Thursday, May 14, 2009

9-G Diner


1990: spring, summer, and fall. Closing in on my twenty-first birthday, I was studying French in college and, on weekends, working in a podunk diner at the intersection of Routes 9-G and 199 in Red Hook, New York. The diner is no longer there—I'm not sure what's taken its place—but I remember it well, and fondly. I was dating a "townie" at the time (since I lived off campus, I ended up knowing more locals than students by my senior year), and he's the one who introduced me to the diner's owners, N. and R. They were a hard-working couple, solidly blue collar, of Italian-American background. N., the cook (to say chef would stretch things a bit), had learned his trade in the navy mess (or the marines?), and was a reservist. He was a big brawny guy, but a sweetheart most of the time. R., his wife, was a woman with painted fingernails and frosted hair, who looked her age or older due to a smoking habit, a penchant for sun exposure, and what I guessed was a wearying life. She was always there, sitting at a table toward the back, up on a shallow platform where the order pick-up window was—except of course when she was waiting tables herself, which was frequently. I went in on Saturdays and Sundays. I don't remember what time I had to be there, but it was pretty early. Often, as I turned off Route 9-G and into the diner's gravel driveway, the sun was only just coming up. I think N. and R. were wary of me at first. Maybe even deeply suspicious, though they didn't do anything obvious to betray such a feeling. I believe I was the first person from the college to ask for a job there, though many students found their way in on the weekends for a late morning (or afternoon) "hangover breakfast." Or else I wasn't the first, but they'd had other bad experiences. They made assumptions, I'm sure: that because I went to college, because the college I went to was expensive, I was likely to be ill-suited to their environment. Which is to say, they were waiting for me to reveal myself to be a snob (intellectual or material), or spoiled, or somehow "above" the work they asked me to do. I was none of those things, and I was reliable. I showed up on time, got the work done, made decent tips, and was down to earth in my manner. I was polite to customers, but I also didn't take any crap. This was one thing I loved about working in the diner, actually. Unlike in upscale restaurants, where a certain level of service—sometimes outright obsequiousness—is expected, and where the customer is always right no matter their abuse of the wait staff, in the diner I was not expected to be a doormat for obnoxious diners to wipe their figurative feet on. There were, as there are everywhere, some horrible customers. And I could pretty much sass them back, to a certain degree, if I knew I was within rights. N. and R. would back me up, because they had no tolerance for offensive people either; they'd rather toss them out (though I don't remember anyone being asked to leave). But mostly, the customers were great. I remember a few groups of guys in particular, lots of them in construction-type jobs. They were the earlier crowd, the eggs-and-bacon-and-pancakes-and-hash-browns (with black-and-white shakes!) crowd . . . or else they placed coffee-with-an-egg-sandwich-on-a-roll-to-go orders. The milkshakes were a pain, I remember that, and invariably they'd be ordered in the middle of a rush. The ice cream was rock-hard, and it took so long to scoop that if I had to do it, I'd easily fall behind on other drinks or on ordering or writing up checks. There was a local kid who was in high school and working as a general helper in the diner—kind of a busboy, but he did more than that. He was always there to bail me out of my milkshake hell, and to give me good-humored grief for it later. He had a girlfriend, listened to The Grateful Dead, liked to play pool and drink beer, liked to smoke pot. His nickname was "Billy the Kid," though I'm not sure why, really, other than for his age. He was into forestry, if I recall, and I wonder what he's doing now. I wonder what they're all doing. I only worked regularly in the diner for about a year, then picked up some shifts from time to time to help out. I made fresh peach custard pies that they sold by the slice in the summers. When I graduated, they wished me well; when I came back to visit, the diner was closed. I was sorry, and I hope that the decision to close was theirs, for good reasons involving a happy retirement or some other change for the better. They were good people, fair employers, and they set aside any prejudices they might have had about people of (relative) privilege—their concerns about white collar college kids—in order to give me the chance I earned: to be just another waitress, a hard worker, and, I like to think, a friend.

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