A youngish white guy comes into the diner. He's clean-cut and wearing a suit and tie, and he sits a few stools away from an ancient bald man who sometimes has oxygen tubes in his nose, but not today. I've never seen the young guy before, but the old guy eats here often, so I know him by name — Saul — even though we've never spoken.
Saul and the clean-cut guy are having a long and deeply tedious conversation about the Black Lives Matter protests in town, which have recently turned into almost-riots. Neither of them knows much about what's going on but that doesn't keep them from talking about it, saying things the young guy probably heard on TV and the old guy might have read in a newspaper.
"They tore down the statues, even the statue of that guy who fought against slavery in the 1800s." … "I'm awfully tired of seeing all the businesses boarded up." … "I don't even understand what the protesters want." …
Now I'm nearing my limit for how much stupidity I can stand, but I've lost every fistfight I've ever been in, so I bite my tongue and bite my omelet. Not to mention, there are two black customers in the diner who can't help hearing all this, and if they can take it in silence so can I.
Then the guy wearing a tie says, "I think it's all because we've drifted too far from God." There's muffled laughter from every direction in the restaurant, except me; I don't muffle. Saul gives the guy a ten-second stare, then opens his mouth to say something, but doesn't. Instead he takes a deep breath, lets out a ridiculously long sigh, and starts talking to the waitress about baseball.
Two middle-aged men, one white, one black, are eating alone, sitting ten stools apart, but they want to talk with each other so they're talking loud, about the weather and their weekend plans. At some point there's a lull in the conversation, and both of them turn their heads a bit and for a moment all three of us are making eye contact. I give 'em each half a smile, which I guess adds up to a complete smile, and then avert my eyes back to my breakfast and magazine. Eye contact is way too much contact for me.
The black guy, after his fourth or fifth cup of coffee, has a sudden urge to take a pee. I know this because he says, "I have a sudden urge to take a pee," before he gets up and disappears down the hall into the men's room. When he steps out a minute later, Kirstin the waitress asks him, "Did you wash your hands?" and everyone laughs, including him. But he doesn't answer the question.
Another old man comes in, scowling and surly, places his order in a grumpy tone of voice, and says nothing else until he's had a couple of sips of coffee. "Damn good coffee," he says, and adds "as always." He's another familiar face, and he makes the same sour, drawn-out entrance every time I see him. With the addition of caffeine to his bloodstream, he evolves from grumpy-but-quiet to grumpy-but-chatty, and after half an hour his grumpiness fades and he's just chatty and annoying. As always.
This morning as he pays his bill, he offers a parting thought: "There's nothing about any of this coronavirus crap that doesn't stink, but we'll come through. And some of us won't come through, but that's OK too. The world will get along without us." And then he's gone. I've spent hours in the same room with that old man over the years, and that's the most optimistic thing I've ever heard him say.
Most folks sit at the counter, but some prefer a table. The danger of eating at a table, though, is that you'll see the waitress less often. You might have to wave your hands or holler if you need ketchup or cream.
Kirstin brings breakfast to a middle-aged black lady at one of the tables, and says "Enjoy your meal." Then she bustles back behind the counter, and does all her ordinary tasks — washes a few dishes, pours more coffee for everyone, takes another order, etc. When there's finally a lull in her waitress-work, the lady at the table says, "Excuse me, could I please have some salt and pepper when you have a minute?" Couldn't be more courteous.
Kirstin comes quickly with fresh and clean shakers, and she's very apologetic. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she says, "and it looks like you've already had several bites of your eggs. You can always shout if you need something. I'm always listening, even if I'm busy or in the back."
The customer says, "Ah, no worries, Kirstin. I could see you were busy. You're not just standing around playing solitary."
So here we have a couple of nice ladies being kind and considerate to each other, a microcosm of the world as it should be, yet all I can think is, Playing solitary? No, the game is solitaire. Long ago in another city, another life, I was an editor, and whether I'm reading or listening, I still second-guess bad grammar and incorrect syntax and usage. I'd hate me if I wasn't me.
As I'm counting my cash to pay up and leave, a middle-aged white couple comes in, married is my guess, and they sit at the counter. He looks 50-something, fresh-shaved and wearing a very stylish sweater even though it's already 70° before 7:00 in the morning — he looks boring as hell, in other words. She's pleasingly plump, early-50s I'd guess, and her hair is mildly disheveled and dyed slightly purple — the modern housewife look, but it looks good on her.
I only glanced at that lady for a few seconds, but it was long enough to appreciate her. I'm old but I ain't dead, if you take my meaning. Said "Thanks" to Kirstin, walked out to my car, and I'd driven halfway home before I realized why that woman had caught my eye. She looked a little like my late wife, the woman I'll miss every moment of every day for however long remains.
I'm a grumpy old man who lives alone and has few friends — basically a hermit. Once a week I have breakfast at my favorite diner. Most weeks it's my only in-person interaction with other humans, which is not my strong suit.
Yeah, I'm aware of the coronavirus, so I go to the diner at dawn, before it gets busy. I wash my hands before and after, cough into my elbow, spray Lysol on my food, pay at my plate, tell the waitress to keep the change, and hold my breath while leaving until I'm outside. It's a little more dangerous than staying at home, but life without breakfast at the diner would be a shitty life, so get off my lawn.
And remember, decent people leave a generous tip.