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The Diner Double

A Story of Imaginative Identity

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Visual representation of essay, 2022

“My back hurts,” says the old man as he lowers into the crackling maroon booth made of torn plastic.

“Mine too,” says a woman I assume is his long-term wife.

“You think this is a good diner?” she questions.

“It says on the wall they are among the best twenty in America. In America nonetheless!” he reports. 

They sit in silence for the next seven minutes starring at their menus. 

“A panini is pressed right?” she asks raising her eyes above her thick eye glasses. 

“Yeah, but they really stuff it. There's a lot in the panini,” he assures.

“I think I’m going to get half a pastrami and half a roast beef,” she declares in a rebellious tone.  

 

On the other side of the counter, a man sits across from a younger man who is incessantly chewing on the straw in his diet coke cup while the older man talks at him. He comes across as egotistical, inputting long-winded anecdotes every time the boy tries to express his own, but he gives good advice:

 

“Standards for self worth should not be decided by how strangers who have never met you treat you." 

 

The eavesdropping content in my local diner varies in relevance, but never in entertainment. It's reliable, and I needed consistency more than much else those days. Particularly, on Sundays. 

 

On Sundays, coffee shops close early, the public libraries aren’t open, and it feels sacrilegious to commute uptown to study on campus. Sunday is also the day I find myself most distracted by feelings of lovesickness pulling me away from completing the work that piled up over the weekend. In that state, the idea of being alone in my silent, sofa-less apartment where my only seating choices are a stool or my bed, feels borderline dangerous. And it's in those moments of fraught isolation when I remember that for 15-25 dollars, I can spend the next four or so hours in the diner. That quintessential overpriced New York City diner where the coffee is both crap and never-ending, so you can sit as long as you want finding solace among the AA community, NYU faculty, and local elderly couples who order corned beef on top of their spaghetti. I found new meaning in the concept of comfort food through attempts to finish my plate of steak fries before they get cold and grainy, and still enjoying them when I fail.

 

The first Sunday I stumbled upon the diner, I peeked my head in half-heartedly, doubting I'd find somewhere secure to land for the evening. Like most major cities, it's hard to find a place to do work that checks all the boxes: wifi, restroom, laptops permitted, and no seating time maximum. To my sincere surprise, upon entering, I was greeted with more enthusiasm than I was ready to receive.  

 

“How are you!” the server screamed at me with joy walking quickly toward the doorway. 

“I’m great, thanks!” I responded to match his energy.

“Where have you been?!” he asked with widened eyes. 

And before I could respond, “let me take you to your usual table," he continued, turning away from me. 

 

There was obviously a mix-up, but who was I to deny myself such treatment? Without saying a word, I followed him and I sat down at my ‘usual table’ in the diner I had never been to before. The server, who I'd soon learn has worked here for over thirty years, proceeded to pour me coffee and send me smiles from across the room.

 

As I settled into the table I pretended to be completely familiar with, I wondered who he thought I was. He brought me to the only spot in the resturant with an outlet, so she must be a student like me. And she must be excruciatingly kind because I observed him treat the other customers around my age with significantly less interest and more than the occasional disdain. I was curious if we actually looked alike or just had a similar energy. 

 

That night, I studied with shocking productivity, ate a fabulously nurturing tuna salad sandwich, left a generous tip, and was sure to give a proper goodbye and thank you to my new, old friend, Kumar. 

 

A couple weeks later, I returned to the diner and was greeted by Kumar in the same way. This time, I couldn't not say something. I laughed as we made our way to what could now rightly be considered my usual table, and when I sat down, I admitted that I was not who he thought I was. He looked at me deeply and shook his head, asking if I'm sure. He said it with such sincerity I had to think about it myself. Am I sure?

 

I told him it was only my second time coming in, I just moved to New York. He apologized softly, looking at me with quizzical eyes that left me feeling unconvinced he believed me, and walked away. I ate more grainy steak fries, drank too much watery coffee, and was the last to leave after another night of respite at the diner. 

 

This routine happened another three to four times. A few weeks would go by and I would return to the diner and be mistaken for someone else, someone he missed, someone he was looking forward to seeing. I would tell him, again, that it wasn’t me, I wasn't who he was waiting for. He'd look at me and say, "oh right, that's right," but then the next time he would still greet me like I was her, like he never gave up that she was going to come again and this time, this time, it was actually her, not the other girl he’s been mistaking her for, not me. But, I think at some point I just became her in his eyes, our individualities merging into a permanent association. So I stopped correcting him. 

 

By now, I actually am a regular, and we have our own relationship that warrants his affection. Even though I know this care isn’t actually directed at me alone, I like to think I've established the right to receive it. 

 

During the few hours a month I spend in the diner assuming my identity as an anonymous stranger, I am given an opportunity to imagine who I am and who I could be. This practice is liberating and daunting, permitting me to dream in a way I've never allowed for myself as myself. I'm reminded the eavesdropped quote that "standards for self worth should not be decided by how strangers who have never met you treat you," but no where else have I felt seen more clearly in this city than in these moments, when I am the stranger.

 

Until the day we synchronistically go at the same time, I'll never know if she eats tuna salad sandwiches like I projected onto her the first Sunday. And until then, I'll never know if she ever actually returned again or if I truly am filling her role. I hope I am living up to who she is. I hope there are more of us. 

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The Waverly Diner, NY 2022
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