Down at the Diner
Five years ago deep budget cuts hastened my retirement as instructor of history at a community college. My children were grown and spread far and wide. My wife was traveling the world as a color commentator for ESPN on the professional yo-yo tour. I decided to relocate to a community where the pace of life was a little slower. A somewhat laid back town, but with at least a modicum of culture and entertainment. This town seemed to have its own unique flavor, sort of an aura of savoir faux.
I came upon this place by accident, really. The kind of accident that happens as you’re cruising down the interstate with the convertible top down and the windows rolled up, listening to the Grateful Dead doing covers of Mozart Requiems, and all of a sudden nail-studded boards fall from the trash truck ahead of you, mating with your tires.
Big Eddie and his tow rig hauled me and my car into town. He suggested that while I waited for the tire repairs I might get a bite to eat over at EthelMae’s Meet and Eat Diner.
It being lunchtime, there was only one vacant stool, and, since that was precisely the number of diners in my party, I proceeded to seat myself. A platinum blonde with a lopsided smile brought me a glass of ice cold spring water and took my order. The name tag pinned to her checkered apron read “EthelMae”. She introduced herself as the proprietor of the establishment before proceeding to check on the gaggle of golden-aged girls in the back booth.
As I waited for my meal to be served, I took note of the other patrons. On my left sat a middle-aged man wearing a Bugs Bunny t-shirt, whom I came to know as Flambert, municipal laborer who drives the snow plow, garbage truck, street sweeper, and the mayor crazy. The jovial, paunchy fellow on my right with the ill-fitting toupee just happened to be the mayor, CP Pinchfanny, whose full time occupation was proprietor of the local bowling lanes. Hizzoner introduced me to the guy on the end stool covered in tool belts and tools as Carlton, the local handyman., and to local businessman and member of town council Easton Weston. I also met Arnie Garbanzo and Walter Wallenpaupack that day, all of whom I came to know well.
One dreary December afternoon, with a sleety rain streaking the windows, CP, Easton and I sat in the back booth solving the problems of the world during a much-extended lunch hour. The mayor was idly leafing through a library book entitled A Day in the Life of America., wondering aloud why our fine community hadn’t been included. Easton suggested that perhaps we needed someone to write about this place and its people, a book just about us.
The guys were aware that I had occasionally penned articles for publications such as Composter’s Digest, Traveler’s Guide to Gourmet Fast Foods, and The Complete History Teacher’s Reference to Places of Little Interest. They asked if I’d be willing take on a project that would put us on the map. I asked EthelMae for a refill of my cocoa and suggested that perhaps I could chronicle the goings-on around here in a diary or journal format. My idea seemed to them to have some merit and what follows is the outgrowth of that discussion.
Sunday, January 1
EthelMae’s New Year’s resolution was doing her part to promote healthy food choices. It wasn’t that she made any significant changes to her menu offerings. Patrons could still get all the artery-clogging cholesterol and decadent sweet desserts they wanted. It was her educational efforts that merited mention. Along the counter and at each booth were new attractive Lucite holders containing colorful little brochures that featured the government endorsed food pyramid along with dietary suggestions and warnings from the Heart Association and the Cancer Society. Nutritional information and Recommended Daily Allowances of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients were included. The back cover of the free-for-the-taking booklets prominently featured the name and address of the eatery. Walter remarked to Easton that there was a wealth of healthful information packed into that little digestive tract.
Monday, January 2
Alvin Schlinkmeister was almost unrecognizable when he came in for breakfast. The burley bearded farmer wasn’t wearing his usual uniform of flannel shirt, denim bib overalls and feed mill ball cap. Instead, having ordered bran flakes with skim milk and a banana, he tucked a napkin into the vest of his three piece suit. Arnie bit into a blueberry bagel and asked Alvin if he was going to a funeral or to a wedding. The response was neither. Instead he had an appointment at the office of Congressman Klepto. Farm prices being as low as they were, cattlemen were looking for any profitable opportunity. Trade with China was booming and that nation had an insatiable hunger for meat. The Congressman was part of a trade delegation that was working out an exchange of beef for made-in-China sneakers and sportswear. Walter dumped another packet of Sweet-n-Lo into his grapefruit juice and quipped that he saw the politico’s efforts as the proverbial bull in a China swap.
Thursday, January 5
Arnie ordered a pizza burger with extra anchovies. He reached over and swiped a curly turnip fry off Easton’s plate and started to describe his latest investment venture. Carlton interrupted to ask for the salt, pepper, mayo, ketchup, mustard, napkins and toothpicks. Easton suggested they just tip the counter in his direction. Once Carlton’s needs had been attended to Arnie got back to the subject at hand. He told Easton about his grandiose plan for opening a specialized seafood business, one dealing primarily in shrimp. Jumbo shrimp, gumbo shrimp, popcorn shrimp, you name it, he’d have it. And the kicker, according to Arnie, would be that he’d not only take cash for the seafood but would also take merchandise in trade. Want a shrimp dinner and don’t want to wait until payday? Hock your guitar or CD player. Hosting a big soiree and tight on the budget? He’d take grandma’s antique jewelry. EthelMae listened in on the conversation and rolled her eyes. The last thing the town needed was a prawn shop.
Saturday , January 7
MinnnieMo Moyamensing and Wilma Wilmerding stopped by for lunch but weren’t able to get their requested salads. EthelMae complained that the produce supplier hadn’t shown up yet, several hours past his usual delivery time, and she was all out of greens. Carlton stopped munching his corndog supreme long enough to mention that there was an accident out where the highway split at the Y intersection. He said the produce delivery van had apparently tried to take the turn at too high of a speed and rolled over. Lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes and various other veggies were strewn for a hundred yards down the highway. In the midst of that conversation the out-of-towner on the second stool identified himself as a farm machinery salesman new to this area and asked how to get to the Schlinkmeister farm. Carlton told him to take the highway west out of town and bear right at the salad fork.
Friday, January 13
Friday was culture night. The cavernous space back of the diner had been built as an arena for goat-roping competitions, a concept which never quite took off. Now it served as the town’s auditorium, dance hall, and convention center. Easton Weston chaired the town council’s Committee on Culture. An accomplished painter of Amish hex signs, and having once visited Carnegie Hall with a bus tour, he was the obvious choice for the assignment. This week’s feature was the Organic Oboe Quartet: Sig Stern, Juilliard, ’97; Mary Firkin, Berkshire Conservatory, ‘88; Wong Wing, Taiwan Academy of Music, ‘85, and Art Flump, Woodstock, ’69. Nobody melded baroque and reggae better than this group!
Saturday, January 14
The Organic Oboe concert was a smash! The locals might have related so well because, as Arnie Garbanzo put it, “oboes are really only high-falutin, tune-able duck calls.” In fact, the highlight of the evening came when Art Flump, playing the tenor oboe, hit a long sustained off-key note in Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor as arranged by Bob Marley. The errant note Flump played matched exactly the siren song of a lovesick duck, and within minutes every male mallard within ten miles was quacking at the door. The diner menu for the next month would include duck steaks, duck chops, duck soup, duck a la mode, duck pot pie, and broiled, roasted, fried, poached, stewed and fricasseed duck. Carlton used his new video camera to record the whole sorry episode on duck tape.
Wednesday, January 18
Arnie was taking his time with his beef and barley stew. Selma had been bugging him big time to do something about the sticking front door. All it needed was to be shaved or planed a bit, but Arnie’s problem was that he didn’t have the right tools. He figured if he waited for Carlton to come in for supper the handyman would have whatever he needed. Carlton did show up, and as he waited to be served a rack of ribs with brown rice he listened to Arnie’s request to borrow the necessary utensils for trimming the door. The tool man finally said he could accommodate the request, but a written contract would be required, a deposit equal to twice the retail cost of the tool in question posted, and a formal request in triplicate filed at least twenty-four hours before the tool loan could consummate. A credit check and a criminal history clearance would also be required. Walter sipped his coffee as he listened to the dialogue and finally quipped that he was willing to bet Arnie never anticipated the difficulty he would face in making a simple plane reservation.
Thursday, January 19
Walter was regaling the regulars about his gambling adventures and world travels. Floyd took a long sip of 7-UP to wash down a mouthful of hot sauce and asked if one particular incident stood out. Walter replied that in the spring of 2004 he had been on a trip to France and visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Separating from his tour group he wandered into an alley behind the church where he was approached by a grimy little alms seeker. For whatever coins Walter was willing to give the urchin offered a tip guaranteed to pay off big. The gambler handed over a fistful of pocket change and the sooty seer said he had a hunch that the Boston Red Sox would win the World Series. Walter mulled it over and when he got back home did place several large wagers on the Beantown boys. The outcome, of course, is history and Walter made a killing by relying on the hunch back of Notre Dame.
Friday, January 20
Arnie and Easton were dunkin’ donuts as they speculated where Walter got his propensity for puns and word plays. Arnie grabbed a second coconut covered cruller and opined that it might be a result of the gambler’s spending so much time doing crossword puzzles while waiting for the next race to be called at the horse tracks. The hardware honcho didn’t think that was it, but more likely it a habit picked up courtesy of Walter’s third wife who was at the time of their marriage the literary editor of Mad Magazine. When Walter came in they asked him about it. Truth be told, he replied, it was simply a genetic thing, an inherited trait. His daddy was an English teacher and he was wry bred.
Saturday, January 21
Brontislav Gomez, the guy with the Salvador Dali mustache, was on the third stool next to Fish Warden Gil Finley. The extremely egotistical bandleader was usually given to more than a little braggadocio, but tonight he was complaining about the local crime wave. As he rudely helped himself to a forkful of the carp cop’s poached perch he vented his wrath over the theft of his trumpet from the club his band played last night. For the time being at least the music man with the I problem wouldn’t be tooting his own horn.
Wednesday, February 9
Arnie always had some new investment scheme percolating through the coffee grounds of his mind. This morning over Wheaties and waffles he was enlightening Walter about his latest interests. The Ignorant Investors Tip Sheet had been touting llamas, alpacas, and emus as the trendy livestock money-makers. Plants that were suggested as income growers included persimmons, paw-paws, and quinces. Walter sucked all of the cherry filling out of his jelly donut before remarking that Arnie was California dreamin’ if he thought he was going to hit it big with the llamas and the paw-paws.
Tuesday, February 14
Oboe player Art Flump came in shivering, stomping, and shaking snow from his clothes, some of the icy white crystals landing on Easton’s spaghetti. Art asked EthelMae for the hottest soup she had, something that would fire up his insides while he tried to thaw his outside. The cook asked if he was serious. When he replied with an emphatic affirmative that nothing she could make could be too hot, the diner diva went to work. To a pot of shrimp gumbo she added several habanera peppers, a couple of Jamaican hots, three or four Thai peppers and a handful of chopped up cayennes, along with other ingredients the watchers didn’t recognize. Arnie remarked to Walter that the music man was going to cook himself from the inside out. Floyd offered to get the fire engine and park it on standby outside. When the soup was almost ready EthelMae handed Flump some paperwork to sign: a liability and indemnity waiver with a self-immolation clause. Art was beginning to have serious doubts about the wisdom of challenging this cook. Walter quipped that Flump might need to cancel his classical music concert tonight, as he would be too hot to Handel.
Saturday, March 12
Digger was in for late night coffee and some blackberry meringue pie. Easton asked how calling hours at had gone this evening at the funeral home. Dearly departed Penelope Pyro-Praline was related to half the town so the line of viewers for the sometimes sweet, occasionally nutty, but frequently hot-tempered nonagenarian’s wake had wound through all the rooms of the funeral parlor and out into the street. The fiery old gal had left detailed instructions for her wake, memorial service, and cremation of her remains. The mortician asked for a second slice of pie and acknowledged that this would be the first Penny he had ever urned.
Saturday, April 2
Walter was buying steak dinners tonight for everyone in the diner. Of course he waited until it was almost closing time and the only patron left was Carlton. The reason for his generous mood was a nice big win in the lottery. Walter always bet the same four numbers, and more than once they had come through for him, the numbers corresponding to the birthdates of his four ex wives. Carlton dumped half a bottle of Worcestershire sauce on his T-bone and made the mistake of asking the gambler about his exes. Between bites of his medium rare ex-cow Walter described the memorable characteristics of each woman. The shortest marriage had been to wife number three, Raemonda. As he hacked off another piece of beef he explained to Carlton that was because whenever he came up with one of his gambling schemes or plots, it was his ex Rae that saw right through him.