Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Very Strange Family and Joe Mullins, Too

While still in the throes of mourning a shuttered diner and the only bona fide sacred place I’ve ever known, I find it therapeutic to unearth memories from this former consecrated ground. Today, permit me to resurrect the "Very Strange Family" and a classic nine-to-five drunkard nicknamed "Joe Mullins," who were regular patrons of the diner. I’d venture to say the cross-section of human beings who ate here were a microcosm of the wider world, or—at the very least—the wider Bronx.

It’s hard to do justice with mere words to the Very Strange Family, who enjoyed repasts alongside me in the diner for several years. You really had to see them live and in color to appreciate their unique brand of weirdness. The Very Strange Family consisted of a husband and wife with a son, Peter, who could have been an older teenager, or maybe a young man in his twenties. His greasy demeanor and darting eyes, however, made establishing an approximate age problematic.

At some point in time, the Very Strange Family entered the diner with a bundle of joy—an infant and fledgling member of the brood. Perhaps the toddler’s mother was not Peter's. But, really, none of this minutia really mattered, because what bound the family together was their strangeness. Ma, Pa, and Peter seemed perpetually on edge. Their eyes were always flitting—up and down, back and forth—and they immediately sensed when foreign eyes were looking their way. The Very Strange Family jumped the shark for me when the woman of the house decided to change her newborn’s dirty diaper on a table a couple of booths away. Eventually, the amateur detective in me came to the conclusion they were either members of organized crime—low-level weaselly types operating on the fringes—or in a witness protection program and fearing members of the mob. It had to be one or the other.

Conversely, Joe Mullins was easy enough to figure out. He worked in some nine-to-five bureaucratic job. His credentials—the identification pass hanging around his neck—told us as much. And, each night, when he stepped off the Number 7 bus on his way home, he’d patronize the liquor store that was conveniently a stone’s throw away from the bus stop. Carrying that familiar black liquor store plastic bag, with the latticework insignia on it, Mullins would then cross the street and enter the diner.

A friend of mine is responsible for christening him “Joe Mullins”—that wasn’t his real name—because he just seemed like a “Joe Mullins” to him. From our vantage point, Mullins seemed like a harmless sort. But as a rule, he was ill at ease as he laid down his bag full of spirits and ordered his supper, which always consisted of the most boring and basic kind of sandwiches. His whiskey bottles invariably made audible clanking sounds, prompting meaningful glances all around from staff to customers and from customers to staff. The hapless Mullins once ordered “a ham and white on a Swiss.” For some reason, the diner brass just didn’t warm to the man, even though he was a repeat customer—you could see it in their faces and sense it in their body language. In the best diner milieus—like in life itself—everything is visceral. While Joe Mullins was always unfailingly polite, even meek, instinctively he just never was accepted into the diner fraternity.

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