random

Modern Diner

1:43 a.m.
(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.

And smiling.

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.

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.

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We Wrote the Book on Savings

consumers catalog

The cover of the fall 1991-1992 Consumers catalog. The company stayed in business until the mid-1990s, although my local store was gone by then.

I think that I am at the point in my life where I don’t get upset if I go to the store and something is out of stock.  Oh sure, it’s a minor inconvenience and the solution usually leads to me getting in the car and driving to another, similar store down the road.  But when you are a kid, this is a hard lesson to learn.  You don’t have a car and you don’t know much about the stores in your area beyond what you have seen whenever your parents have taken you, so showing up to TSS only to find out that the action figure you wanted was completely sold out can be absolutely devastating, even if it provides you with much-needed lessons about how you’re not always able to get what you want instantly.  Now, I’m sure that if you ask a number of people in my generation how they learned this lesson, they’ll tell you a variation on the same story–they wanted a toy, they asked mom or dad to take them to the store to get it, it wasn’t there.  Or they may say one word:  “Consumers.”

Consumers was a catalog-based store that was founded in Canada as Consumers Distributing in 1957 and expanded over the course of a couple of decades, adding stores and then buying out other, similar retail outlets, something that helped them to pop up with more frequency during the 1980s.  The idea behind the store was similar to its main competitor, Service Merchandise:  the company published a catalog and then anyone who wanted to buy something from the catalog would head to the local retail outlet–usually at a mall–and pick it up.

That is, if they actually had anything.

The G.I. Joe page of a 1980s Consumers catalog. Photo courtesy of YoJoe.com

The arrival of the Consumers catalog twice a year was an event.  My friends and I would grab it out of the mail and skip right to the toys and games section.  Open before us was a display of everything we ever wanted, from G.I. Joe figures and vehicles to every Nintendo game that we’d ever seen advertised anywhere.  Plus, the prices were much better than what you would get at Toys R Us–not that Toys R Us was overpriced or anything, but any time you can say, “Hey Mom!  The Legend of Zelda is only $45 and not $60!  Can we get it?” you have a better shot at getting what you wanted.

That is, if your parents were completely gullible, which mine were not, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  Unfortunately for those who actually got this ploy to work, going to Consumers was usually a bust because they would head to the store, find the item on display, give the cashier a ticket and most of the time discover that said item was currently out of stock.  According to the Wikipedia page on the store, this led to the company creating what was then an innovative inventory checking system, where they were able to look up the item you wanted on the inventory of every store in the area, which is something that we take for granted in today’s retail world.

But the prevailing perception was that most of the merchandise at Consumers was non-existent and as much as the company tried to change that, I don’t think it really helped.  It also didn’t help that the Consumers store in the Sayville area was in the Sun Vet Mall, a mall that was closer than any of the malls in the area but was clearly third-tier, especially when compared to the South Shore Mall and Smith Haven Mall, which had big-name department stores.  Sure, Sun Vet had The Gap, which was convenient when I was in junior high and high school, but its anchors were a Rickel Home Center and a PathMark, so it didn’t exactly scream “Galleria” if you know what I mean.

The Consumers store was located in the corner of the mall near the Gap and McCrory, both of which have since left, and whereas the other malls always were bustling, Sun Vet always seemed half dead and while the mall’s pizzeria was excellent and Sun Vet Coin and Stamp always was good for a few back issues, you only went there if you absolutely had to or if you were like me and my friend Jeremy, who would ride there on our bikes when we were teenagers simply because we had very little else to do.  Whereas Service Merchandise would be a huge store that was part of a brand new shopping center down the road, Consumers was shoved into that corner and while the first few catalogs would get people there, the store was pretty dead within a year or two, especially as we’d taken to dragging our parents back to Toys R Us or anywhere else where we knew that would have what we wanted in stock.

So in a way, it was a learning experience about being more strategic in begging for toys and other stuff as well as being more patient, and perhaps that is why so many of us are more intelligent these days about where we shop.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 43: Yet Another Rambling January Podcast Episode

Episode 43 webpage coverSo it’s Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanuaaaaaaaaaaaaary. Blah. BUT, thankfully I’m here to bore you all to death … I mean, get you pumped up for another year of pop culture randomness! Join me for 40 minutes of rambling where I talk about Christmas, highlights from last year, and what I’m looking forward to this year.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

 

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 31 — The 1994 Grab Bag!

man reaching into grab bagWhat do Beverly Hills, 90210, the 1994 Baseball Strike, and Zima all have in common?  They’re all covered in the latest episode of Pop Culture Affidavit!  As part of my series of posts and episodes called 1994: The Most Important Year of the Nineties, I take a look at ten completely random things from 1994.  It’s movies, television, music, and current events all in one convenient episode!

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

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