Somewhere in Philadelphia. The breakfast joint is packed this morning. I’ve been on the road for several days. I’m running dangerously low on saturated fat. I coasted into the City of Brotherly Offensive Driving on fumes. I need steak and eggs. Stat.
I slide into a booth. I’m carrying a paperback mystery novel and my reading glasses.
I always travel with paperbacks because you never know when you’re going to be stuck waiting somewhere. Like right now.
I am waiting for my server to notice me. There is only one waitress in this crowded joint, and she is currently dealing with a thousand-and-one tables. So I read.
The waitress finally approaches my table, she looks tired. She is lean and her wiry arms are covered in intricate tattoos.
“Choo readin’?” she asks.
I put the book down. “Oh, it’s a mystery.”
“So, you sayin’ I gotta guess?”
“No, I mean it’s a mystery novel.”
She nods, then removes her pen. “Well, how about your order? That a mystery, too? Or are you gonna hurry up and tell me?”
This is exactly why I visit diners. Nobody banters like this in franchise restaurants. In fact, in most fast food joints they don’t even have the courtesy to smile at you after they spit in your food.
I order a T-bone-and-eggs plate and a coffee. That’s when the real show begins. My waitress calls my order to the kitchen using genuine Philadelphia diner speak. Which sounds something like:
“Yo! Pull a cow bone! Drop a hash! Three eggs bullseye, and I want’em lookin’ at me! Burn a couple shingles, grease the trousers, light up the pig, and gimme a cup’a mud!”
She returns to me. She rests an arm on my booth seat. “So what’s it about?”
“Your book, Sherlock, what’s the big [bleeping] mystery?”
“Well, it’s complicated. And I don’t want to spoil it for you in case you read it.”
She nods, then tops off my mud. “Well, I don’t read much no more. But my youngest, he’s a huge reader.”
“Hell.” She laughs. “He’s thirteen, I just had to buy him new glasses. Eye strain, reading too much, only reads adult-level books. What’s the name of that book? He loves mysteries. I’ll buy it for him tonight after work.”
I show her the cover. She makes a note on her pad.
“I’m always telling my son to keep reading. ‘Cause if he keep up his reading, he can do anything, more opportunities, you know? Reading is key. Reading is key.”
“I know what I’m talkin’ about. I couldn’t read till I was eighteen.”
“I just said so, didn’t I?”
“Yep. Taught my ownself to read. Quit school when I was a kid. Bad situation. Trust me. I could tell you stories. I could tell you a long [bleeping] story.”
Personally, I’m hoping for more of this story, but I never get it. All she adds is, “You do what you gotta do, right?”
She leaves me momentarily to deal with a table of workmen wearing neon vests. She makes them laugh a lot. They like her because she makes them like her.
When the workmen rise to leave, I notice they have covered their table in fives and tens—which says a lot about this waitress.
My food is ready. The waitress slides a full plate before me and asks if I’m all right. I look up from my book and flash the okay sign. “Thank you,” I say.
“You ain’t from around here, are you?”
I start destroying my steak. “Florida.”
“Really? Florida. Always wanted to see Florida. Maybe go see the beach someday.”
“You and about 6 million other Americans.”
She balances a herculean stack of plates on her skinny arm. “I ain’t never been nowhere. Ain’t never done [bleep] in my life.”
“You should visit.”
“It’s pretty, huh?”
“Maybe I will.”
She falls silent doing more busywork. The woman is tireless. I watch her single handedly keep this ship afloat. I see her wash dishes, sweep floors, clean counters, and restock fridges. She burns hundreds of calories for each blessed dollar.
“Wouldn’t mind sitting on a beach,” she says, wiping down a nearby table. “My kids would freak if I took’em.
“I tell my kids, ‘Hey, you work hard, you can do anything you want in this world. You the same as anyone else. You save your money, be smart, treat people right, you can have the life you want. You ain’t need big money to be successful.’” She taps her temple with a finger. “You need this.” Then she taps her sternum. “And this.”
After her mini sermon I say, “They’re lucky to have a mother like you.”
“You don’t even know me.”
Maybe not, but I know her kind. I was raised by one.
When I finish my meal I leave my appreciation on the table in dollar form. I wish it were more. She bids me goodbye. And as I am walking out the door, into the tangled spaghetti streets of Philadelphia, she calls after me.
“Hey, sir! You left your book!”
I just pretend like I don’t hear her.