Last Wednesday morning I sat in the window alcove of the Pork Store Cafe on Haight Street. It was a bittersweet morning but then, departures tend to be bittersweet, don't they? We three sat around at a last brunch sort of thing for a friend and I tried hard to not be jealous that I wasn't the one leaving. Because that's usually how it goes. Usually I'm the one leaving, and it was a reversal that I wasn't particularly fond of.
But then, I don't usually drink coffee either. You can't really sit at a greasy spoon and not drink coffee.
There's something obviously nostalgic about a good diner. I always feel like the scene unfolding before me needs to be written down. And let's be honest, it's probably been written down a hundred times before. But I tend to get the same feeling sitting there that I get when I read Steinbeck. It's the reflection in the malt machine behind the counter at the Golden Poppy (Sweet Thursday, page 166, Penguin Classics, 2008 ed.) and it's Ella sweeping up the crumbs under the counter stools (p 28). Something about it always feels like 6:30 in the morning, when you're up for work but there's nowhere you need to be anytime soon.
And the best thing about a good diner is that it feels the same every time, everywhere. And even if it's not, I'm sure my mind creates it to be. Expected is comfortable. (It's the same reason that I love airport Starbucks: no matter where in the world you are, every Starbucks is the same. And even though you're off looking for adventure, it's always nice to see a familiar face.) And it's always comfortably the same. The food is always deliciously similar, there always seems to be light streaming in from the windows. The coffee always has the same weak constitution and even the people tend to be exactly what you expect. The cooks in their white jackets and hairnets (and checkered pants, if you're lucky) tend to be the kind of hard men who, away from the controlled chaos that is their jobs, do actually smile. The tend to holler at each other over the sizzle and the din. The waitresses (because they tend to be waitresses) always tend to either be young, middle aged or old, and they always very obviously fall into one of those three categories. And they all always tend to be the usual mix of sweet and cynical, weaving as they do between the sticky tables with the orange handled coffee pot. The regulars always seem to be the same crusty types that tend to occupy the end stools at the diner in the morning and the bar at night. It doesn't matter if you're in San Francisco or just off Route 66 in the middle of the country. It doesn't matter if you are 19 or 89, if you're sitting hunched over a place of eggs at the counter of a diner, you look like a crusty old regular.
And somehow it is always Sunday morning at a diner. It's the smell of bacon and hash browns frying and golden oldies crackling over the loud speaker. Comfortable and familiar, warm and cozy.
And that's a pretty accurate description of how I feel about hand painted signs.