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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