By Davis McGraw
In addition to unskilled labor, songwriting and looking for pre-1979 Fleetwood Mac records at yard sales, my human experience has been defined, for better or worse, by days and nights spent in cheap diners. This column is about all those times, tracks, faces, plates and places.
While growing up in Vermont, a hallmark of the summertime was the after-dinner walk my family took once or twice a week. We’d leave with the sun still peeking over the treetops, casting long shadows on the warm pavement as we strolled down the hill from our quiet neighborhood cluster into the modest downtown.
More than any other edifice from the mean streets of the early ‘90s, I remember the Windsor Diner’s chrome and red plastic shine, abandoned in the quiet stretch between the Cumby’s parking lot stoners and Pizza Chef’s hazy pool sharks and rat-tailed Ninja Turtle wastoids. As I peeked through the foyer at the wooden booths and the dark, empty glass cases behind the counter, I’d ask my Dad if we could go there when it re-opened. He’d shrug and assure me that we’d go someday, if it ever opened, and continue down the cracked sidewalk, leaving me to fixate on this eccentric, squat building. When, I wondered, would I have my diner? Why was it closed to begin with?
In spite of my longing, the diner remained defiantly closed, and my attentions drifted to other diversions, like trains, soccer and backyard Nerf warfare. Over time, my friends and I grew and changed with our interests. I went to Jon’s house one day and his LEGOs were all boxed up. “Here,” he said, “You can have these. I’m too old for them.”
I couldn’t understand then, but a year or so later my allowance budget had similarly shifted from bright plastic bricks to albums like Rubber Soul, Paranoid and, most memorably, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick; I cut my teeth in pop-geekery with a targeted effort to explain the sheer joy and intensity of forty-five minutes of unrelenting prog-folk to my little circle of mutants. “Man… just listen to it, man!” Just around the time that talking to girls was making me nervous, I noticed something amazing: The diner was open!
My old fascination returned overnight, and within the week, my dad took me to lunch. It turned out that Dan, the guy who’d finally bought the place, was a friend of my dad’s. Between flipping burgers and taking orders, he’d joke with us at the counter, a solid middle-aged man with an easy smile. I was digging on the atmosphere within the first few minutes. The booths were populated with a cross section of archetypes, from clean cut young couples in bright pastels to grizzled old mechanics and their wives with oil stains and kitten sweaters, respectively; all walks of life laughing and gabbing in their seats.
Years adrift brought me back to Windsor last May. Naturally, I’m a regular. Once a week, I sit at the counter and order some eggs and toast. The local oldies station that usually tires me with its never-changing playlist is as much a part of the diner as the lacquered wooden coat racks. My mind adjusts to the tune of CCR, Cher and Norman Greenbaum. For an hour, all is right.
The more I sift through my early memories, the harder it is for me to figure out the roots of my affection for The Diner. Mysterious as it is, this enigmatic fascination has led me, over the years, through countless chrome thresholds to cheap eggs, oldies radio, and lukewarm, unimpressive coffee with a wide range of characters and companions. In vinyl-stuffed booths, I’ve plotted, argued and laughed more times than I could ever count, and usually for less than $10.
Fat Elvis is on the radio again, preaching the gospel of “Burning Love,” while my friends and I lounge in our corner booth, rolling and tumbling through the morning with our own changes and melodies; just like there’s music for breakups, commutes or house parties, there is music for diners. The playlist is heavy on Golden Age Rock and Roll, the Top 40 tunes from the ‘50s and ‘60s that stay with diners like ketchup stays with french fries. But just like the lunch counter is only as unique as its clientele, so goes the soundtrack. Whatever’s spinning in my brain, or blasting from passing cars, or written with a flourish on the back of the check will do just fine.
Images by Taylor K. Long