The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

An un-American in an All-American diner

Continuing this month’s theme on road trips founding contributor Anthony Windram weighs in with some thoughts on the American diner.

There’s neon tubing that emits a purple glow around the clock that tells me it’s nearly 10pm. The dinner service is long over, the families now dispersed and only a scattering of drifters and loners are left. It’s still, at least, another 45 minutes before the late-night drunken crowd makes an appearance.  This diner is more Edward Hopper than Norman Rockwell. Across the parking lot is a strip club, as the night draws on and into morning some of its patrons, I imagine, will head over here to have a burger or to take advantage of that most American of institutions – the 24-hour breakfast.

There’s a still sadness to the place despite the best efforts of the waitress who exudes a friendly busyness. She could be anything from her late-40s to her early-60s. She calls me “sweetheart” when she comes over to give me a refill of greased coffee. She doesn’t, however, call it “a cup of Joe” — that would be one cliché too many.

Mentally, I take a step back from this scene and try to view all around me as a tableau and can’t but help but think this is Americana that I am sat in, this is America.

Perhaps this is the “real” America; a banal phrase uttered by a banal politician, but a phrase that does strike at something deep in the American psyche.

Dr George Lewis, director of American Studies at Leicester University, has started what the Guardian claims is the “first sustained historical analysis of the term un-American.” While there may be some confusion over quite how one defines being “un-American,” what seems certain to me is that this cold burger and this diner is decidedly the opposite of “un-American”. Though I am in Bakersfield, California, I could be anywhere in the Union, be it red state or blue state.

When I first moved to the US, to my now shame, I found myself fascinated by the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, hosted by the hyperactive Guy Fieri, a man with the cholesterol levels of someone twice his age. Fieri is a TV host with absolutely no sense of discernment. Everything that he comes across, everything that he tastes, must be spoken about in glowing terms to the point that nothing that Fieri says has any real meaning whatsoever.

And yet I did find myself compelled by the show for illuminating further for me the American diner and showing me places that occupy a place in the country’s cultural milieu that the English cafe doesn’t even come close to back home. I soon stopped watching Diners, Drive-ins and Dives — not because my view of diners changed, but because it was (and is) a God-awful program and there’s only so many times you can watch an overweight Fieri eat some barbequed pork and then pronounce it “awesome”. But there was one thing in particular about Fieri’s show that they always got wrong. They would always show the diners when they were packed and buzzing with a family friendly atmosphere. And while I wouldn’t suggest that that’s not the case, what I find interesting is that when you roll into a strange town late at night and find yourself at a diner, regional and political difference tend to dissolve. You are in a place that is resolutely American rather than California, or Colorado, or Vermont, or…I could go on.

Fieri’s show, a sort of televisual equivalent of Pravda which can only emphasize the positive, misses out on what I am experiencing here in Bakersfield as the clock, that has neon tubing wrapped around it, hits 10 and I ask for my check. Here, and which Fieri always misses, is a quiet efficiency mixed with a low-burning malevolence. It’s that mixture of warmth and fear you get when your waitress flashes you a warm smile but you know you’re in a moment going to be stepping out back into that parking lot — and in the back of your mind you’re just a little concerned that this might be the night where you get shot by a drunk coming out of the strip club.

Question: What’s your experience of American diners?

Image by awindram.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s interview with the travel writer Allie Sommerville. NOTE: All DISPLACED DISPATCH subscribers will be entered in our giveaway of Allie’s book, Uneasy Rider.

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5 responses to “An un-American in an All-American diner

  1. ML Awanohara September 27, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Your last line — the fear about getting shot by a drunk from the strip club — reminded me of something in Robert Pirsig’s biography — I’m of course speaking of the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, on which we’ve based several of this month’s posts. Persig’s son Chris, who figured prominently in that book, was stabbed to death during a mugging. He was only 23. So while remembering Chris Pirsig, I take your point that despite its superficial friendliness — which for you is represented in this piece by the diner waitress’s smile — the U.S. offers the highest odds of any developed country of becoming a victim of random violence. Heck, Chris wasn’t even near a strip club — the attack occurred outside the San Francisco Zen Center!

  2. awindram September 27, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Certainly offers the highest odds of a potentially deadly violent attack, but not sure about random violence in general. Football hooliganism was sometimes referred to as the English disease, and though that random destructive behaviour is not seen (thankfully) in football stadiums nowadays, you do see evidence of it most Friday or Saturday nights in British towns and cities.

    In my home town, for instance, it’s by no means unusual for people to spend an average Friday night for some involves getting drunk and then assaulting an innocent passerby – something I and many others I know have unfortunately experienced. I feel the same is true of many cities, I feel safer wandering the city centers of New York or Chicago than I do the city centres of London or Glasgow. Thank goodness the UK doesn’t have the same gun laws as the US as I’m guessing Wetherspoon Pubs and guns would be a deadly combo.

  3. Jeffrey September 30, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    I have avoided most of the “food shows” that show up on the “Travel Channel” because the hosts are, at least in their on camera persona, people I wouldn’t want to know or otherwise find uninteresting. (What is it with ghost, food and poker shows on the travel channel? ML, will you please contact them and explain that we really want a lot more Tina Brown and a lot less “Man vs. Food”?)

    All diners/drive-ins are not created equal and I think any found across the parking lot from a strip club anywhere in the states will be something of a dive (and not in the good sense).

    Roadside diners are actually a dying breed having been replaced by-and-large by fast food outlets, often attached to gas stations, at least along major highways. Typically, they carter to as many patrons who are just passing through as to locals, unless they happen to be in “blue highway” small towns. Then, this kind of place may be one of the few eateries in town and the possibility of violence is small to nil.

    Perhaps it’s because I live in the PNW, but if I travel anywhere within about 600 miles of Seattle, one needn’t “settled” on a diner as opposed to scheduling lunch and dinner stops at well-known restaurants and, best yet, brewpubs. One can easily drink his way down I-5 into N. California or east along US20 or US2 to the eastern edge of the Rockies and never be in want of a good beer. And it seems that where one finds good beer you’ll usually find good food as well.

  4. Jeffrey September 30, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    That would be Samantha Brown and not Tina Brown. The only place I’d like to see more of Tina Brown is the unemployment line.

  5. awindram October 6, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Agree on getting rid of Man v. Food, but not on Samantha Brown. Had the misfortune to sit through some of her shows. I learned that Tiananmen Square was “BIG!!!” She even did an accompanying gesture where she held arms arms out wide just in case we didn’t get it from her over-enunciation of “BIG!!!!!” I’d easily take a Tina Brown show over that. The Clive James postcard series from the 80s and 90s are worth tracking down on YouTube for intelligent travel shows that don’t condescend to its audience

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