Steam rises from a hot cup of coffee as you make small talk with the waitress. The cook cracks the eggshells and drops the runny inside onto the sizzling griddle. Pancake batter is scooped out beside it while bacon strips smolder close by. The flourescent lights burn 24 hours a day and your coffee cup is never empty.
Any time of day, the diner is waiting for you. The world seems a little less lonely when that neon sign glows; the one that points the way to the clean, well-lighted place (Hemingway reference intended) where hotcakes, coffee, and smiling people abound. Whether it is six in the morning or midnight, you can count on them to be there. Your laptop might be your only companion or you and a group of friends might be desperately seeking food to soak up the alcohol in your empty stomach. Either way, the diner welcomes you under their ever-glowing lights.
For the first time in my life, the diner is not offering constant solace to a weary traveler. Not because they want to, but because of an invisible enemy: a virus that keeps us from socializing – and a government that shuts us down because some things aren’t “essential”.
Food is essential and is determined as such, but eating in a public dining room is not. The hot-out-of-the-oven cinnamon rolls on a table with an endlessly refilled cup is not essential or apparently, hygienic. Remember the eye contact you share with the server as they ask what you want to drink, “coffee, please”? When the curious Midwesterner tries that East Coast delicacy called scrapple for the first time and the manager in a thick Philly accent instructs her to slather grape jelly on it?
For those of us who were raised on a small-town Huddle House, the Philly accents are foreign, but the diner experience is one of the most familiar things in the world.
I didn’t know the world would still spin while Waffle House was closed. Civilized living is enjoying pancakes and endless coffee at 2am and I look forward to rejoining it after our trip to barbarism.
After this mess is over, go to your local diner. And if you find yourself in Philadelphia, be sure to go to The Dining Car. And raise your coffee cup to freedom.