Round orange padded vinyl bottlecap swivel-seats, the vinyl worn and sometimes torn, on metal pistons line the soda fountain. An old woman, 5′ tall in a black sweater-shawl and zebra pedal pushers (that show leg to mid-shin) sits at the end nearest the gap between the counter and the grill area. She wears old black leather walking shoes with thick gray socks pushed down and folded over, squeezing her pink swollen ankles an inch above the line made in her splotchy legs when the socks were an inch higher. She rests her toes on the little aluminum-edged wooden runner curling, her arms crossed on the linoleum countertop, around the counter like a question mark. Her straight white hair is cut short and it looks uneven, a little matted; she’s organized it with little metal barrettes that shove it off at odd angles all around her head, reminding one a little like rough whitewater. Her face is small, wizened, graying, with a long nose and small brown eyes set off to the sides. She looks very old and, with her worn-out clothes and slightly greasy hair, a little disheveled.
The old woman talks to the men working in the diner, men of about 50, a little paunchy, with big noses and heavy, forward-set jaws that make you think “maybe Slavic; maybe Italian; maybe neither”. One wears a sweatshirt of a local pro team and faded blue jeans; the cook–who is generally mostly obscured behind the half-wall separating the kitchen from the counter–has on a boxy white button-up short-order cook shirt. There’s a youngish (30s?) man waiting tables who, since it is not at all busy (maybe 8 customers in this large, sprawling diner), also spends a lot of time milling around the counter area.
That waiter is dressed very casual. Jeans and a faux-jersey made of a light sweat material. A Mets baseball cap, worn flat-brimmed. Tattoos all over his arms; also showing on his neck, rising up from his chest. Short hair. Olive-skinned, broke-backed nose; wide in the face in mouth; “Mexican” you think, remembering some college kid you knew for a minute over a decade ago, a fellow student, originally from Guadalajara. The waiter speaks softly; if he has any accent it is light Brooklyn; he kids around with the five year old eating the plate of tiny pancakes drizzled with syrup. At some point, as the pale young brunette boy and his pale young blond mother are about to leave, you catch this fragment of the conversation: the waiter, smiling with a distance in his eyes and a tug at the corners of his mouth (he’s been facing their table, in front of yours; leaning a little back, and right now turning in towards you and a bit down), says brightly, jocularly (with arms up and at chest level, making a relaxed goalpost): “but the intention was there!”
Leaning back, putting the weight on the back leg while tossing light-hearted words and twisting to playful ducks. That sense of a lean-back, relaxed, joking sparring match–you realize you think of that as a Mexican/maybe-Hispanic-in-general male conversation style, some cultural tendency that you think you’ve noticed before. Or maybe you’re making it up.
The diner is full of paintings that reference the diner, pictures of notable moments in its long history, and articles about it. You crane to see (through the rectangular metal staves–there’s a railing between the path along the counter and your seating area) what looks to be the cover of a foreign language magazine that 50 years ago featured the diner–way back when it’s founder still lived, still smiled bald and moon-faced, arms across his chest, wearing that signature soda jerk button-up short-sleeve with a flopsy bow tie. You try to read the words, battling against the staves and the glare of white light on the picture-frame glass.
“Are you trying to talk to me?” Says the old lady, swiveling a little ways to meet your gaze.
“No, I was just trying to read that poster.”
But then she smiles in that leaning-forward, ET manner that little old ladies are famous for, “60 years.”
“What?” you say.
“I lived here 60 years.”
There’s a whirring sound (a blender?) a little ways down the countertop, making it hard to hear.
“Oh. … That’s a long time.”
“Yes!”, with a little nod, her chin sharp, brown age spots giving her face a touch of reptilian. “Do you live around here?”
You tell her the street you live on.
There’s quite a bit of “what?” said as you try to hear her over the blender; you learn that she lived a few blocks away for 60 years but now lives above the diner: “I live up there” pointing at the high embossed-tin ceiling, “upstairs.”
After a bit she says, “My son ” and you can’t make out the rest.
You say, “What?”
“My son used to work here.”
“But he died.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“Yes,” with a little nod, a slight frown, pausing, swiveling slowly back to the counter area.
You feel in the wrong; that wasn’t the way to put it; you were impatient or something; somehow off; it wasn’t the thing to do.
A little later a young man–early 20s maybe–, olive of complexion, hair that reminds you of a samurai warrior, in gray sweats that ride a little low, showing a poof of sky blue boxers, sits on the stool next to the old lady. He tickles her a little, gently, on the arm just below the shoulder, while he–long-armed–leans back playfully the other direction. The tickling which makes her cuddle into herself like a small child–but just a tad. Later you look back and he has his hand in hers, opening her small gnarled hand up from the inside; this too he does playfully, tenderly; she seems to notice it only absentmindedly–perhaps she looks a tiny bit embarrassed as she looks down at the diner countertop.
BW / AMW
Accuracy level? Somewhat: remembered afterward and allowed the flow of ideas to fill-in spotty memory, looking to get the gist.