|Nighthawks — Edward Hopper|
No Rilke or Rodin here today. Just a bit of autobiography, an outbreak of remembrance triggered a couple of weeks ago when I came across this delightful poem by Elliot Fried at Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac blog (where amongst other treats you can hear Keillor recite it) ...
Daily I Fall In Love With Waitresses
by Elliot Fried
Daily I fall in love with waitresses
with their white bouncing name tags
KATHY MARGIE HONEY SUE
and white rubber shoes.
I love how they bend over tables
Their perky breasts hover above potatoes
like jets coming in to LAX
hang above the suburbs—
shards of broken stars.
I feel their fingers
roughened by cube steaks softened with grease
slide over me.
Their hands and lean long bodies
keep moving so...
fumbling and clattering so harmoniously
that I am left overwhelmed, quivering.
Daily I fall in love with waitresses
with their cream-cheese cool.
They tell secrets in the kitchen
and I want them.
I know them.
They press buttons creases burgers buns—
their legs are menu smooth.
They have boyfriends or husbands or children
They are french dressing worldly—
they know how ice cubes clink.
Their chipped teeth form chipped beef
and muffin syllabics.
Daily I fall in love with waitresses.
They are Thousand Island dreams
but they never stand still long enough
as they serve serve serve.
This piece touched a soft spot in the tummy of my memory, recalling for me the fondness I have long felt for diner restaurants. My first meal in the United States was at just such an establishment and though I had not yet turned five, I remember still …
My parents, brother Phil and I arrived at JFK airport in New York in the summer of 1961, back when it was still known as Idlewild. We had flown in from Caracas, Venezuela, where I was born and spent my toddlerhood, which I now suppose ended on that flight to America. Leaving the only home I had known, my toys, bed and room, saying goodbye to family and friends and adiós to español, were all farewells a bit too outsized for me to comfortably pack and carry. On arriving in New York, there was more wild than idle at the airport; I vaguely recall a sense of feeling lost and adrift in the bustling vastness of the airport, with so many complete strangers hustling by as fast as the words I couldn’t understand. Nothing made any sense… until one of those seeming strangers picked me up and wrapped me in a hug; my Uncle Floyd, a gentle bear with a pencil moustache that stretched out above a rich deep voice as he bellowed “Larry, my boy!”, a call that would forever after in my life announce and rhyme with Thanksgiving and giving thanks, with Christmas trees and Easter eggs and all family holy days.
I suddenly felt less lost and, though perhaps nothing made much sense yet, there was now a possibility that it would, that my parents may actually have been right when they reassured me that I would be happy in America. This possibility began to flesh out soon after leaving the airport when Uncle Floyd wheeled his huge car and my entire family and our belongings into the parking lot of a diner, a real diner, one of those converted railroad dining cars, somewhere in Brooklyn (“God’s country”, as my Brooklyn-born dad must always clarify). Inside the curved silver walls of the strange restaurant, I now imagine that I was christened into my new American life with maple syrup and pancakes. No more arepas for Lorenzo; pancakes for Larry.
I digress … I actually wanted to talk about diners that came later in my life, all-night diners that I frequented for many years over a quarter century ago now, the diners conjured up by the Elliot Fried poem above. But, as my good friend Bonnie observed recently in a comment, sometimes we can only reach out by first reaching within, so while blowing on those memories, the long lost ember memory of Brooklyn baptismal flapjacks flared up, and I offer it here as the first course of this long all-night meal.
Unlike the daily enamoring of Fried’s poem, for me it was nightly that I fell in love with waitresses — the ones at the 24-hour diners I visited several times a week after work during the years I worked nights loading and unloading trucks. Perhaps that first Brooklyn diner planted the seed, but my fondness for diners stems from those years when me and my work buddies would punch out from work at 3 or 4 am and head for the diner nearly every night.
Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and began a chapter of TDU in our own Local 177.
The pay was decent and we fought like hell to keep it that way. The work was physically exhausting, but we were young and grew strong in the punishment; mentally it was stultifying, our dreams were still unquenchable though. We got harassed and treated like trash by the supervisors, but some nights we gave as good as we got. Some nights. And our union was misrun by hacks; quietly we would swallow our pride and loudly we spit fire. Some nights.
Every night we would emerge from the trucks physically spent and covered with dust. Working the graveyard shift and the ever-present cardboard dust turned us all into a monoracial brotherhood of sorts; regardless of whether we were black, brown or beige when we punched into work, by the time we clocked out, we were all just different shades of grey. And ready for coffee and some eats.
There was a poem in here somewhere …. Oh yes, here it is, it begins in the diner washroom where we’d stalk in on arriving to try to remove our grey patinas of dust and sweat…
caked in dried sweat
gotta hit the head
a quick trip to the terlets
we grimly smeared the grey grime
across our faces
our uncooperative hair
scrubbed our hands good
yeah, got them real clean
before we pissed
and then for some eats
chit chatter with the waitresses
who for some reason
my memory has now all named
The menu had French omelets
yeah, we chowed down
a lot of Old World worldliness
right there in Edison, New Jersey
had home fries too
Cheesecake could turn the talk sweet
to what we would do
when we won the big weekly lottery,
that would get Johnny Paycheck
singing on the mini-jukebox at the table
Take this job and shove it
On those other nights when
unbending lottery numbers
only made the coffee extra bitter,
there’d be elaborate plans for
to knock over an Atlantic City casino
Or wolfman Chris might tell us about the poem
he would write one day
“chop down the Cadillac tree”
what does it mean?
I don’t know he would tell us
but it’s a great first line
and we would all agree
a great first line
Or we would retell and celebrate
the night that him and Sam drove
into the City in Sam’s revved up GTO,
common sense damped down
and their courage souped up
on some beers and bourbons,
and drove the wrong way
across the Brooklyn Bridge
all the way to the other side
all the wrong fucking way to fucking Brooklyn
without killing anyone
or landing their fool asses in jail
a great line
With our gutwanderlustfulness sated
or Dillinger derring-do depleted
with our wrong-way one-line poems doing u-turns
it’d be time to split
our Josie sisters of the night
outlandish tips next to
crumpled cigarette packs
and a song still playing
on the tabletop jukebox
Don’t let the sun catch you crying
on the way out
there were arcade machines with some jeopardy
question and answer game
but when we did not want to not be stumped
by who directed Cool Hand Luke
(what we have here is a faaaailyour to communicate)
we would play the great new thing
better than Pong even
or another game where
my electronic blips and bloops
had to break through
the descending brick wall
before your blips and bloops
and they did
our late nights yawned
with such howling triumphs
we were resigned prisoners though
and tunneled our walls
while inviting the blips and bloops
to do on our minds
the same numbing number
the trucks and night
had done on our bodies
and we left dust trails
in the prison yard parking lot
on the way to our cars
on the way home
on the way to sleep
Damn! Is that the sun coming up already?
Tomorrow was already here
and all I wanted to do was
such alarming wisdom
and scrub my face away
on the pillowcase
© Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow
In affectionate memory of Wolfie, with whom so many of those all-night work and diner sessions were shared and who, 30 years ago today, mistook a sunrise for a sunset, the wrong end of a shotgun for a friend and quenched his thirst and his dreams with a cannonball instead of a bourbon. Oh, Chris, what you’ve been missing…
|Brooklyn Bridge, A Tribute in Light|
Well, not sure how I got from Fried's perky potato breasts landing at LAX airport to Chris going the wrong way over the Rubicon in his one-line Cadillac, but strange things can come down when one begins to shake that memory tree...
Ray Charles — Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying ...