Dispatches from Quarantine: Things I Miss, Diner Edition

In like a wet lion
Rainy Spring in Greenwood

It’s kind of amazing the things I took for granted even six weeks ago. Like the company of people and public spaces without the fear that a plague was lying in wait the minute you let down your guard. With the exception of one attempt to go to the park to work in a notebook (thwarted because the parks were closed and I forgot that fact, leaving me to just…drive around for a bit), my last non-essential public outing was over a month ago.

It was March 12th–barely over a month ago, mind you, but it feels like it’s been forever. I met with my bestie and two other friends at a neighborhood place called Draft Punk for a couple of beers. At that point, things were already starting to lock down around the world, and we had the sense that things were changing for a while.

None of us knew how long that while was. But it’s shaping up to be a long longer than any of us want. It’s necessary. Don’t get it twisted. I’m glad that Washington State is taking it seriously locking shit down. It beats the alternative, which is bodies stacked like cord-wood in the summer rain.

As the quarantine stretches on, I find myself missing some things more than I expected.

For instance, diners.

I’ve always loved diners.

When I was three or so, my familiy moved to Durango, Colorado, and a handful of blocks away from us was the Big Chief Diner. (Not my photo, so it is linked to the original poster.)

Chief diner

Going there was a rare and special treat. Until a rare tornado ripped the roof off above the kitchen and they were forced to close.

If you think the sign was racist, you might be amused to know that it was rescued by the Toh-Atin Gallery years later. A Native American art gallery, the Toh-Atin used the old diner sign to point to the parking lot. Of our other diners, we had Sambo’s Pancake House which was even more disturbingly racist, though I was too young to realize it at the time (and it eventually gave way to a Denny’s), a Village Inn, and Lori’s Diner which was nicknamed “Eggs & Legs” because of the short waitress outfits.

Way to keep it classy, Durango. Not sorry I left.

Growing up, we rarely ate out. Pretty sure a big part of it was my mom watching the budget. She was a damn good cook and didn’t like the idea of paying money for food that she could make at home. And let’s face it–diner food is almost without exception middle-America comfort food. Burgers, sandwiches, soup, eggs, & pancakes. Nothing fancy, but oh-so god.

A good diner is egalitarian. It’s not trying to be fancy. It’s trying to get you fed with something that will stick to your ribs, then get you out the goddamned door. Maybe it can serve as a port in the storm–a place to nurse a coffee and a plate of fries with friends when nothing else is open.

It’s honest, and I apreciate the hell out of that.

There’s a certain diner aesthetic that meets the platonic ideal of “diner.” Pendant lights, a counter with stools, leatherette booths with formica-topped tables, weird roof lines, flagstone walls either inside our out (preferably both).

Pick’s Coffee Shop on Santa Monica Blvd. in West L.A., for instance.

Pick's

Or the world famous Johnie’s Coffee Shop on Wilshire, also in Los Angeles.

diner

Interestingly, part of my love of these places might be informed by movies and television selling me this idea of what an L.A. diner should look like. In the case of Johnie’s, it has been used extensively in film. It hasn’t functioned as an actual diner for 20 years now and is now a registered historic landmark.

These style of diners exemplified what is now recognized as the space-age or Googie architectural movement. Originating in Southern California in the 1930’s Streamline Moderne school, it blossomed into it’s own thing from the 1940’s-1960’s. Often used in diners, motels, and gas stations, it is similar but not the same as the Doo Wop or Populuxe architectural styles that informed a lot of American mid-century modern design. Taking its name from the Googie Coffeehouse designed by architect John Lautner in 1949, it was known for a bold use of parabola shapes, neon, glass & steel, and “characterized by Space Age designs symbolic of motion.”

I suspect that there is significant overlap in the Venn diagram that explains my love for these buildings and my fascination with Los Angeles. There’s something beautifully psychotic about it–this futurist dream locked in the past of the Atomic Age. It’s undeniably American.

So that’s where I am now.

Dreaming of big, noisy meals in impossible places surrounded by other people.

Hope you’re all well out there. Be safe. Be smart. Be inside for the love of all that’s holy. And maybe when we all get through this we can meet for pancakes & coffee. Or, God forbid, a big greasy bacon cheeseburger with fries smothered with cold, sweet ketchup.

I look forward to the day when something like that can happen.

Until then, I will have to make my pancakes at home and eat them on the sofa.

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