Her companions still struggled to emerge from a massive blue Caddie handicap-parked in front of the diner, so she was holding the door for everyone else while she awaited them.
The lady was plump, with stick-straight silver hair in a pixie cut. She rattled the Caddie’s keys in one hand while she wagged the diner door in the other.
“Come ON, time’s a wastin’!” she called to the tall man emerging from the front seat.
“Time,” he said, giving her a look, “Can just keep its pants on.”
“Good,” said the man ahead of me in the line to be seated, “We’re all here now.” There were eight seniors in all, waving and smiling at the hostess, and she greeted them like long lost relatives.
“I’ve got your regular table all ready!” she said cheerfully, “Just go right on back!” Each of them took a menu from the counter pocket, without prompting, and walked straight to the back of the diner, nodding and smiling at the waitresses as they went.
This diner’s a local chain; not exactly foodie paradise but cheap and filling and friendly. My home cupboard was approaching bare–work’s been crazy and not much time for errands lately–so I’d decided to grab a bite there, do a little work on my laptop, then go home by way of the grocery store.
The hostess led me to my table and I nodded at the eight as we passed. “They must come here often,” I remarked.
“Every Sunday at noon,” she said, “Just like clockwork. I’ve been working here six years, and they’ve been here every weekend that I can remember, except when the ice gets too bad.”
One of the women sported a lovely carved wooden cane–since my adventures with The Knee I’ve started to notice these things–and was dressed for a board meeting, not Sunday brunch. But she laughed and clapped when the waitress enveloped her in a bear hug.
“Where have you BEEN? I haven’t seen you in weeks and I was worried!”
“Oh, I went on a little vacation back east to see the grandkids,” she said offhandedly, setting her cane by the booth, “And then we all went to…Italy! I told you I’d get to Italy before I died, didn’t I?” And her face lit up in a huge smile.
“Oh, you lucky, lucky thing! Congratulations! Mary, she really DID go to Italy!!” Another waitress hurried over to join the conversation, and the woman got out her phone to show pictures.
The group discussed the menu, who could eat what, and who had which last time. The waitresses chimed in, made suggestions, announced that so and so’s daughter was having a baby. Some long-lost item, no longer on the menu, was revived just for the tall man from the Caddie, who missed having it. One of the cooks came out, shook the tall man’s hand.
I realized I was watching family. These people had been a fixture in this little diner for so long that they’d etched into its bones.
You see that all the time in neighborhood delis in New York and Boston, but I’d never seen it growing up in the burbs in California. Truth be told, I never expected to see it in a little chain restaurant in the burbs here, either.
Yet there it was: Family.
“Those guys aren’t related to anyone here, are they?” I asked the waitress.
“Not that I know of,” she laughed, “Years ago, we used to put all our tables together down the center of the room to hold everyone in that party. They had to call ahead and make reservations every week.”
“Now we only need our biggest corner table to fit them all. I guess that’s what time does, it marches past, right?”