“If you’re getting the home fries extra crispy, you might as well crisp up that corned beef hash, darling.”
My waitress’ accent is a mix of New England and Greek. She’s right, of course, and moreover, when do you argue diner logic with a waitress? I’ve been on the road since seven in the morning, stuck in Boston commuter traffic since seven thirty, and this greasy spoon on the far side of the Connecticut border is as much a sanity check as it is a breakfast stop. The Vernon Diner is a tin shoe box with all the accoutrements of a roadside classic: lots of chrome, a revolving showcase of homemade pies and desserts, neon accents, the right mix of elderly, desperate, and blue collar folk all drinking coffee thick enough spread over whole wheat toast. Theres a slight shadow of a boy picking through the ashcan beneath my window seat for smokable cigarette butts. He’s wearing a Motorhead shirt and looks like he hasn’t slept in about a week. His fingers are tobacco stained. He sees me looking at him and promptly flips me off.
I love diners.
Forget the hero worship of too many Tom Waits albums and Camel wides. Forget the Jim Jarmusch buddy films. Forget the fact I came of age in America’s rust belt. The diner feels like home anymore. When you live between exits with a bag always packed for travel, you become more sensitive to your need for constancy. Contrary to popular belief, the less permanent your life becomes, the more you rely on the dependable. It’s an anchor–a touchstone. You spend hours chasing dividing lines to destination X and highways begin to look the same: exit signs, tail lights, big rigs, winnebago warriors, cookie cutter big box store plazas. Diners are familiar without being carbon copies. It’s comforting.
The eggs are over hard. The corned beef is almost charcoal at the ends–a little past crispy. An orange slice looks like it was cut with a butter knife. There’s a mountain of toast, already buttered–actually pre-drowned in butter is a more apt description. The Vernon Diner is directly connected to a Howard Johnsons–an honest to God HoJo. The motel main door has a spiderweb of broken glass being held together with tape. The iconic orange roof is faded. Someone in the booth next to me is talking about an arrest which kept them up for part of the night–something about needles and dogs–I try not to listen too closely.
I have a copy of Emily Pettit’s Goat in The Snow keeping me company in the booth. I picked it up at AWP in Boston and haven’t really put it down since. The poetry is sublime and infused with an understated power. It is funny and surreal and charming and softens the edges of a day with language that is at once accessible and elusive. I’m reading a poem “How to Hide From Another” when my waitress tells me my the book cover looks like her daughter’s bed sheets.
“A diner like this doesn’t get a lot of readers.” She lays my check face down.
Most spots like the Vernon Diner only gets its readers late at night–the young bohemian with Moleskine and poetry in tow. They drink coffee by the gallon, chain smoke (if permitted), order french fries or apple pie or whatever will keep them from getting tossed out. They look out the windows to watch the interstate slightly beyond the horizon. They watch life stagger in and drift off. They get messed with by the high school kids. They’re laughed at by the drunks. They don’t know what the Hell they’re actually doing. Maybe they’ll travel in a set, but usually they are by themselves–the self-penned loner. It would be way more ridiculous if I wasn’t one of these kids once. I don’t know if it was one too many Hopper paintings or living in a small town desperate to escape or because I thought this was what writers were supposed to do. Now I’m a self reflexive, self aware version of me at sixteen; bordering on caricature. I know better, or at least I should but yet I’ve bought in, taken the bait, gone too far down the stylized rabbit hole. You are who you are, or you are who you’ve written into existence, right?
I think about Eddie’s Place in Wilkes-Barre, a classic diner with a bar in the basement only a few miles from Off Track Betting and harness racing. I think about all those Sunday mornings spread over a dozen plus years–hungover, overtired, satisfied, restless, lonely, in love, out of love, slightly sanctified. I remember climbing the stairs after spending “Blue Monday” in the basement bar listening to blues songs and drinking Kamikazee’s by the pitcher then ordering pancakes and runny eggs. I think about this group of third shift nurses who came in quite a bit during my senior year and how smelled like roses and bleach. I think about kissing a girl long and hard underneath the road sign–how the burnt coffee tasted from her lips. I think about all those folks who sat across from me–who I still know now, who I don’t. I think about all those conversations and how they all are a part of my lexicon that what I write now contain their decaying echo–a signal fading with time, distance, and recollection. I think about the unfamiliar faces of a hundred diners I’ve been in since Eddie’s Place.
The coffee is always hot if not good. I ask for one last top off so I can finish reading this poem before getting back on I 84. I keep rereading this line: “Sometimes you leave something so that someone can find it later.” For the first time today, I really notice how sunny it is outside. It almost looks like spring, but I know better. I finish my cup of coffee, leave a five spot, and head towards Hartford.
Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He loves black coffee almost as much as he loves records. Follow him on Twitter: @whoismisterjim.