The Writer Within
American Diner: A Vanishing Icon
American Diner: A Vanishing Icon
Today American icons come and go in a flash of an eye as time progresses. Service stations turned from gas pumps and oil racks with a sharply dressed service attendant washing your windows to self-served gas and fast serve food mega marts surly to give you an upset stomach. One such icon that has stood the test of time by relocating and redesign is the American Diner. Yes, they may move or change a name or find a new owner but many still hold on to offer a multi-page menu to fit your most delightful taste buds. Many have been saved from the scrap heap due to those that had at one time felt the thrill of visiting a diner and have been mesmerized with its glimmering chrome and Formica covered tables.
The diner has always been an enchanted landmark, graced with its style and demeanor. From the early horse-drawn carts to the bright reflective stainless steel monsters grabbing the rising sun as potential consumers pass them by. It grabs you from the moment you lay eyes on it with its brightly brushed metal finish and large windows revealing its hometown charm bustling about inside as the morning "Joe" is swallowed and eggs are served with a warm smile from a waitress that always greets you as her best friend. During the evening, an aurora of light graces the sky with its neon script and luminous lines outlining every slight detail and shape.
Diners have welcomed us with their long counter-tops separating two distinct worlds. One side was were the patrons of every type sit on revolving upholstered seats as they lined up looking to fill their bellies or just get a wake-up call from that bottomless cup of coffee. Who could not remember as a child, as you yearned to spin around on the chromed throne while parents begged the child to stop because they knew the child would soon try to examine the collection of gum under the counter. The children just imagined it was their very own little merry-go-round, but what were those assorted lumps of stuff. The other a row of partition booths with a table and a small music machine that presents rows of songs just waiting to be heard while a veteran apron-clad waitress barks a language all her own but always seems to remember each conversation at the tables she serves.
On cold blustery day lines of coats could be seen hanging from the hooks of poles that jutted upright from each seat. Here stories of the day flowed constantly and warm greetings welcomed every customer. Sometimes it was the caring ear of the waitress as she listened to your story before she made her way to her next customer and another story to be heard. Oh yes, the stories the diner could only tell, as they will take them to the grave when its use is no longer needed. I can only wish to remember them, as that alone would be the book to write. Many times, it felt like you were in a bustling train station where sounds filled the air as people talked and dishes clanged and the occasional clang of the cook's turner tapped against the hot steel griddle.
Yes, the pinnacle of the operation were the cooks that paced back and forth like a sentry guarding their post awaiting the ticket so he could start an order. Fast food would never offer you to hear the sound of a sizzling burger on the grill or the sound of a cup being placed on a saucer as your waitress fills it to the brim. The short-order cook would wrap the spatula against the steel griddle as your food was prepared unless of course, you were getting one of the "blue plate specials" which would come from the back kitchen with all the fixings. The sound of the old pastel green Hamilton Beach mixer with its four heads, one of which was mixing a tasty ice cream treat. My favorite was always the cake stands that rose high on their bright chrome pedestals as its clear glass dome seem to magnify the interior allowing me to see the sweet turnovers, pastries, and other treats such as muffins or even a cake with a slice removed to reveal its tempting filling.
Today diners have been replaced with speaker box that you cannot understand a word or a cashier with a fake smile as we are passed a bag of processed food ordered from a menu board with food that never resembles what we get in the bag through a tiny glass window by employees all dressed alike whom we never really get to know as individuals. We get hustled through the line at breathtaking speed with little care of who we are, or what we care about just as long as they can make their monthly quotas and they meet their service time clock. Our complaints end in a sarcastic smile hurrying us to move on with a free voucher for more of their tasteless food. Most of the time it is when you are miles down the road that you realize that only half of what you ordered is in the bag. They need three windows in these boxes-one to order, one to accept it and the third to make it right.
The culture of the diner has affected us in many ways. Not only has it provided us with a culture of our very own but it also presented a venue that welcomed many different cultures to sit arm and arm. Everyone was equal and received the same service. At most times these cultures were soon shared as discussions took place over a burger deluxe or one of my favorites, French fries with gravy.
History shows that if not for the diner the existence of fast food joints may have never existed. Every day these catatonic establishments grace our cities as the diner slowly disappears. If not for those seeking to preserve an icon of a by-gone era, they would truly be lost forever. With it we lose the memories of the personal experience we once so cherished. Whenever I could take my children to a diner they were so intrigued and always look forward to a return visit. For those that have never experienced it, I urge you to seek a diner out and try it one time as you will want to return sooner than you think. I hope that as you read about history and visit many of these classic icons it piques your interest to what once was and hopefully keep it around for our children's children to experience at some point in their life. A touch of history, a personal reflection, and even some photos I can only hope that when you walk through the doors you feel that feeling you are part of a new family. Maybe it will even inspire to preserve and always keep the legacy of the diner in our hearts and minds.