My diner doesn't have old-school credentials like the original Pantry or Du-par's, and it's not as trendy as Fred 62 or Swingers. There are no jokes on the menu, no retro signs on the walls, no mustachioed waiters and no waitresses with gravelly voices who call me "hon." The walls are painted yellow and orange and a hospital grayish-blue, and the music--heavy on British invasion bands such as the Kinks and the Faces--is familiar without being obvious. There are tables on the sidewalk, and on days when I don't find the rumble of traffic on Sunset offensive, my husband and I sit out there and watch the local characters: the overweight man with a Santa Claus beard and granny glasses who gruffly asks every person he encounters, "Would you like to buy my poetry?"; the compulsive speed walker who roams the neighborhood in short shorts and no shirt while reading the newspaper; the theatrically costumed Latino who carries a boom box and dances ecstatically to salsa music whenever he presses PLAY. I'm not from here and I haven't been here long, but when I'm at my diner, sitting in front of a plate of eggs over medium with hash browns and no toast, sipping coffee that is not especially good, I can't imagine anywhere else feeling more like home.
The staff at my diner is friendly, but not too friendly, which is just the way I like it. Our usual waiter has longish hair that is sometimes red and sometimes black and often tied up in unusual ways. He's brisk and efficient and constantly moving. My husband discovered that his name is Jason because it is printed on the check he silently delivers when we are three-quarters done with our meal. I discovered that he's a vegetarian by eavesdropping when a customer asked him if the turkey burger was any good. I imagine he must recognize us, but he's never said more than "Hey, guys" before taking our order.
One time I saw Jason at the laundromat across the street with the cute cashier who always wears her hair parted down the center in two pigtails, two braids or two buns. Her name is Mona. It made me feel shy; I assume Jason respects the privacy of his customers because he likes privacy himself. I had never imagined his life outside of the diner except to wonder whether he plays in a band. (He does.) A few months later they had a baby and Mona stopped working at my diner. Now she works part-time at the music conservatory down the street, where they let her bring the baby. Sometimes she wheels him over to visit Jason, and all the staff gathers around and coos.
There is a girl named Sarah who is at my diner all the time. She owns the trendy but not too pricey boutique next door. If I'm there in the morning before 10, she usually wanders in in pajamas with messy hair and no makeup and helps herself to coffee. If it's later in the day, maybe 12:30 or 1, she is more put together. She has a dachshund named Bingo that wanders among the tables outside looking for food. The regulars call him by name, pat his head and feed him scraps, making a show that they, like the dog, belong here.
I recently spoke with Sarah for the first time, and even though I already knew things about her--that she owns the dog and the store and used to date a friend of some friends--I learned that she used to work at my diner, lives in the apartment upstairs, and that whenever somebody new starts to work there he or she needs to be told that Sarah is entitled to as much free coffee as she wants.
My diner is not the kind of place where things never change. There's been a lot of staff turnover in the 2 1/2 years since I claimed it. Back when I was unaware that eggs over medium were an option (the eggs over easy were always too runny), there used to be a waitress with short dark hair, smooth skin and a preference for large dangly earrings. Not long after I got married I noticed that she had started to wear an engagement ring, and then I started to keep an eye out for a wedding band. Before it appeared she moved away to Portland, and even though I never talked to her, I miss her.
When Mona left about two years ago, she was replaced by a guy named Travis. He is more talkative than the rest of the staff. Soon after he arrived he complimented me on my shirt. Travis is from New Mexico and is trying to be an actor and is sincere and warm and lovable. He wears thrift-store plaid pants almost all the time, has bangs that sweep over one side of his face, and his favorite actress is Shannyn Sossamon. I know that last detail because she came into my diner once and, hyper, almost panicked, he told her so.
The people who eat at my diner are a mix of middle-aged gay men in superhero shape, skinny tattooed couples, women in 4-inch heels on Sunday afternoon, guys in amber-tinted aviator sunglasses, contractors who have lunch when I'm having breakfast, heavyset families, the occasional old person and sometimes even people in suits (who are they, and what are they doing in this neighborhood?). Some of my friends call it "hipster diner," but I think they're wrong. The real hipster diner, where I can never tell if the waiters are hitting on me or not, is one block east. There's a punk rock diner even farther east, closer to where I live, but I've never eaten breakfast there. I mainly stick to the desserts.
I usually go to my diner on weekday mornings, after my first round of e-mails and phone calls, when the place is only half full. On Saturday and Sunday the wait for a table can be up to half an hour, but they put two long benches out on the sidewalk so customers don't have to stand. I try to avoid going there on the weekend, but not too long ago I went on a Sunday around noon and found a seat at the counter. I took out my pad and a pen, but before I wrote anything a guy with a shaved head, flip-flops and a copy of Julio Cortazar's "Blow-Up" sat down next to me and said, "What's that, your to-do list?" I told him I was taking notes for a story titled "My Diner." "It's not your diner," he said. "It's my diner."
Actually, my diner belongs to a lot of people. During the spring and summer it was periodically closed and transformed into a fictional diner called the Watering Hole for a short-lived UPN drama called "Sex, Love & Secrets." When the show got picked up, a replica of my diner was built on a lot in Van Nuys. "It's amazing, it looks just like the real thing," gushed the publicist when I spoke with her. "It has the same mural and everything." She was very nice, but she had no idea what she was talking about. My diner has no mural. That was something the crew put up to temporarily cover a mirror that runs the length of one wall.
I met with the creators of "Sex, Love & Secrets," Michael Gans and Richard Register, and as I suspected, my diner is their diner too. They conceived and wrote the show there. They even used Travis as inspiration for one of the main characters and cast him as a waiter. I talked with them for an hour in the fake diner. It had the same corkboard on the wall for fliers, the same sturdy wooden chairs, the same tables set with the same metal containers filled with knives, spoons, forks and napkins, the same globe lights hanging from the ceiling, even the same dish of mints by the register. They told me the set designer measured every inch of the original.
Unfortunately, my diner closes at 3 p.m., so I've had to look elsewhere for post-drinking meals of grilled cheese sandwiches and fries, or late-night BLT-with-avocado dinners after coming in on the JFK-to-Burbank flight. I've been to my diner in the evening just once, at the end of September, when I attended a wedding there. The couple--Steve, a middle-school English teacher, and Louise, who works in advertising--were both regulars at my diner before they knew each other, and met there after exchanging glances over a series of weekend breakfasts. "It was one of those high school things," says Steve. "It went on for at least a month. One time I was at a two-top and she and her friends were seated right next to me. I almost had a heart attack."
Eventually Louise asked Mona to get Steve's number for her. The couple asked Travis to conduct the ceremony, and he became a minister in the Universal Life Church for the occasion. Everyone was there--Mona, Jason and the baby (although they showed up a little late), Sarah and Bingo, about 25 of Steve and Louise's friends, and Herbert, the sweet busboy who wore a tie but helped bus the wedding anyway. "This is a very special occasion for Bingo," Sarah said before the ceremony. "He never gets to come into the restaurant." The bride was dressed in sensible black and the groom wore a white dress shirt, red tie and black kilt (Steve always wears kilts). On the floor were three plastic coolers: one filled with soda, one with bottled water, the third with Corona.
During the ceremony the couple stood in front of the register and Travis took his usual place behind the counter. From a leather binder he read a service that he had cobbled together from researching weddings on the Internet. It wasn't fancy or saccharine or ironic or jokey. It was simple, straightforward and beautiful.