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home : columns : columns October 21, 2018

1/23/2018 2:24:00 PM
Notes on a greasy napkin
By Craig Rullman

I like to write in diners. I like it because I always hear something marvelous about politics, or the weather, and also because there is something inspirational in the smell of bacon, the comfort of a worn-out booth beside a picture window, and the reliable goodness of hashed browns, two eggs over-medium, and a side of English muffins.

One day last week saw me in a booth early enough to enjoy Sisters in that golden hour - you know the one I mean - when the kids are all in school and the shops are just opening up, right before Cascade Avenue is shaken to pieces by 18-wheelers jake-braking through the crosswalks.

There were four men at the counter - of Korean War vintage - who were talking about the weather. One of them mentioned the weather in Kentucky, pointing out that it was 3 degrees in Lexington. The guy in the red ball-cap suggested that that was another reason not to live in Kentucky, which was seconded and passed without objection.

I've never been to Kentucky so I have nothing to add. What I imagine is a triptych of Americana: picture-book thoroughbred farms, distillery smokestacks, and Pentecostals up-the-holler handling snakes in a clapboard church. There is no reason to believe any of those images are accurate, but its what pops into my head whenever I hear the word Kentucky.

I let the thought go - I was hitchhiking on the whole conversation anyway, which is a singular pleasure of writing in diners - and focused instead on my breakfast, which came out fast and hot and brilliant.

I generally avoid any eatery with pictures of food on the menu. I understand that many modern customers are visual learners and, this being 21st-century America, they probably need a color photo to assist with reading comprehension, but a proper menu should insist on literacy, which is why the only pictures on it should be of Western landscapes, horses, or guns.

I always add a dash of Tabasco to my plate. Lately, I've noticed that a lot of diners are pushing green Cholula in the condiments basket, but I never put any kind of green sauce on my food. Particularly breakfast. Red-sauce-or-no-sauce is my gringo sauce bias.

The sausage patty was thin but seasoned right. This is important because a fry cook who can't season industrial sausage to a certain level of palatability is a sad person. The eggs were slightly under-medium but this is forgivable if, and only if, the English muffins are hot and slathered properly in butter.

Back at the counter, the red-ball-cap guy was talking about the perfect place to build another Bi-Mart, which he thought was probably Hailey, Idaho.

Great diners serve two English muffins. Since one primary purpose of roadside diners is to nurture our generosity, serving up one lukewarm English muffin, or the sad spectacle of diced "country potatoes" in place of hashed browns, will never earn a gold spatula in Rullman's Guide to Greasy Spoons.

Outside, Sisters was coming to life and the booth next to me suddenly filled up with two businessmen and one laptop. Eavesdropping - "field-work" is the preferred term - I gathered they were building a new company and fairly serious about eventual world domination.

That's when the waitress asked the older one if he was wearing socks, which was an awkward opening but seemed to knock their talk of private jets and presidential suites down a peg.

Which is another thing: there is both skill and art to waitressing a diner. That's true of any restaurant, but in an old-school diner the waitress is a stand-up pro and can leave you either titillated or terrified - her choice.

Meanwhile, talk at the counter had run full circle and was back to weather. The red-ball-cap guy - who was now fairly wired on caffeine and exaggerating his gestures - brought up George Carlin's "Hippy Dippy Weatherman" routine.

This got my attention.

They flirted with a consensus that the routine was brilliant except, I noticed, green ball-cap guy on the far end was holding out. He stared into his coffee cup until, after long internal deliberation, he looked straight ahead at the pies and then said quietly: "He was whacked out all the time; but yes, he was a very funny man."

I was proud of green-ball-cap in that moment. I was proud of him because admitting such a thing in public was obviously an act of personal bravery. It was as if a whistle had suddenly blown and he was now crawling out of a muddy emotional trench and going over the top with a knife in his teeth. Truth is, I'd been rooting for him all through my last savory bites, since he seemed to be tamping down a growing list of differences with red ball-cap.

I have no idea if any of that is true, but that's how my mind wanders in restaurants.

Mostly, I liked all the talk about the weather because it resurrected some of Al Sleet's long-overlooked Hippy Dippy wisdom, which in our great new age of angry binary politics still has suction. Sleet admonished us, you may recall, to study the difference between a Canadian Low and a Mexican High, and optimistically suggested that "The weather will continue to change for a long, long, time."

Which was just the thing to write about over a really good breakfast.

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