‘REASSURANCE’ IN AN OLD-STYLE DINER

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

Small diners in my part of the world in lower New York State a few decades back were known for tasty, homemade food served by owners and their staff who seemed like family, especially for the regular customers. They were homes away from home. And they could be small theater for the characters within.
Each diner — Hogan’s, Tiny’s, Sparky’s, etc., often several in every village and town — was small enough — like an old railway dining car — that you were intimate with the other patrons but also, if you buried yourself in your newspaper, you could be by yourself. Not unlike the table at home where your siblings might be jabbering away but quiet you wanted to be, lost in your thoughts.
Our diners, like small-town eateries anywhere and even the intimate ones in cities back when they were simple, too, knew their customers. Regulars would be greeted accordingly, usually with voices loud enough so that the rest of us took notice and either said hello or mentally checked off our list that another member of the “family” was in the “house.” Reassurance, again.
Diners offered further intimacy with staff, including the waitress who knew all about you, who had your order placed even before you sat down, who kept a pencil in her hair and a check pad in her apron pocket, even if she took your order by memory.
And there was the grill cook, the fellow at the “flat top,” who had home fries simmering on low heat in the back left and who used the full surface to griddle pancakes, eggs over easy, burgers, onions, without burning anything, his hands quick to open up the left-side refrigerator where he took out American cheese or reached overhead to pull bread from the Pullman loaves left by the local commercial bakery, Ramapo or Widman’s.
The cook was truly intimate with the customers, some of whom would purposely sit in front of him to watch him work. One advantage was that you could fine-tune the time on your eggs.
Some of these grill cooks, like others in the old diner industry, were itinerant, and they came for a few months in summer and went south in the winter. But they were as regular as a clock in showing up at the right time.
The customers were regular, too, in their often quirky ways, as in any family. One fellow I recall stirred his coffee about 15 times, after loading it up with five spoons of sugar. Then he banged the spoon on the rim of the green java cup as if to wring out the last drop. Finally, with an “ah,” he began to literally slurp the coffee. Did this each and every time. Did that routine for years. And, funny as it was, it was reassuring to the other regulars in the old diner. Reassuring to him, too.
In those days, the police chief came in, the mayor, the auto mechanic, the principal. Everyone knew each other or of one another, often going back generations. So there would be nods and small questions, like “How’s the vegetable patch this year, chief?” Overall, it made for trust, especially with the police. They were your neighbors.
Maybe the world, at least parts of the American world, especially our cities and anonymous suburbs, could use a few of the old diners, their staff, their food, their patrons. They could use reassurance from “family.”

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay was adapted from an earlier version.

TEA TIME IN AMERICA

January 15, 2018

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

It is tea time in America, whether that is your favored beverage or not. The Irish, the English know that troubled moments are best navigated with a spot of the brew, and now is our need.
So, metaphorically, let us sit a spell. It need not be 3 p.m. Indeed, it is already high noon in our nation.
In his last State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said on Jan. 11, 1944, just months before the great invasion of Europe would extinguish the long horror of tyranny, that “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
Ah, yes, and also the mojo for the 2016 presidential election in which too many long-lost Democrats never saw the poverty in West Virginia or how the closing of the local Walmart forced even more into depression when their only place to socialize was gone. Bernie knew that, Clinton did not. The liberal talk of a party of the people had never gone to the walk. People were still jobless, poor, without hope, largely white and so very ripe for the false promises of the Republicans.
Perhaps the GOP’s old moderates could have led the “people who are hungry and out of a job …” to freshly fertilized pasture and its hope, but they are as neutered as liberal Democrats.
In his address, FDR said, “This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty. As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. …”
The president, in a time when that title was revered, was advocating a Second Bill of Rights to ensure jobs, food, clothing and leisure “with enough income to support them”; farmer’s rights; freedom from monopolies; good housing; medical care; and education.
What FDR did not anticipate was the growth of special-interest money, now legalized to sway elections, nor the inherently anti-democratic military/industrial complex whose profits are fed by war not peace.
So, it is tea time in America, and while the poor, good American from West Virginia or the out-of-work, college-educated businessperson or the 56-year-old laid-off factory worker or the children of promise in urban poverty, or children anywhere in America (for they are all of promise) have a tough day most days while government fiddles and even grossly insults, there is a place at the kitchen table for them.
FDR sought to protect them — all of us — from another Great Depression. He tried to prevent more war and the dictatorships that build on the down and out, but his Second Bill of Rights proposal died with him. No one since has successfully picked up the standard without being knocked down by special interest.
Tea may not prove enough to get through this darkness, but it will make the good people — and they are most of us — feel better as we hope for a national reset.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

ON THE NORTHEAST COLD

Great-grandfather’s old stove

January 8, 2018

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

It is one degree in Blauvelt, N.Y., as I write this piece, unusual cold these days in this part of the Northeast not far from New York City but reminiscent of old winters.
In that time, though, cars did not start easily, coal furnaces had to be hand-stoked, hoping that the fire did not dissapear from the embers banked the night before, and my female schoolmates waited for buses wearing required dresses, their poor legs red from the biting cold and wind.
And that was just 50 or so years ago. Imagine back another half century with horses to saddle, wood cooking stoves to refill and a long walk to school.
So, the moment is relative, as it always is, and even without a frame of reference, say the 20 year old who knew not the world in 1968, you can appreciate some of modern technology, at least if you can afford it. Or if you are not homeless, as too many remain in this rich nation.
On this one-degree day, a Sunday in Blauvelt, there was not many errands, so no multiple trips about. Just a cozy day inside, and thanks for that. Thanks that I was not my grandfather putting coal ash on the driveway for a gritty surface. Thankful that I wasn’t my great-grandmother milking her cow at 6 a.m. And grateful that I wasn’t my triple-great-uncle responding to a fire call with a steam-fired pumper.
Yet I was thankful for a bit of nostalgia thrown my way in the cold. When I was five, living in nearby Sloatsburg, the rented house on Seven Lakes Drive had no central heating, just a large grate in the hall off the living room that sat above a hand-fed gravity coal furnace. On very frigid mornings my brother Craig and I would get dressed standing on that grate, hopping from one foot to another since the metal got hot.
Now, in 2018, that memory was reawakened on the one-degree morning when, after rising at 5:30, I brought down clothes, threw them in front of the gas fireplace, started the fire, and when it was putting out heat, got dressed in front of the fireplace. No foot-hopping this time, though.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com