The Oregon Diner at 2 A.M.
Last night at 1:45, I rouse myself from the couch, go upstairs, and interrupt my son Sam talking on his cell to tell him that I am heading downtown for a piece of pie. “Cool,” he says. Sam is 21, home from college. It’s not that he thinks it’s actually cool to go off for a piece of pie in the middle of the night, but he doesn’t think it’s any stranger than taking out the trash. My wife, on the other hand — she’s asleep.
Still on the phone, Sam tells me: “Josh’s band just signed a three-year deal with a record label.” Josh is a high-school friend now living in Chicago. The record deal is, of course, actually cool.
I thread down 8th Street, down the straight and narrow of South Philly, to the Oregon Diner. I sit at the counter, order pumpkin pie and a glass of milk, just like Jack Kerouac landing in Denver in On the Road. It’s pretty dead.
There’s a promo for the Prince Andrew nuptials on the tube. The cashier and hostess huddle at the corner of the counter, three stools away.
Cashier: “And then he falls asleep on my bed.” Oh? “There’s a puffy thing on my bed. After the eats, he lays there …” Her dog. She’s a woman of a certain age, with very short blond hair, small eyes, and the accumulation of working nights having landed onto her cheekbones.
“Last night I got home from my uncle’s house,” the cashier goes on to the hostess, “and I had 10 people in my house. Still! I went up to my room — you don’t enter unless the door’s open. That’s my rule. Don’t even knock, unless there’s an emergency. Exit stage left. I’m getting old!”
Hostess: “You’re not old. I’m so tired.”
Cashier: “I’m feeling old. I’m usually perky and ready to go.”
The hostess just bought a car, but had to take it back to the dealer for some work, which cut into her morning sleep.
Cashier: “I have to take mine back too. A 2004. Not a recall, but if something’s wrong with the power steering pump, bring it in, they said — I heard something. But yours is off the lot.”
“I’m just so tired.”
“Why didn’t they give you a loaner? You know they have loaners on the lot.”
Hostess: “I’ve had six hours of sleep since Sunday.”
I met my wife in a 24-hour diner in another city. She was a waitress. That was three decades ago.
Back then, like a lot of people who brag about living alone, I constantly tried to be with people. There was huge comfort in the fact of that diner always being there. I sat at that counter, dumb-founded and drunk, dozens of times on the dark side of 2 a.m., and for an even darker period, I’d go in early in the morning for sunny-side up on my way to a job in the body shop of a car dealership, until, thank God, I got fired and graduated to cab driving. The diner was there, unblinking, with zero reaction to my ups and downs. Constancy. Open, even, on Christmas.
It’s so slow at the Oregon, the cashier and hostess are joined by two waitresses — one short, one tall — at the end of the counter. I open a book, a collection of Esquire pieces from the ’60s.
Short Waitress: “I wonder what the weekend will be like.”
Hostess: “Mummers. The losers serenade the winners.”
Short Waitress: “I didn’t know it was such a big deal. I’ve never been in South Philly on New Year’s.”
Hostess: “Oh my God go to 2nd Street!”
Cashier: “I had no time for myself on the holiday. Usually I make time for myself.”
Hostess: “I just want to sleep two weeks.”
This thought seems to bring them to a lull. Then, suddenly, the short waitress bursts forth:
“He still sucks his thumb — my 16-year-old. He was lying on the couch with the baby … When he was a baby, he was lactose intolerant, when he swallowed food, it hurt his chest. Remember the days when the Gerber bottles had the sharp edge? … I was so tired. I felt like a bad mom. I couldn’t sleep. I finally took him to the hospital for two days, I was a mess, I cried at the drop of a fuckin’ hat, they gave me Xanax.”
Tall Waitress, over her shoulder as she goes off to check on a table: “You were young then, and you had your kids together … ”
I close my book.
Before I flicked off into abject responsibility of having a family, my first nights with the waitress who married me — good lord, it’s so long ago. The first night was in a room the size of a single bed, painted shiny black. A black bedroom had been a gift to myself after coming home one 3 a.m. — drunk, of course — to stumble down to a shed on the old farm property I lived on, in order to find some black “electrical appliance” paint, and have at it.
I gotta tell you, when you struggle to consciousness at noon with shiny black closing in on you, now that is some awakening. And when a girl will actually join you in such a lair …
Homeward, to that same sleeping woman. Paying my bill, I apologize to the cashier for making her get up from her perch at the end of the counter. She peers over half glasses with a baby-blue beaded chain, and says the wall behind the register isn’t insulated, and she’s cold standing here.
Then she smiles and says, “Goodnight.”