At the Diner for Five Minutes
If I was a painter, and was to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?...I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam. for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like an Ostrich, for putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it -' ...'And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices, and soaring up anew into the sky!
Charles Dickens, "The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit"
Dear Reader, I exaggerate, it was more like fifteen minutes. I'd been looking for a respite from a busy bunch of days tending to everyone else in my life but myself. and I was in Poughkeepsie, NY, waiting for my husband to get his bionic lens eye implant, and knew there was a very famous and formidable diner—the Palace Diner on Washington Street—where I could eat, sip some tea, read and write. American diners date back to the Depression—cheap meals open 24-7—this one is faux Deco, built in 1981, with a vaulted ceiling and lots of cheerful stainless steel. I'd heard the menu was two inches thick, the servers friendly, the salad offerings fresh. I had two hours, plenty of time to relax and sink into my own thoughts. I'd even brought a notebook to scratch down ideas for a new nonfiction idea. But life pre-Covid is not to be retrieved just yet. None of the servers were masked and no one asked for any proof of vaccination. Well, this isn't the city, that I know. Mandates are looser: mask if you are not vaccinated, no proof of vaccination required. Though this disparity in mandate protocol may not seem like much, it is much, for me at least.
I asked for a booth "far away from everyone" which put me smack near the counter, the bustle of servers pulling plates from the kitchen hutch, and five steps away from the restroom. Paralyzed by my indecision—why didn't I leave right away?—I stayed and groused to myself: It is stupid to sit here for two hours.
I decided to schmooze with my friendly neighborhood server, dressed impeccably faux 1950's, like a waitress out of the movie Grease. Did she have on a white apron? A little white hat? No, I don't think so. Was she wearing a mask? No, I've already established that. "I bet you get a lot of people in here waiting for loved ones in ambulatory surgery and such," I said. "Yes I do," she said. "Hospitals and medical facilities all around," she confirmed. And, then, without even looking at the menu, I ordered a small salad and hot green tea. "Is that all you want?"she asked. I could hardly believe it myself.
The salad came to the table in two minutes. I ate it slowly, contemplating my next moves, then gathered my belongings and headed for the cash register where there were two signs stating—for the record—that the diner is cleaned regularly and thoroughly, and that everyone respects social distance. This sounded like Covid protocols from the spring of 2020, not the winter of 2021, a bit retro, like the diner itself.
So I left, disconsolate, because I really love pure Americana diners even though this one, like so many others throughout our Great Nation, is owned by a Greek-American—George T.—more of him soon—and surely has Greek fare on the menu. So distracted was I by all the servers bustling about without masks, and the crowd of customers without masks, that I didn't take any time to locate the souvlaki and spinach pie on the menu.
Now for the owner. I figured he had a story, a Covid story. How had he managed to stay open through the worst of the pandemic? Why, unlike most restaurants in New Paltz, was there no mask mandate for everyone? And those strange retro protocol signs at the cash register, what about them?
Next morning, I got George T. on the phone right away, but when I said I was a journalist, he asked me not to use his last name. "I get so many strange calls," he said. I wasn't sure if he meant solicitations, or something else. It was something else: When he did try a mask mandate, some of his customers were not happy.
Not happy? I wondered how not happy, exactly? Threatening not happy? Intimidating not happy? Gun toting not happy?
He changed the subject before I could repeat my questions: "I even bought a robot to the tune of $20,000," he said.
"Yes, to deliver food to the table. I'll show it to you next time you come in. And, of course, we kept up with take out. Lots of take out."
The next time I come in? That gave me pause.
"Tell me you got your booster, George."
"Yes, I got my booster," he said as he chuckled. A fast talker, I knew right away he was a transplanted city person, like me.
"Yes, okay. I'll be in on the 21st, my husband's second cataract surgery. Will that work for you?"
"Great, I'll show you the robot."
"In my calendar. But I'll be wearing a mask," I said.
Dickens would have loved this conversation. He wrote his sixth novel, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, after his 1842 visit to America. He was mostly disgusted—not disconsolate, but disgusted—that the business of America is always business; only the loudest and most aggressive customers are right.