place that existed in New York City in the past, but cannot anymore. So much of what made New York great—what made it a wholly unique metropolis—just can’t happen in this day and age. The city now is both insanely expensive and intensely bureaucratic. It caters—above all else— to wealthy landlords and to wealth itself.

But, still, it’s the memories that endure of this extraordinary diner milieu, which are over-powering in so many ways I cannot chronicle here. Good food, good times, and all of those characters on both sides of the counter, including me. Along the way, a healthy share of bad things happened to one and all. But at least we had the diner—and the good people who ran it—as a life comfort station of sorts, which is irreplaceable.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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