(Conversation on a Diner Napkin)
Rain falls to the sidewalk
beside a lonely crowded roadside diner,
where I’m wondering what it was about her
that could have stopped the world for so long.
The exact handwriting, shape of numbers–
lines a paper napkin
with her phone number
in faded gray pencil and that smudge
always a backdrop for conversation.
I remember smiling
and she did the same
even though the music stopped
and the words were erased
by the rain ticking off my umbrella
into the night.
I wrote that poem for a creative writing class. in the fall of 1997. It’s not a particularly great poem, nor is it based on anything that actually happened or anyone I know. I am pretty sure that the inspiration was more along the lines of an imaginary idea, a fictional story where two people enter a diner and one leaves heartbroken, the only thing left to show for it is something scribbled on a napkin–notes, a phone number, maybe something much deeper. It didn’t matter.
But the geographical inspiration was very real. Sitting on Main Street not too far from the intersection with Greene Avenue, the Sayville Modern Diner was just about everything you would expect from a restaurant with the word “diner” in its name–a greasy spoon filled with vinyl-covered booths, the sounds of silverware clanking on thick earthenware dishes, and the smells of a grill that had seen countless omelets and cheeseburgers. It was not haute cuisine by any means and even though the menu was pretty extensive, any time I was in there, I ordered one of two things: some sort of omelet with a toasted bagel, orange juice, and coffee; or a cheeseburger deluxe. Well, that’s not 100% accurate because there were those times when I was feeling extra fancy and got a hot open turkey sandwich, but really it was those two items, which are diner standards.
The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996. Taken from a 1997 calendar. Photo by Pat Link.
While breakfast after midnight is something you can get in quite a number of places outside Long Island (I have a number of memories involving late-night runs to Denny’s outside of Baltimore), I have to say that there are few if any places without the word “diner” in their name that really know what a cheeseburger deluxe is. And yes, there are better hamburgers out there, burgers with higher quality ingredients and all sorts of creative sauces. I love those places, don’t get me wrong, but there is something about the simple perfection of a single patty on a bun served with fries, onion rings, and a pickle (with the option of topping it with lettuce, tomato, and onions). You don’t need anything else.
Of course, the food at a place like the Modern Diner is not the reason you go to a place like the Modern Diner. I’ve noticed that diner culture has been fetishized over the last few years because of the culinary hate crime that is Guy Fieri, but turn away from his shtick and walk into a diner and you find something incredibly genuine that cannot be mass-produced. Oh, it’s been tried–I’m sure there are still a few Silver Diner restaurants left at local shopping malls, but that place felt more like bad theme park kitsch as opposed to an actual diner.
That’s because a real diner feels worn in. It’s the type of place where you can go in, get a booth, and aside from getting food and refills, you can be ignored. You can allow yourself to disappear into that booth as long as possible. The Modern Diner, when I was a kid, had this brown and gold decor that clearly came from the 1970s and at some point in the Eighties, they remodeled with the same dull magenta color you’d find in your average doctor’s office waiting room. I’m trying to remember if they remodeled one more time and for some reason keep picturing a seafoam green motif, but I’m not sure. Decor aside, if I was with my friends, those booths were the entire world for an hour or two.
Sometimes, the conversations were memorable; most of the time they were complete mundane. Looking back, I feel that time spent there was our part of a ritual that had existed since time immemorial. You’d make plans to go out and no matter what you did that night, you’d wind up at the diner. Billy Joel put Brenda and Eddie there. Garry Marshall had The Fonz set up shop in the bathroom. George Lucas had Steve Bolander drown his sorrows in a vinyl-cushioned booth. Barry Levinson wrote an entire movie called Diner that remains one of the all-time great friendship films. Even when I (badly) wrote teenage characters, I’d have them hang out at the greasy spoon, giving them a moment of pause in a hectic plot or providing a place where moments of truth were had. They are moments of importance, or in the case of the poem above, moments that are fleeting. It’s something that is easy to recognize yet tough to capture in exactly the right way.
The Monday before this post went live, the Sayville Modern Diner served its last meal. The owner, a former classmate of mine, apparently decided to sell, leaving the diner to be turned into a sushi/Asian fusion restaurant. While I hadn’t been there in nearly a decade, I can definitely say I will miss it, even though there are other diners in town and other diners on Long Island, meaning that the idea of the diner will continue even though this one has closed its doors.