April 9, 2012
I originally posted this fictional story in August of 2009. Some of you that have been visiting Round Circle since then may remember it. If not, sit a spell and have a look. The original post has pictures.
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 though the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. 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 Springs 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 OK, and not a chain drive dive like Super 8.
I carried my soft luggage 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 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 and my mind was making up a story about how I might have been a traveling salesman back in the olden days.
Maybe I was a salesman in a former life and 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 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, freshened up, and after a quick look around, I headed outside into the sunshine on a quest for sustenance. It was about 12:30PM on a Wednesday in May.
I hadn’t wandered far from the hotel when I spotted an old building that housed the 19th Street 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.
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, high school sporting events and, of course, the weather. The insurance man, the banker, the auto dealer, the farmer, the barber and 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 first heard of this calendar phenomenon while reading William Least Heat Moon’s “Blue Highways” back in the 80’s.
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 ketchup, mustard, jelly and sugar packets. 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 response for people who speak in the third person, “What do you mean, ‘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. I saw no sign of breasts on her but knew she was a beautiful woman. She thrust out her pelvis as she stood and had her hands placed on her hips in a position I had not often seen from a waitress. 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 responded, “Now why would I wear this name tag if that wasn’t my name?”
I responded, “I was wondering if maybe you grabbed that one from a pile in the back room because you left yours 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 her 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 Springs here then?
“Yep, been here all my life. You have an accent”, 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 four 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 or the small ceramic pitcher of milk for the oatmeal was already served before the food arrived. She had this place down pat. 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.
The 19th Street Diner had a couple of calendars on the wall. Insurance and bank. 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 biscuits 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.
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 or tart, not colored hot water, but not freshly roasted top quality French roast Columbian 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 knife 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 the way I answered the first one she asked me, “Why? You writin’ a book or sumthin’?”
I told her that, “Maybe I am, and how do you know I’m not 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 six to two.
I wandered in the next morning at around 9:00AM. 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.
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 19th Street Diner when it’s on Second Avenue?”
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 19th Street”
She inflected her voice as if to say “Everyone knows that, 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 19th Street Diner in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
I wrote this many years ago. It was one of my earliest attempts at writing fiction fashioned from personal experience. There is a 19th Street Diner in Glenwood Springs, or at least there used to be. There is a Gretchen as well. She worked at the 19th Street Diner before she moved to Grand Junction and worked at the 7th Street Cafe where I was the cook in 1993. We were good friends and I admired her for her skills behind the apron in the small diner world.
This was job number 37 on the chart from This Earlier Post. I have started to write a story about every job I have ever held and hope it will finally be, “The Book”, everyone is telling me to write. I will attempt to use the Monday Mystery Tour feature to chronicle these work and living experiences, the parade of unique individuals one might meet in a lifetime, and the stories within the stories.