This is no gauzy, sentimental reminiscence of an old familiar haunt from my salad days penned for the holidays in an effort to inspire warm and fuzzy feelings. No. This is a song of praise, relief, love, and lament for my brothers and sisters who’ll clink glasses across a table in a diner somewhere whose thoughts and memories may have to suffice tonight as their family.
Tonight I’ll be humbled, dazzled, and more grateful than I can say, to sit at the head of a table with my beloved wife and fifteen other adults, dear ones all, and eight of their (and our) children in a beautiful home in a safe Upstate New York village, together celebrating Thanksgiving.
I never expected to survive my forties, and nearly didn’t. My story’s not unique, and its details are not worthy of the staccato delivery of war reportage. Time has made more legato my memories of the many, many hours I spent in the Metro Diner at 100th and Broadway, arguing politics, wooing dates, composing, devouring the New York Times, and nursing hangovers. Hell, I ate there before it was called the Metro, back when the Metro Theater still showed second-run films and before, during its death throes, it showed porn. After my divorce, I ate there daily for nearly two years.
Up until the spring morning in 1997 when my soon-to-be-ex-wife sandwiched herself heavily into the booth across from me and I saw her for the last time, the Metro Diner had been one of my favorite Upper West Side haunts.
I spread the settlement agreement on the table in front of her like the plans to a house. “Let’s get on with it,” I said.
“No. I want to order something first,” she said, a cool Pan Am smile flickering across her lips. She glanced up to gauge its effect. I looked away. She gathered up the papers with elaborate care, piled them neatly to one side, picked up a menu, and deliberated.
I stared at the ice in my plastic water glass. The waiter brought her a cup of coffee. She ordered, leaned back in her seat, and stretched. “How ‘ya been?” she drawled.
I looked out the window. A pale, slender woman in a red dress only partly concealed beneath a royal blue pea coat sped northwards up Broadway with her head down, shielding her eyes from the intense morning sun. She reminded me of my violist girlfriend from Marseilles, dashing once through a drizzle to meet me near the Campanile in Venice.
I looked back at her and thought about the violent North African with whom she said she had taken up in Venice. After I had paid to fly her home from Italy, he had continued to call her: “Vaffanculo strozzo!” I’d snarl into the telephone when he called.
I stopped loving her the day I learned of her first affair. One day I returned from teaching at Bard and picked up a letter waiting for her on the landing in front of our apartment that candidly discussed her infidelity.
“How have I been?” I repeated the question vaguely, scratching at my arm. I examined the half dozen scabs on each of my hands. As a child, I had compulsively picked scabs when under stress. My arms and legs were covered with wounds. Sighing, the dermatologist had informed me, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for you. It appears to be psychosomatic: you are simply uncomfortable in your own skin.”
My eggs came. Sunny side up. They were runny, viscous, like snot. Next to the eggs was a pile of hash. I smothered it in catsup. A slice of blood orange serving as garnish was twisted like a set of filthy dentures. I fought back a wave of nausea. We both ate mechanically. What a mess. “I don’t know,” I said, looking at her squarely.
“So,” she smiled thinly, “are you still a drunk?” “I drink a lot,” I answered. “But I am not a drunk.” “Oh, that doesn’t matter,” she said. I looked at her. “Because I’ll tell the judge that you are.” “Ah,” I said, without inflection. I looked at the back of my hand. The largest scab there looked exactly like a fleck of the hash on my plate. I pulled it away from the skin and tucked it between the folds of my napkin. She got down to business: “I want you to know that I know that you got to be a better and better husband and I got to be a worse and worse wife.”
Surprised, I looked up at her. She smiled brightly, and crammed a slab of pancake in her mouth. I looked away again. Why had I made her end it? Why did I need to prove to myself that I had tried everything, everything possible to make it work? Why had it been more important to me to be right than it had been to be happy? She pushed her plate to the side, smacked her lips, and reached for the settlement papers. I—reflexively still paying for things—signaled for the check.
“You know,” I said, “that you haven’t any moral or ethical right to a dime.”
There was a sudden clatter of dishes in the kitchen and a sharp hiss as something hit the hot griddle. She slowly picked up the pen, lit up a malevolent, self-satisfied smile, and said, “I am legally entitled to it. I can get it. And I want it.” As she signed the paper and I countersigned it, I felt nothing.
Twenty years later, I will put my hands together at dinner, say a prayer, and offer this song of praise to the bright-faced young Juilliard student sliding into a booth at the Metro, his violin case in the seat across from him, his expressive hand signaling the waiter for a cup of coffee, far from home, Beethoven and the Russian girl back there on his mind.
I’ll offer this song of relief to the out of work actor whose family back in Iowa sent him a check for the holidays that he’s just cashed at an exorbitant fee a few doors away because he hasn’t eaten in three days sitting at the bar, a dogged paperback copy of Ibsen’s plays in his lap, his lips silently mouthing lines from a scene he's learning for an audition tomorrow.
I’ll offer this song of love for the elderly couple in the back booth holding hands I’ve known for forty years who don’t even need to make eye contact with the staff anymore: they’re simply taken care of, and rarely pay for their meal.
I’ll offer this song of lament for the homeless people who stop at the front door and are wordlessly given a free cup of hot coffee to warm them as they continue their long walk up and down Broadway.
I'll offer it because these people were for years my family, and because the song was always about the people, not the place, and it still is.
Read a wonderful piece by George Blechner in the New York Times about Manhattan's waning diner culture here.
Read an article about "Little Pete's," a diner in Philadelphia similarly beloved, by clicking here.