I struggle at diners because I never know where to put the trash I’ve created from mixing my coffee. Sometimes I shove it in-between the porcelain sugar box and the condiment rack. Other times, I tuck it under my plate. Today, I did something different.
Any meal at a diner starts with same question: what would you like to drink? I ask for a cappuccino and get the same, irritated smile.
“Sorry, we only have regular or decaf.”
I like my regular with cream and sugar. The packets sit semi-neatly on the table, usually next to a bowl-full of half-and-half cups. I don’t order tea at diners, at least American diners, because half-and-half tastes disgusting with black tea. Resolved on a cup of regular Joe, I line up three packets of brown sugar (white is last resort), tearing the paper across and sliding the crystal granules into the thick filtered water. I do a couple sweeps of the bustling room to see if anyone’s noticed my excessive sugar habit.
Absolutely no one. (Except maybe for the old man sitting in the far corner straining to read the cover of my Harper’s magazine.)
I unwrap the silverware, placing the paper band on top of the paper packets and the creamer cups. I marvel at my newly-created trash pile, stirring up a creamy beige liquid to boot. Will it be the sugar box this time? Or should I hide it under my saucer, Mr. Bean style? Today I try something new: I place the pile at the edge of my table in hopes that the busboy will take it away.
It’s no coincidence that the American diner looks like the inside of a mobile home. The precursor to the diner (and later, the millennial’s “food truck”) first appeared in 1872 when a paper peddler named Walter Scott decided to ditch his day job and open up a mobile food cart for late-night workers during the Industrial Revolution. Everything he sold was homemade and he carted from job site to job site with a horse. Scott’s “lunch wagon” later evolved into the pre-manufactured diner. Jerry O’Mahony (1890-1969), who hailed from Bayonne, New Jersey, is credited by some to have made the first such “diner.” O’Mahony began making diners in his backyard garage in 1913 and his products were famous for their craftsmanship and durability. The O’Mahony Diner Company of Elizabeth, New Jersey, produced 2,000 diners from 1917 to 1952.
Diners enjoyed wide popularity when America built out highways in the 1950s. Suburbs boomed, too. The American diner appeared everywhere in film and art, such as Norman Rockwell’s The Runaway and in movies like Grease. And then came McDonald’s, Burger King, and other fast food giants who made meals cheaper and faster. They also stayed open 24-7 like their lunch wagon counterparts.
Diners eventually faded from the mainstream, replaced by hybrid restaurants such as I-Hop, Denny’s, and Waffle House. A lot of these restaurants maintain the nostalgic look and feel of the American diner. But these days, you’d be lucky to experience the real diner culture as diners have become a dying breed. In Denver, we’ve got a handful of good ones still: Pete’s Kitchen, Denver Diner, and Tom’s Diner. (Tom’s was nearly demolished last year before it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.) I stumbled across Cafe Zorba’s this morning, a block over from my apartment.
The busboy does indeed take my trash pile, returning with a pot of coffee. “Refill?” he asks, topping off my drink before I can answer. I feel like Renée from Coffee and Cigarettes.
Now I’ll have to create another trash pile so I can get my sugar and cream just right again.