As I pulled into the cramped parking lot of the diner, I admired the shape of the restaurant, perched at the intersection of Colfax and some other street. The building wore a devilish disguise, appearing no larger than a postage stamp from outside; but once inside, it was something akin to Hermione’s magic sack. Booths, tables, and a counter made for singles like me, unwilling to start the seventh day of the week by cooking eggs and toast just for one.
I took a seat on a black pleather stool, rooted on one side of a 30 inch by 30 foot marbled formica catwalk. My eyes landed on the holiday garland, hung maybe 12 days ago, already laden with fine grease droplets and aerosolized coffee, slowly trading places with the dry Colorado air that filled the dining room .
I questioned my right to enjoy Denver’s mild weather and then my eyes found the server’s station. The ledge had been rubbed free of paint by the bellies of servers leaning there for ice, or reaching to fill a blue plastic tumbler of soda from a machine whose veins of carbonation and syrup hung indiscreetly on the wall behind. Twisted tubes arched southward to where the bags-in-boxes surely lived; somewhere beyond the cluttered window to the kitchen.
An elderly man sat next to me with a book, a bottle of statin medication, and a too familiar reek of someone who chain smokes daily, but does laundry maybe once a month. I’m not surprised when he orders a T-bone steak dinner at noon, and a garden salad with two extra sides of ranch dressing. As my friend Paul used to say, “it all makes a turd;” and besides, the man is probably well aware he’s gonna die someday. Since he can’t know when, he might as well eat like every meal is his last. I wasn’t about to judge.
I order the chile rellenos and eggs, my new litmus test as I explore dining options in the neighborhood. I looked up to notice that the paint around the light fixtures betrayed the fact that the owners probably shut down for a day in 1995 in order to have the kitchen staff paint the whole place the pale yellow it is today. I imagined them getting paid in beer and pizza, and perhaps that’s the reason why their brushes slipped, catching the base and chain of the hanging glass covers. I pictured cooks getting inappropriate with the waitresses brought in early to replace the wall decor. In my mind, I saw them all basking in the glow of accomplishment and the pride of having gone beyond the call of duty, as they unlocked doors for the loyal patrons who couldn’t have cared less if the walls were green or blue, so long as the coffee was hot. Today’s server roused me, calling me ‘ma’am’ and the old man ‘honey’ as she refilled our cups.
The place felt good, like a new start at an old one, and I wondered to myself if they were looking for help. God forbid I fall in love and not make a job of it. I let that idea fade as I noticed how the creamer left rings inside the heavy porcelain mug, and how the new country music on the overhead system competed with the Mexican banda rhythms sneaking over the plates of food in the pass. There were Christmas cards from food reps taped in the shape of a tree on the quilted, punctured, steel of the reach-in refrigerator, which made me squint as a passing car reflected sunlight through whatever was hanging in the air.
I missed the way I felt about being a chef thirty years ago. There was so much ahead of me then, so much room to grow in the industry. I breathed in deep, and paid the check for myself and the man sitting next to me, though we hadn’t spoken a word but to pass the dimpled plastic salt and pepper shaker, covered with the fingerprints of every weekend diner before us. I walked out into the bright December sun, and wanted to rub my eyes but thought it wiser not to.