We all have special places, restaurants, pubs, bookstores, that we frequent so often that we begin to assert over them a sort of emotional ownership, even as we realize intellectually that we are mere visitors. Sometimes these places are our college hangouts (I have a special fondness for the Mel’s Drive-In at Geary and Arguello in SFO, for example, because it was the place of many late-night milk-shake and Ms. Pac-Man extravaganzas). Sometimes we adopt them later in life – there’s a Japanese restaurant in Irving that Fuzzy and I visit almost often enough to have ‘our’ table.
And then there are the places where there really is a connection, a sense of history. For me, as for much of my family, that place is The Diner. My mother pointed out in a forum post on the diner’s website (White Crystal Diner.dot com), that most of us never referred to it by name, because we never had to, and in fact, I think I was at least thirteen before I realized it even had a name. It was simply The Diner, and everyone in town knew what that meant.
It was the ultimate family business, operated in part by family I barely knew, loved and hated at once by other family who will ever see me as a nine-year-old girl with strawberry-blonde braids and thick glasses, the little girl who got yelled at for spinning on the bar stools until she was sick, who was greeted every year on her birthday, by a fake candle poked through the tin-foil covering of her very special bowl of rice pudding, who associates the place with innocence and childhood and endless balmy summers at the Jersey shore.
I remember bringing my cousin Ginny, 31 years older than me, who called me her birthday girl because I was born on HER birthday, a bouquet of black balloons the day I turned nine and she turned 40. She pretended outrage, but we all knew she loved the attention, and the tips. “Forty is Sporty,” we told her, and the balloons echoed our words.
I remember, several years later, no longer sporting braids arguing with Moose (Anthony) about what a California burger should really include. “Sprouts,” I teased, having lived in the golden state for all of three years by then. “Californians put sprouts on EVERYTHING.” In the end, we compromised with bacon and avocado. It probably wasn’t the first time I ever ate real food there (as in NOT rice pudding) but it’s the one time I remember doing so. That burger was perfect.
I remember my cousins, Cathy and KJ, Ginny’s kids, complaining that they were asked to help out when things got busy. I wasn’t old enough to be asked, but I’d have volunteered in a heartbeat, and even though I KNOW how hard Moose and Ginny worked, and how tired and greasy they were at the end of the day, I’m still a little jealous I never got to have that experience.
I remember Aunt Molly’s red-red lipstick, and how her ever present Chanel No. 5 perfume has combined with the deepest of sense memory so much that it now smells like rice pudding to me. I remember her air kisses, and perfect hair, and how even when she was tired her eyes were always laughing.
I hear their voices in my head, and the rhythms and cadences of their speech, and I use them in character work, when I can, either in text or, sometimes, on stage.
Today, four days before I turn 36, I remember most the total magic of walking through the door at The Diner, and sitting on one of the aquamarine-upholstered stools, and having rice pudding placed in front of me without me ever having to ask.
The White Crystal was sold several years ago, and is currently being refurbished, and will be shipped to its new location in Springfield, MA. Long may she live.