David Lynch once said, “A poet could write volumes about diners, because they’re so beautiful.”
Lynch writes in diners, which might account for why they show up in his work so much. Most famously the Double R in Twin Peaks. A central point of action like a saloon in a Western, in movies the diner’s where people run into each other, where secrets are exchanged. The long scene in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction’s famous dance sequence in the retro diner are great examples. As is the orgasm challenge in When Harry Met Sally. Seinfeld’s coffee shop is the center of their world. The list goes on.
If a fine restaurant is heaven and a dive bar is hell, then a diner is purgatory. And I like it that way. From the thief to the cop to the rich man who was robbed, they all eat at the same counter. Diners are an American invention. They were originally dining cars from trains taken off the tracks and remade as restaurants. They popped up all over the country in the 20th century. Now the diner template is everywhere. Denny’s, IHOP, and Johnny Rockets. Guy Fieri, who will not stop until he ruins everything, has a show about diners. But I forgive him and his frosted tips and horrible goatee. Diners are for everyone.
In the South, we have Waffle House.
I would skip class in high school and go to Waffle House and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee and read books. I got laid in the parking lot of a Waffle House a few times. And once a girl broke up with me in a corner booth at 2 am. It was a long distance tryst. I said, “But I drove hours to get here and now you’re ending it?” She looked at me crying and said, “What do you want from me? Gas money?” Then she left. I stayed there until sun up pouring my heart out to a toothless waitress.
But my favorite diners are in New York and LA. Rae’s in Santa Monica has been around since the 50s. And the great Apple Pan, which judged on food and atmosphere is probably the best in America. In New York the diners are plenty. Little beacons in the night. The Hudson Diner, where many Louie episodes take place. Odessa in Alphabet City. The Remedy on Houston and The Waverly in the West Village. Little Poland and Veselka’s, both on 2nd Ave.
But my spot is a few blocks away from my apartment. A short walk through the park past a church where there’s always AA meetings in the basement. I was there last night and a man with a familiar voice was talking. I realized he was an actor. A character actor. You’d know him if you saw him. He and his friend were talking about which diner in the neighborhood was best. They decided the one they were sitting in won the prize.
Then the conversation shifted to football. How the Patriots let the air out of the ball to gain an advantage.
“He’s a liar,” the actor said talking about the coach. “I was never a liar.”
“I try and stay on the right side of things,” said the actor’s friend.
Then they whispered. I could only catch, “She tells me what she wants me to know. It’s best that way.”
Beyoncé was playing over the radio. Something about heroes.
“Didn’t this place used to do discos,” the actor asked his waiter.
“Not anymore,” the waiter said. “Not anymore.”
The other iconic diner is of course Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks. A few years ago people tried to figure out where the real diner in the painting is. Though it did have a real life model, Hopper refused to say which one. “It could be anywhere in America,” he said. And that’s the point.
I’m writing this in a diner right now in fact. There’s a few lonely people and a young couple sitting on the same side of the booth. My waitress just came by and asked, “How is everything?”
I channeled my best Dale Cooper.
“This is a damn fine cup of coffee,” I said.