Sunday, August 23, 2009
Small Town Diner, 1983
Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs
She was tall. Now someone’s height is definitely relative to your own and of course whether or not you are sitting or standing when you make first contact. It’s also relative to whether you are sitting on a hard chair of a soft cushy one. In this case, the old vinyl clad booths at the diner in Glenwood Springs had been there a while and were worn to the point where the stuffin’ was almost gone from the seat part.
When you sat down, your rear end went down to something hard, and for my particular anatomy, the wooden board that made up the front edge of the seat fit neatly into the crook of the back of my knee joint.
I had been traveling from Reno, Nevada by rail. I had accompanied a good friend out west from Chicago and after a week or so of camaraderie and visiting old pals, I was headed back to the midwest and home.
The California Zephyr train route was established long ago through the Rockies of Colorado and the Sierra Nevada range East of Sacramento. The train made the same stops it did in the 1930’s. The old depots along the way were still used in most cases and that is how it was in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
I asked the conductor how I could manage getting off this train and onto the next one when the California Zephyr came through Glenwood the next day. He allowed me to pay a small fee, and punched my ticket stub so supposedly, I could get off, and re-board 24 hours later and continue my journey.
The station house in Glenwood Springs was one of those nice refurbished old buildings with a wide overhang all around itself. If you’ve ever seen a travel show or National Geographic pictures of say, Japan or Thailand, you might see buildings of a certain type of architecture that would depict that particular country. I like to think people in those countries are shown pictures of our old train stations and know it’s a train depot in America when they see them as well.
I got off and looked around. I had spotted this hamlet on the trip headed West some ten days before. It looked quaint and I really wanted to visit the hot spring pools and the cemetery where Doc Holliday was buried. At curbside across the street, there was a magnificent older building that was the Glenwood Springs Hotel. Convenient, looked okay, and not a chain drive dive.
I carried my bag across my shoulder and bypassed the taxi that waited in the event a fare would come his way. I walked across the street and went inside. A pretty nondescript place for an old hotel, but looked like it might be fun as long as I didn’t have to go down the hall from my room for a toilet and a shower. I checked in and found a small room on the third floor. I felt like I was a real travelin’ man. Maybe one of those traveling salesman of the older days, selling my wares from town to town, staying in these old hotels.
Maybe I had been a salesman in a former life and I had been there before. Maybe I would be planning my visits to the merchants of the local area and attempt to sell them goods, like a line of hand fools or a commodity like freshly roasted coffee my employer made, so they would sell it and serve it in their stores and restaurants. Maybe I needed a cup of joe right now. And a sandwich, too. For I was hungry as the train really didn’t have much to offer.
I put my pack in my room, and after a quick look around, I headed outside into the sunshine on a quest for sustenance. It was about 12:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in May, 1983.
I hadn’t wandered far from the hotel when I spotted an old building that housed a small bustling Diner. Now the term ‘Diner’, like the tallness factor, is relative, and comes under scrutiny by folks everywhere I go. The purists out east tell me it ain’t a diner unless it’s out in Massachusetts or New Jersey and is housed in an actual railroad dining car that was transformed from use on rails to use on the street. Others may call the small cafe on main street in their particular town a diner.
I don't know this guy, but he did post a picture of the 19th Street Diner in Glenwood Springs, CO.
We’ll use my definition because it’s my story. A diner is both the descriptions above and more. It’s a place to eat, privately owned, with calendars on the walls. The calendars given to the establishment by the customers who sit around the big table in the morning and congregate over coffee, spewing forth their take on all subjects. Religion, politics, local issues, the business climate of their town and the one nearest to them that offers competition at the bank and at the high school sporting events and, of course, the weather. The insurance man, the banker, the auto dealer, the farmer and the seed company rep reign supreme.
The more calendars that were on the walls, the better a place is because that meant folks came there and ate there and left the free calendars there about the new year. It can also mean it’s a really small town and there was just no-where else to go out for coffee and conversation. I learned this tidbit about the calendars from a book I read years ago called “Blue Highways”, by William Least Heat Moon. He describes the best diners and eat shops had the most calendars on the walls. Since I read that, I looked and what he said in 1978 is very true. The more calendars, the better the food.
This place had calendars all right. Now, I had to see about the service. The tall one approached the booth where I had sunken down and reached a new level. The broken down upholstery was comfy and I had completely settled in.
She moved her mouth into a quick smile then quickly asked me in a straight-to-the-point forceful voice, “Coffee?”
I said “Sure”, and grabbed the menu from the stack at the window end of the table that were sandwiched between the salt and pepper shakers and the wooden holder that held the jelly and the sugar. This set-up is what made a booth a booth. She returned in an instant with a steaming cup in a thick tan mug. I nodded and muttered my thanks as she smiled again and asked, “So, What are we having today?”
I had a momentary lapse in judgement and before I even realized I was letting out my pat smart alec response for people who speak in the third person, “We? You got a mouse in your pocket or are you planning on joining me?”
She was unamused as she stood there, tall and sleek. She had chestnut brown hair, lots of it, wore a pair of jeans and a loose navy blue t-shirt. Her frame had small curves up top and a shallow widening on the bottom. I immediately thought she was beautiful. She thrust out her pelvis as she stood and had her hands placed on her hips in a position I had not seen before. I could see the palms of her hands. Her fingers were slender and I did detect some movement beneath her shirt as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, changing the pelvic thrust to a more leering stance. Did I mention she was tall?
The name tag said “Gretchen”. I asked her if that was her name. Her body language shifted again and made an exclamation point as she smiled and responded, “Now why would I wear this name tag if that wasn’t my name?”
Good point. I was figuring that maybe she grabbed that one from a pile in the back room because she left hers on the edge of the bathroom sink this morning. You don’t see that name often these days. Like Trudy or Delores. Gretchen, I liked it, I liked her. I wanted to get to know here and learn everything about her. I wanted to know her well enough to know what she liked to eat, what she liked to drink and what she enjoyed doing for leisure. I wanted her to know me and like me.
I already had two big strikes against me, I was on the wire, I couldn’t stand to make another blunder. It would be the difference between a good experience and a bad one. This is paramount when traveling alone and eating in a diner. Forget the food, the food means nothing if the waitress ignores you and the most telling sign is when the dreaded coffee carafe is set on the table. You know then that dining will be a lonely affair with the next and last visit to the table is when you get the check. No more chance to talk to her. If she puts the check down when she delivers the food, it will be a lonely affair to be sure.
There was no carafe and I went for it, “You been working here a long time?” I asked.
She smiled and said, “About six years.”
I ran with it, “So, you from Glenwood here then?
“Yep, been here all my life” she was still smiling.
Before I could say another word, a bell rang, like the kind at the front desk of a hotel, and Gretchen turned quickly and was gone. She moved her sleek frame across the floor with fluid grace and in one motion grabbed six plates of steaming hot food, lined them up her arm, balanced perfectly, and without a hint of hesitation brought them to a table of patrons waiting to eat.
She was a real waitress in a diner. Experienced. She wasn’t going to take any crap from anyone and had all the bases covered. You needn’t ask for the condiments, they were there before you needed to ask. If you ordered eggs, the tabasco was on the table. The steak sauce when appropriate or the small ceramic pitcher of milk for the oatmeal was already there. She had this place down. She wasted no steps. A true to life Hash House Queen. I loved her immediately and wanted to talk to her some more.
She wore little makeup and I’d guess she was 39 or maybe a young 44. That would make her closer to my age, the latter one, and the idea that maybe we’d share some things in common. More than I’d have if the waitstaff were teenagers.
This diner had the aforementioned calendars on the wall and a decor that may have been created by hanging up this and that when it came into the hands of the owner, not by a certain design theme. Insurance, bank, hardware store and tack along with a three piece collection of seashells. Not much dust accumulated on the blades of the slow moving fan at the ceiling. Not much black around the legs of the tables. Not too many crumbs on the floor. Not too busy this Wednesday. They served breakfast all day.
I ordered steak and eggs with the homestyle potatoes. Gretchen told me she didn’t make ‘em, but that they made ‘em fresh everyday. The bisquits were made from scratch and you could get toast made from homemade bread or the regular wheat, white or rye from the store bought bags.
Steak and Eggs
She paused a couple of times when I was watching her work the room. I spoke to her when I thought she’d stop. Once she did, once she didn’t, or couldn’t, I like to think.
The coffee was good. Not sour, not colored hot water, but not freshly roasted top quality French roast Java either. I gave it a 7 on a scale of 10 for diner coffee. Anything between a 5 and a 10 is adequate and will not detract from a diner’s overall performance. The food was good. A small steak fried neatly on the flat top grill, eggs flipped in a pan. I opted for the homemade bread toast with jam served in a small glass crock with a little spoon that stuck out of a small hole on the lid.
I lingered over coffee and did get quite a few refills. The cup was thick ceramic so the volume wasn’t much. If Gretchen didn’t know I was nursing the coffee cause I didn’t want to leave, then she’s as dumb as a tack. She knew what was going on.
It was time to go for this round, and although I wanted to explore the town and experience another place for another meal at some time during my short stay, I knew I’d return for breakfast the next day.
I asked, “You work everyday?”
She answered this question with the same sarcasm I used when I answered the first one she asked me, “Why? You writin’ a book or sumthin’?”
I told her that maybe I was and how did she know I wasn’t a famous writer anyway?
She put her hands on her hips in that unique pose with her palms facing out and said, “You’re not a writer, I can tell.”
A memorable smile came on her face and she told me she worked every weekday from 6 a.m. to 2.
I wandered in the next morning at around 9:00 a.m. She smiled when she saw me and asked if I had to leave today. I reiterated the fact that I had to be on the train before noon if it stayed true to schedule and on-time and that I was planning on sitting there sipping on coffee, if she didn’t mind, until then.
She said, “Sure, sit as long as you want, you’re a paying customer.” I know I saw her wink, maybe. I got a few more smiles out of her and left with coffee sloshing in my belly and that was after I emptied the bladder a couple of times besides. I was hoping for one last flash of her. Maybe she would smile at me once more. Maybe she would speak to me and not the customer. A short 24 hour affair with an angel for me, just being part of the diner landscape.
One could only hope. I put all my eggs in one basket. This was my last chance. The question I had been saving for this extreme moment. The words that would change our meeting from a chance encounter to a lifetime memory of fantasy.
“So, why is this place called the 7th Street Cafe when it’s on Main Street?”
She struck her patented pose, and this time tilted her head to the side and smiled a big smile as she told me, “Because it used to be on 7th Street”
She inflected her voice as if to say “Everyone knows that you silly boy”
I had a memory to last the rest of the trip as I tried to get comfy in my coach seat on the California Zephyr. I closed my eyes and fell asleep thinking of Gretchen the waitress in the 7th Street Cafe in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
Looking back at some old stories I had written, I came across this piece. I wrote this many years ago, around 1995. My attempt at writing fiction fashioned from some personal experience. There is a 19th Street Diner in Glenwood Springs, located on Grand Avenue. There is a Gretchen as well. She worked at the 19th Street Diner before she moved to Grand Junction, CO and worked at the 7th Street Cafe where I was the cook in 1993. The 7th Street Cafe did move to Main Street after a time, long after I left there, and is now called the Main Street Cafe. Gretchen and I were good friends and I admired her for her skills behind the waitress apron in the small diner world.
The California Zephyr still runs from Chicago to Emeryville, CA and is part of the Amtrak train service.
The 7th Street Cafe is a story in and of itself. I’ll tell you about that place and the parade of unique individuals some other time.