After dropping a friend at the airport at 5:30 a.m., I suddenly realized I was craving pancakes. There is one good thing about capitalism – if enough people crave something, that something will find them and offer itself for a reasonable cost.
In my case, it was Denny’s, a 24-hour restaurant with a somewhat ambiguous reputation (the chain was sued for racism) sitting right by an Interstate highway. I rolled into the parking lot, parked my car and noticed a black guy with dreadlocks sleeping peacefully in his sporty, red car.
Walking into the restaurant, I received a greeting and a smile from the hostess, a young woman in her early 30s, with a pleasant figure and a pretty face that clearly indicated she had been beaten by life but not beaten down. There was an untamed spark in her eyes; her body language indicated stubborn dignity and independence.
I thought with admiration, ‘That’s what Jack Kerouac and the Beats were all about.’
The hostess led me to a table.
“Sit down, be comfortable – Miss Sarah will take care of you.” Her voice was hoarse and warm. She handed me a menu. I immediately immersed myself in viewing the color photographs of pancakes, scrambled eggs and crusty strips of greasy fried bacon. I wanted it all.
Soon I heard some shuffling near the table.
“Good morning sir, would you like some coffee?” an unsteady, raspy voice inquired. It was Miss Sarah and she was probably in her mid-70s.
I ordered, and within a few minutes saw Miss Sarah slowly advancing in my direction with a full load of food on a tray. I looked at the gifts she spread on the table in front of me: two handsome, puffy pancakes, a golden pile of scrambled eggs and a dark, chewy disk of sausage. I callously did not think of the poor chickens stuffed with antibiotics and hormones that were deprived perpetually of the joy of motherhood; I was not troubled by the horrible fate of whatever was slaughtered and made into sausage to serve my yearning.
My future for the next ten minutes looked bright. I generously buttered the pancakes, smeared them with plenty of maple syrup, and plunged into the unhealthy yet savory morning offerings. I was almost through with my meal in five minutes, when Miss Sarah came back carrying a little plate with an overlooked bonus: two contorted fat-dripping strips of fried bacon.
“Sorry, it was not ready when I brought you your food,” she said.
”It’s alright. I will have it for dessert,” I comforted her.
I sipped my coffee, ate the crunchy bacon and looked around. Framed Denny’s advertisements from the ‘60s decorated the restaurant walls painted with an unidentifiable color.
At the table by the window, two young lovers were talking quietly over their coffee. He was stocky and had a shaved head and strong, deep-cut features. His girl was a pretty, little brunette with dark eyes. She held the cup in her palms and looked at him with a sweet smile.
The man with dreadlocks, whom I saw sleeping in the car, was now sitting in the chair near the kitchen chatting peacefully with two waitresses who were sorting silverware.
The manager, a bold middle-aged man in jogging pants and a windbreaker, stood leaning against the stand with the cash register, calmly observing activities in his establishment.
In the corner, four young, loud working men were finishing huge breakfasts. Their table was cluttered with dirty plates and cups. Miss Sarah brought them a bill. They left some money on the table, stood up and headed out. One of them lingered for a minute finishing something that looked like a monstrous plastic cup of milkshake.
I finished my pre-dawn feast and left Miss Sarah a good tip. The manager at the cash register took my money and wished me a good day.
Soon I was on my way home, thinking back of my first experience at a Denny’s a long time ago. I had stopped there with a good friend around 2 a.m. to quench the munchies. We joined the regular after-midnight crowd – truck drivers, cross-dressers, prostitutes, traveling salesmen, alcoholics, junkies, destitute poets – we all shared that well-lit place, not perfectly clean, but safe and friendly enough, a franchised ark sailing stubbornly in a raging sea of darkness under severe, cold stars.
Now, some years later, I am driving home from the same place. Familiar streets of my cozy town are getting busy with morning traffic. A crimson ball of sun slowly rises in the east, as the leftovers of the night melt away above the airport runways marked by glimmering bluefish light. An approaching plane roars in the sky. The American breakfast still warms my blood ...
American solitude does not always feel like the bleak, sterile blankness enveloping the ghostly geometry of Edward Hopper’s diner painting “Nighthawks.” It does not always taste like the fading blue china sky of a dying medical student from William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” It can simply smell of cheap coffee, burnt grease, fried eggs, and iron skillets hung in row on a shabby wall. It can also have signs of insect activity.
A bulky jukebox looms in the corner. There are a few booths with plastic benches and tables. I see two regulars sitting on stools by the counter reading newspapers, doing crosswords, or chatting with the young female cook – a blonde with a hoarse voice and a friendly smile. A young waiter, a gaunt, tall country boy, is sitting nearby with a full plate of food. They all appear comfortable, exchanging smiles and mysterious short remarks.
The regulars notice us after we settle at a table – a quick glance, friendly and unobtrusive. One of them, a big and slightly chubby middle-aged man with a great mane of healthy hair soon walks leisurely behind the counter and pours himself some coffee. Another man, a bit older and fragile, shows the cook something in his paper. They both laugh.
“I see them every single time I stop here,” grins my musician friend, who brought me here after we finished our gig in a pizza place nearby.
The waiter stops eating and comes to take our orders. In a minute, the cook pulls two iron skillets from the wall and throws something in. We hear the sizzling. It is action time at Barbara Lee’s!
We have our food in five minutes. “Once I had to spend four days here during the blizzard in the ‘80s,” my friend chuckles, starting vigorously on his pork chops and scrambled eggs. “The snow came very fast and my car was frozen solid in the slush,” he elaborates.
“So, what did you do all that time?” I ask.
“Ate plenty of pancakes and listened to the jukebox.” My friend smiles nostalgically, “There were eight customers and a cook. We slept on the floor.” He points to the narrow space between the tables and the counter. I nod, amused, and chew on my vague chicken breast sandwich and greasy fries.
We finish our coffee and conversation and form a little line by the cash register. “How was your Thanksgiving?” the cook asks, getting me change. “It was alright,” I answer. She gives me a sweet smile, “I had plenty of good food – a turkey breast, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie – all the fixings.”
We say goodbye to everyone and walk outside to our cars. I look back at the small, squat building with a red sign reading “Barbara Lee’s Kitchen.” Through the golden lit up windows, I see the people inside going along with their routine – the waiter returning to his plate at the counter, the regulars chatting with the cheerful cook.
It feels safe – camping on this cozy, warm island in the midst of the raging night silence – as good a place as any you can find in the heart of the night.