December 8, 2012
It was still dark when she came down the stairs and into the kitchen. I couldn’t see her and wasn’t sure she knew I was still here, in the living room. I called out. She hurried up the stairs then back down into the kitchen. Had she been wearing too little? I started to get up from the floor I’d slept on, stretching my neck. Before long he too came down the stairs and joined her in the kitchen. I stayed in the living room as light began showing through the curtains. I got up and picked a magazine from the coffee table. The magazine’s photos showed lavish homes and picturesque countrysides. The ads were of luxury cars and designer clothes. One article described the challenges of raising children while wealthy. Another how to push island vacations beyond the tired practice of sipping drinks by the shore. The people in this magazine had so much but seemed to be struggling to find solace, or maybe vindication? I put the magazine down. I could hear my friends in the kitchen but I was still out here alone. With the sun starting to show I grabbed my bag, tiptoed out the front door and into the street.
I walked downhill, making my way through the city. Downtown the sun was starting to light the tops of the skyscrapers. Others were out in the streets, too. They were the workers - the maintenance crews and street sweepers. With brooms and hoses in hand they cleaned the streets, rinsing away Friday night and propping up the world for Saturday. Like me they weren’t here by choice. It felt like we were in it together.
I got on the subway and started my way out of the city. At each stop a group of people would get off and another would get on. Most were strangers to each other but within each group the people were more alike than they thought. The group going to the downtown shops. The group going to the university. The group going to the waterfront. I saw them but they did not see me. But I was not completely alone. There were two others who watched. I saw them and they saw me. We’d catch each other’s eyes then look away. We left it at that.
At the connecting station we all made our way off one train and onto the next. We did this with three different styles. The first group ran - they’d never done this before and were afraid they were going to miss their connection. Another group lingered, slowly shuffling along - they’d done this day after day, knew there was time and preferred to not look hurried. I was of the third group - too self-conscious to run but still afraid to miss the train. My strides were long and fast, giving me away.
At the end of the line I took the stairs out of the subway and toward the train that would be the final leg of my trip. A real railway that would take me home. I bought my ticket and checked the clock. I had forty minutes until departure. I didn’t want to sit in the station waiting for nothing to happen. Against a steady trickle of people coming into the station, I walked back into the street.
If this city had any reputation is was not a good one. It certainly didn’t look like much. I’d grown thirsty but continued past the liquor store hoping for something more. Past the boarded up shops. Past the homeless who also seemed to be looking for something. And there I stumbled upon the Joy Cafe. I opened the door and pushed in. This was a true diner. I sat at the bar and picked up a menu. The French toast caught my eye: $1.99. What year was this? My server came by. At first I couldn’t tell if he was feebleminded or just trying too hard to be nice. I got my order in, pretty sure I was also going to get a cup of coffee and orange juice. I saw him pour the juice into a tall glass - the kind you would serve a milkshake in. He set the ice in with a spoon. He seemed to be paying great attention to detail. After bringing it over he wiped spilled juice from the bottom. “Too full,” he apologized, smiling at me. My French toast came, just the way I’ve always wanted it. This was not boutique French toast. There was no custard. There were no almond slivers. There was no nutmeg. Just little triangles of white bread fried in a light egg batter. And for me two little slabs of butter sandwiched in wax paper. The syrup was thick and sweet. The coffee was just Coffee, the kind that comes from that glass pot. All the pieces were simple but put together it seemed so right. My morning feast. I felt spoiled.
As I relaxed I noticed I wasn’t alone. There were others here, too. We weren’t in each others space but we were together here in this diner. There was a young man a few stools down. His hair was wet, having just come from cleaning up in the restroom. He seemed down on his luck. On the other hand, I hadn’t shaved or showered and was wearing the same clothes I’d gone to sleep in the night before. And I was sitting in this same old cafe in a broken down neighborhood by the train station. How did I look from the other side of the counter? A waitress, who looked to me like the owner, brought out his food. Her body language struck me. Here was a kid who was clearly a little rough around the edges but she stood close to him in a very open fashion. She spoke kindly, patiently, with him. I caught part of their conversation. “Because it’s more expensive to make French toast than regular toast.” It turns out he too had ordered French toast but it had first come out of the kitchen as regular toast. “How much more do I owe you?” he asked. “No problem. It’s okay,” she insisted. She was just there with him; speaking to him without prejudice. She made what is usually an uncomfortable interaction into a positive relationship. “Thanks!” he let out. He was happy. As I was. Maybe we had more in common than we thought. Certainly stopping in here was working out for the both of us.
I finished my meal, paid my order and made my way out into the street. I retraced my steps to the train station. But not quickly. I knew there was time. The passengers were there waiting for me. My belly was full and all was good again. Ten minutes later I was on the train. It started off, I settled in, watched my world go by and told myself this story.