Monday, March 14, 2005

Food for Thoughts from Diners

What follows is the first piece of mine that was published in the summer of 1989, in the National Catholic Reporter. It is rather long, but I hope you like it.




Andy's Diner




I used to live about a mile or so from a diner that I frequented nearly every morning. The name of the place was Andy's, named after the owner, and it was located near the entrance to a very large industrial park. Both the diner and office buildings were right off a major highway, so business was always good, as was the food. The waitresses were friendly and pretty and they knew nearly everyone who used to come in. Andy's had an attraction for all sorts of people: rich, poor and in between, neat and sloppy, loud and quiet, varied races, nationalities and religious persuasions. I used to go there alone and try and find an empty stool near the far end of the counter so as to better enjoy the parade of humanity that passed through the doors every morning. It was also easier to relax there since I was in no one's way and that seat offered a full view of the place.
Most of the people there did not know that I was a priest. Over the years that I used to go there, I gradually came to know quite well some of the people and their stories. The people embodied a richly textured history that unfolded itself bit by bit and ever so naturally over a period of five or so years. I sensed a common something beneath all the variations of difference that passed through that place, some sort of essential goodness that drew people there and that seemed waiting to be told.
Andy has since died and the diner is know boarded up. I was honored to say his funeral Mass from a church located several miles from where he lived. I feel quite sad when I drive past the closed diner these days. No one has bought it and I recently heard that it will be torn down to make way for an office building. Perhaps his passing and the closing of the diner has prompted me to write of the goodness of Andy and his diner, for they offered more than mere food.
Before I left the parish that was near the diner, I asked Andy's wife if I could have an ashtray, a small glass ashtray with the name and address of the diner. I still have it on my shelf in my bedroom and it is more valuable to me than all the Waterford in the world. I felt liked there, and in turn truly liked the people who filled the place each morning. I could always forget my worries while sitting at the counter, thinking about small and large things over a second and sometimes third cup of coffee. The conversations that I could not but help overhear were interesting and I always found myself trying to privately connect the stories of these people with their religious significance. I doubt that such things ever crossed their minds; they were unaware as to the wealth of raw and unadorned beauty that their lives and words simply were. Back then, I often wished that I had the gift of perceptive writing that so inspired great writers that I had read. I knew that there existed good volumes of interesting and absorbing tales: I heard them every single morning.
The place so fascinated and attracted me that I went through a period when I would be the first one there, as early as five in the morning. I would not have Mass until nine those days so I particularly enjoyed the extra time I had to myself in that pre-dawn hour, before the start of my "real" day. Jack, the short order cook, went through a meticulous routine of arranging his food and wares for the coming day. In all the mornings I watched him crack eggs, I never saw him once ruin a batter by spoiling it with pieces of shell. He was a friendly man, slender and so fast at whatever he had to do. He could handle cooking five or six breakfast orders at once, never losing track of their sequence. I hope that he is well these days. His health had started to fail towards the end of my stay in the area and he often spoke of retiring. He was missing from Andy's funeral several years ago.
At the time, I was pursuing graduate studies at a nearby University and would stop at the diner for lunch on the way over to class. There was a waitress who worked the lunch hour shift. She was young and attractive and one day she told me that she noticed my books and school papers. She said that she, too was going to school, trying to get her college degree by going part time. Waitressing was a way to help pay her tuition, as well as care for her baby. She was divorced and had a difficult time making ends meet. I asked her what she hoped to do later in life, after receiving her degree. She said that she loved writing and hoped to become a published writer. The next day she brought in one of her essays, a piece about her former husband who was wounded in Vietnam and had suffered flashbacks after returning to this country. I found her style of writing so moving, and wondered if her marriage had broken up because of the difficulties that were involved with handling her ex-husband's bouts with depression and, at times, violence. She never spoke as openly as did her writing. From then on, I was curious as to how she would write about the "diner" experiences that we both chatted about. Would her perspective be different from that of mine, would she sense a depth that I had not? If I could track her down, I would ask her to write about those years. The most fertile soil are our memories and our loves. Only they can make us grateful. Only they are capable of causing us to feel joy and sorrow. We only suffer from what we have known, from what has deeply touched our being, as those in the diner have touched mine.
There was a man, a professional photographer, who was there every morning. He was in his late thirties and was generally healthy looking. He was quite chatty with Jack and Andy, talking about his family and business. One Monday morning, he was missing from his usual seat. Jack kept the seat empty, not wanting to disappoint him should he arrive. By Thursday there was still no sign of him and by then his seat was almost always taken by a newcomer. The next week, the photographer's body was found in his car several miles away from the diner in a rarely used rest area. The police judged his death a suicide; he had blown his brains out with a shotgun. To the best of my knowledge, a note was never found. I managed to find an account of his death in the paper, in which his wife said that his suicide came as a devastating shock. He had left the house that morning, the last of his life, saying that he was going to stop in the diner. He never arrived. All the while that Jack was waiting for him, his body lay in a car with his head half gone. Jack was visibly upset when he was told what had happened. I could not keep my mind off that man's death and wonder if his wife ever remarried and did she ever find out why he ended his life the way that he did.
Chelsey used to open a garage across the street from the diner. He was usually the first one to arrive after Jack opened for business, shortly after five. The garage where Chelsey worked was actually a school bus depot for all the yellow buses that were used by the local school districts. He was bald, short, fat, generally grimy looking and smelled something like the garage where he worked. He was married but divorced many years ago. It was not too hard to tell that he was a difficult man to get along with.
He did not know that I was a priest and when he would walk into the diner and see me sitting at the far end of the counter, I could see him give me the once over. Jack told me later that Chelsey was curious as to who I was since he had never seen me before. Having lived in the area all his life, Chelsey prided himself on knowing nearly everyone who came into the diner on a regular basis. He also made it a point to remember any particular claim to fame that an individual's life might avail him of. In short, he was nosey. He also had a repertoire of the funniest but raunchiest jokes that I have ever heard. He did not know that I was priest, at least in the first few months. Someone must have told him, though, since one morning he acted so sheepishly when he came in. That was the first time he said hello to me through a nod extended in my direction, after which he proceeded to tell Jack about the poor condition of the buses. I felt badly about his change of demeanor, but gradually the conversation between him and Jack became so boringly conventional that he again came around to his old and perhaps better self. He died not too long ago, or so a friend from the area told me. There were no services, since he was so estranged from his family and most of his friends had died off. He died alone in his small living quarters that were attached to the garage.
Andy was a good man. He was not a church goer, but was very wise in the ways of the world and, I might add, spirit. Since the diner was on a road that led directly from the city of Newark, many poor people traveled by bus from Newark to their jobs in the many factories that are in the area of the diner. The bus stop was right in front of the diner. I would look out the window in the early hours of the morning and watch the people getting off the buses from the city. It was not unusual for some of them to stop into the diner and ask Andy for food or money. He was softhearted. After a lecture on the meagre state of his own resources, he would ask Jack to prepare a take out breakfast and would place a five dollar bill on the little tray before Jack wrapped it up. Those people really were forlorn; they were people who were truly forgotten, who were lonely and who needed some place where their lives could be given some value simply because their stories and troubles were listened to. Andy also had a verbal policy with the warden of a nearby jail. Upon the release of an inmate, Andy told the warden that he would be willing to offer a job working in the kitchen until the released person could find a better means of income.
I so miss that diner. I truly loved the people there and a generosity of spirit that was so much a part of it. Christmas had such a beautiful meaning there. Andy would decorate the diner with strings of lights and artificial snow from an aerosol can. The diner took on a magical glow and there was, during that season, a very heightened sense as to the meaning of the Incarnation. The little plastic trees and pretty glass ornaments were possessed of a unique loveliness in that their surroundings spoke so truly of the real meaning of Christmas.
It was a place in which God himself would have felt very much at home. Those who frequented the Andy's impressed me deeply with their earthiness and their gusty coping with the harsh realities of life, realities that are especially known by the down and outs of our society. I cannot help that believe that God himself had a special affection for that place. He would have enjoyed each and every tale of woe and promise and found something of himself in each and every person there. Their lives were such a pot-pourri of goodness and wisdom, tempered by the brute numbness of factory labor and the unfairness of the way things "are" when the lack of power and money afflict human life.
The above had a claim upon my reflections concerning graduate studies and the world of "higher" theory. To this day, I still find myself trying to establish and hopefully live the connections between academic theory and the protean world of the diner. The warmth and variety of that diner stemmed from its immersion in the "real" world. There was something sacramental to it all in that those people sustained qualities that were good and deep. They gave me something that made me think about and long for the truth and the experience of God. That diner never let me down, its richness never disappointed me. I cannot describe the feeling of such profound peace that I knew on those mornings when I would arrive before dawn, sit at the end of the counter and meditate. Seeing the milkman come in, then Chelsey, then a local policeman reminded me how we are all drawn to some essential goodness in life and that that place somehow had it.
Can the organized religions learn something from that little diner? Religiosity certainly was not explicit there in terms of language and ritual, but it was there. What used to so get my wheels going was the perception of institutionalized holiness that those people carried with them as a part of their "worldview". Whenever a topic came up that involved the bantering about of God or church, I could easily pick up feelings of indifference, disappointment or anger. The various constellations of institutionalized faith did not really mean that much to them and had somehow alienated them. They did have an understanding of the formal religiosity, its politics and removal from an underside of life in which they experienced themselves as living in.
In my heart, I know that their feelings were near accurate. To some extent, a significant dimension of the church had removed itself from their experience and created a world that looked "at" them, as I found myself doing morning after morning. Some of the characteristics that they sensed as belonging to the world of structured belief systems that they looked at and resented, indeed felt betrayed by, were pious attitudes, abstract or removed concerns, clericalism and at root a resistance to live in the real world, their world. They were and are the world of labor, of nonrecognition, of commuters, diners, bus stops: the world that the institutionalized religious concern attempts to convert by exhorting and sermonizing and yet a world that provides the fresh and raw life from which religious meaning must draw its sustenance for reflection. It is the world from which we all "emerge" and a world which religious specialists would do well to remember.
I felt so at home in that diner. In many ways, the friendliness of the people there enabled me to be more patient with the limitations inherent in the institutional church. From my own experience, rectories can be lonely and heartless places. In the diner I did find a sense of companionship and support that drew me there for five years. But that patience did not last.
I left the active ministry for a period of two years and since that meant relocating, I left the diner as well. I went to Europe for a while, returned to this country and found a job in Manhattan writing computer programs for a Wall Street firm. I bounced around quite a lot during that time, changing residences on least five occasions for as many reasons. My thoughts often returned to the diner and I would drive up there some weekends but felt out of touch. The lack of continuity was something that I felt happening in every area of my life and the memories of the diner as I had known it while living in the area were painful.
While working in New York, it was not too long before I found myself looking for as friendly a diner as I could find and indeed I found one. It was not really a diner but was more like a cafe, on the corner of Water and Pine Streets. Ironically, it was situated several blocks from a Catholic church. I stopped in there a few times for a visit on my way to the office. I stood in the back of the church and watched the long lines of daily communicants. The silence of the people there caused me to feel even lonelier and more estranged so I was elated when I discovered the cafe.
It did not take very long before I was repeating the same pattern as before, getting up earlier than I had to in order to spend some time sitting at the counter in the attempt to become a bit familiar with the people who frequented there. They were as pleasant and as interesting as those in Andy's, although Andy's did not have, as a rule, a counter full of secretaries, bankers and computer programmers. There was a waitress in the cafe whose name was Thelma. She exuded a sweetness and was obviously the place's favorite. I would marvel at her ability to remember names and conversations and slowly build a genuine and concerned relationship with the people there. Whereas I still ached for Andy's, I did feel that I was lucky to find a place where I was known by name and felt welcome.
After a year and a half, I felt that I had to make a decision as to whether or not to return to the "active" ministry. I really believe that my decision to return was in part a reflection of a need for a truer sense of community that I found in diners. There was hardly a morning at the counter that I did not feel a need to rethink the importance of what I needed in the diner and what the church, at its best, can offer.
I have been "back" for nearly nine years and they have not been easy. I could not really foresee, when I returned, the present malaise that has settled so firmly in seemingly every nook and cranny of American Catholicism. In short, I do not feel well these days about being a priest under the present regimes of Pope and bishops.
Not long ago, I experienced an acute pang of nostalgia and headed into New York to reclaim my seat at the cafe. When I turned onto Water from Pine Street, I saw that the cafe was all boarded up and I felt so at a loss. I wondered about Thelma and the other people I had come to know. I felt cheated out of another "base" of something good and resented the intrusion of one more rupture of a significant thread in my life..
On the way back, I thought about the church, the institutional church in particular. I really wish that the church could go through some sort of dislocation and that it could suffer whatever diners and commuters and factory workers suffer: the need to regroup and reexperience each other in a new place, a new diner. I do not mean to be insensitive to the pain of those Catholics in Detroit who are presently coping with the anguish of seeing their church buildings being closed but it may be the beginnings of a blessing in disguise, and a blessing that I hope somehow spreads.
I am convinced that as long as any institutional church has a guaranteed flow of incoming cash, the present malaise will not change very much. We will still have huge impersonal parishes where people are "fed" lifeless ritual and lousy homilies. With the increasing shortage of priests in the Catholic tradition, impersonality will flourish even more.
But there is hope, always hope. There are diners galore in Michigan and New Jersey. People are seeking cheap, good food, the intimacy of friendship, the refuge from the storm. There is an eternal need for the diner. If the church does go bankrupt in terms of personnel and cash, I would suggest that it collapses into diners all over the country. Bishops, remaining priests, gurus, ministers, rabbis and swamis could find spots at counters across the country and just listen, feel welcome and be friendly. There would be no dead rectories or manses to return to, nor would there be the need to return for ceremonies since there will be no congregation. They could go to work, to offices and factories, to schools and garages, to banks and computer terminals and discover each other in diners. And, please, do not look for sacred words or sacred rituals in such places. They are already there. No need to "point out" the religious significance of diners. That seems to function best when left unaddressed.

2 comments:

Sask 1 said...

That was a lovely story.It's so easy these days to forget how nice it is to have the personal interaction with someone.Everything is all so fast.Fast food,AtM,speed pay at the gas station.Isn't it worth the extra to have someone know you and you to know them.Thank you for sharing this.
June

Germaine said...

I am at a loss for words. Your story was sort of sad. I guess that is the way I took it. About losses in your life maybe or could it be the fact that being a priest is a lonely life. Maybe not. I think you were looking for something familiar. It is good you have memories because some people like me like to repress memories because some cause so much pain.