Sunday, March 25, 2012

In Search of America-Chick’s Diner

If you are an entertainer- whether full-time or not, the chances are that you have been ‘on the road’ at some point in your career. And, if you’re like most of us, you have a love/hate relationship with the endless white line that pulls you along to the next new place like the call of the Sirens in The Odyssey. You hate the packing and unpacking and the thought of another six hour drive. There’s the unforeseen weather that awaits you three hours into the drive, the bald tire that you hope will hold out until pay night, and the eternal hope that the club in this new town will be better than the way your friends described it when they played it.

You are well acquainted with the complexities of eating a complete meal off the passenger seat of your car as you barrel down some interstate highway to make the gig on time, and you know well the sense of relief in arriving at the hotel in one piece with no car breakdowns. You know the joys of having a killer Saturday night show in a strange new town, and for a brief time, what it must feel like to be a star. But you also know the sadness of occasionally catching a glimpse of your aging self in the mirror that comes from the years you’ve spent chasing your dream. For a brief moment, a knot of fear grips you inside because you know that time is the worst enemy an entertainer can ever have.

But the road isn’t all bad. For all the bitching we do about it, there is always a new adventure to be experienced and the opportunity to see the parts of America that most folks never experience.

Take Scranton, Pennsylvania for instance, which is where I played this weekend. Historically, it was once known for being a huge coal mining town and a steel producer. Now, its glory days long past, it has a sort of grayness about it. The buildings are a bit run down, the houses tend to lean a little in this direction or that; not quite level, you know? It seems to be a town in search of its own next great adventure. Its people seem to be waiting for something to happen, and have the faith to stick it out, however long it takes.

I think the residents of Scranton realize that cities go on whether the place is booming or not. Roots have been placed by the people who live there that span generations. For good or for bad, it is home. They accept it because it is what they know and are comfortable with. Like family, one doesn’t (or shouldn’t) abandon a hometown simply because it’s ill or fallen on hard times. You make the best of it and keep trying to bring it back to health, no matter how difficult the task at hand seems.

Obviously, I was a visitor there and couldn’t really know the town in the way that its residents do. But my sense of Scranton is that it is a place of neighborhoods, where sitting outside on hot summer nights is de rigueur, instead of in the isolation of an air-conditioned suburban McMansion. That’s the America I knew as a child, and it is in part, I think, what is missing from our national fabric. We don’t seem to talk anymore, unless it’s under the banner of some cause. We just don’t hang out and talk.

What's happened is that a disconnection has occurred among us. The general chitchat that we used to have with our neighbors always bonded us in the days before the Internet took over our lives. And this bonding is why there was a national spirit, why we could organize rallies to collect rubber, steel, tin and newspapers to help the war effort during World War II.

Scranton reminds me of that period of time. As a people watcher, I got the distinct sense that except for the modern day clothing, these folks could have been in any old black and white photo of the kind Margaret Bourke-White might have taken for Life Magazine. You know the ones that always showed the hard working, not-so-well-off family standing in front of the sort of run-down house. You knew they were struggling, but there was strength in their eyes that told you they were going to survive and rise above their condition. What’s more, you get the sense that if their neighbors were in real trouble people would pitch in to help out.

I’ve been in lots of towns around America and I can’t say that I was compelled to write about most of them. I probably would not have written about Scranton either, had it not been for a visit to Chick’s Diner on
Moosic Street
 Being from New Jersey (the birthplace of the diner), I am not only a huge fan, but somewhat of an afficionado by birth and culture. The sight of an Edward Hopperesque establishment such as this gets me joyful in a way I cannot explain. About the closest I can come to it is to say that it feels like coming home.

 As you can see from the photo, Chick’s isn’t much to look at. It’s a tiny, 1940s railroad car type eatery- the kind of place at which you might stop if you were enroute home to the city or suburbia. It would catch your eye and you might just say to your partner in the passenger seat, “What the hell, let’s give it a try”. But once inside, you would find a piece of America you thought had long since disappeared.

I was there on a Saturday morning, around eleven o’clock. I figured it would be nice and quiet, the way the newer diners have become. The national voice is now a whisper; except at Chick’s.

Though the place has seen better days, it was alive with electricity. The first thing that hits you is the music from the big jukebox in the corner. Good rock and roll, stuff I can understand and recognize is blaring, but not deafening. Co-mingled with that is the sound of plates clanging in the back backed up by the steady drumbeat of forks against dishes as patrons gulp down the last remnants of a three-egg omelet.

“Sit anywhere you want!” a female voice yells at me. It’s as if I’m already a regular there, albeit not a ‘broken-in’ one. I grab one of the ten or so booths available. Seconds later a waitress smiles, drops a Chick’s menu on my table and asks if I’d like something to drink.

“Coffee, please.”

I place my order for a western omelet with American cheese (40 cents more) and drink in the place. I curse under my breath over my failure to bring my notebook to sketch the place in words, a habit that I never break except for this time. It figures.

Each booth has its own working 1970s style mini jukebox made by Rock-o-la. I check closely to see if it still plays three songs for a quarter, though I seriously doubt it.

Looking around I see that there are tiles missing here and there. The real spinning counter stools and booth seats have mismatched color tape on them to cover up the tears in the original red plastic, once so shiny that a child could easily slide off if he or she spun around too quickly, but now faded and dull.

There is noise all around me; good noise. The sounds of life, of laughter and conversation and friends who are friends merely because Chick’s exists rise out over the song playing Rock-o-la as if to power the neon “Chick’s” sign in the tiny window in front . A young father sits with his three children at the counter and the kids delight in spinning around, probably the way their father had just a few decades before.

Debbie, a waitress with a long history at the diner barks out food orders from memory to the short order cook who works ceaselessly at the grill. The remarkable thing about her is that she is able to do it from memory. Equally remarkable is that the cook is able to repeat the order while he continues to make the five or six other orders on the grill. It was a thing of beauty, I tell you. I love watching those who have reached such proficiency in their profession effortlessly do their jobs.

Debbie, whose voice raises above all the din in the place, waits on the three children and their dad. She introduces herself and then does something I’ve never seen a waitress do in all my years of diner going; she sat down and just talked to them for at least five minutes. In any other diner, the owner would have gone ballistic if a waitress had done that. But Debbie genuinely cared about these kids and by spending that little bit of time with them, created another generation of lifetime customers. It’s called the personal touch, and it used to be the hallmark of a small business in America. Now, it’s considered non-productive use of time.

It isn’t often that one gets to enjoy breakfast while being immersed in a symphony of life like the one I had on Saturday. And although the folks that came in and out of Chick’s that morning were a little frayed around the edges, there was a peace and joy that emanated from them that came from the knowledge of belonging to something greater than they were. Their lives weren’t about corporate greed in America, or who’s more American. The happiness of their days and weeks and years aren’t built on profit and loss statements. They had no need to bilk their fellow citizens out of hard-earned money in the way our government does. They had friends and family and people like Debbie and Chick’s. They had a home; and that was enough.  

 In this election year, I caution our politicians to stop a moment and listen to the voices that are speaking in the Chick’s Diners that exist all across America. We the people are in a season of discontent with you all. But our strength and power will guide us through you and those that follow you. That humming and laughter that you hear is the sound of America living, despite the powers above them who live in an insulated world far from the counter at Chick’s.  And until our elected officials come down from their ivory towers, until they begin to listen and work for the common good of all, we will flounder and stumble as a nation until that one day when we won’t be able to get up again. I hope it never happens, because I really enjoyed my breakfast at Chick’s and would like to have many more.

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug. Everybody eat. Abbondanza!  

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