For this writer, when the day comes and if I have a choice of a last meal, I want it to be in a diner
A couple of weeks ago Memphis lost one of its more beloved yet unsung players in our collective soul. CK’s Coffee Shop on Poplar and Evergreen in Midtown, one of the last remaining structures of the now-defunct family-owned chain of CK’s neighborhood diners, was shoveled away with a pitiless shrug and a backhoe, making room for a drive-thru coffee shop, a contradiction in ideals if there ever was one.
I never sat down in a booth at this particular CK’s, never planted my elbows on its Formica, ordered a cup-a-coffee or eggs over-easy or a side of bacon out of that kitchen. Sadly, I missed out. However, in my short time here in Memphis I had at least sat down in a couple of (also now-defunct) E’s 24-Hour Cafés, the former CK’s houses that served up some of the same grilled, flattop fair, the one at Park and Mt. Moriah and the one on Poplar across from East High School. And, in my fifty-plus years, I’ve spent many a morning, afternoon or night at countless diners and coffee shops around this country of ours.
So as I watched that backhoe break down and dig through the remains of countless meals and 24-7 conversations, I was struck with a profound sadness, feelings and memories that won’t leave me, that have ever since followed me like a lost dog.
It occurred to me that my relationship with diners goes way back, and has become a part of the fabric of my psyche. A wonderful symphony that echoes in my sense memories, of clinking plates and silverware, the sizzle and wonderful aromas of the grill, barked out short orders, the hum of distant conversation, the sheen and sleekness of art deco decor, the joy of scanning a menu and the plastic laminate between your fingers, the feel of a fresh coffee cup, the anticipation of a hot plate of goodness.
I practically grew up in a diner. Learned the ebb and flow of dialogue in a diner. The art of change-the-world conversation. The art of ordering eggs made to order. Learned to sit up straight and put a paper napkin on my lap and be nice to the waitress. Learned how to divvy up a check, pick up the tab, and leave a decent tip. Learned how to listen, to watch, to savor.
In high school in Orange County we didn’t have many independently-owned diners. None that I and my buddies knew of anyway. But we had a Bob’s Big Boy and a Denny’s, and in our sun-bleached, sanitized California neighborhood they stood in pretty well for our diner needs. Eggs, bacon and pancakes for dinner, check. Burger and coffee at 3AM, check. Slick vinyl booths and formica table tops, check. When I and my huckster friends finally had a little cash and at least one of us had a car, off we went to nearest diner, ahead of an 8 or 9PM showing of Risky Business or Scarface or Trading Places.
We had talks. Real talks. About real things. Our teachers and our f-ing parents and nuclear proliferation and The Police and Madonna and the girls in gym and what the hell college are you going to. And around the table, we were bonded by our discourse and our body language — our eyes glued to each other’s expressions rather than the screens of any friggin’ mobile phone — just us and our messy thoughts over messy plates and stray French Fries and spilled salt, swapping stories and ideals and our glorious bullshit. No google or Facecrack or parents tracking our location. Need to call home? There’s a pay phone by the bathroom. Got a problem? Let’s settle it right here.
In college after theater rehearsals it was cast and crew off to the coffee shop around the corner, drinking coffee and talkin’ techniques and plays and films until two-three in the morning. That’s when I learned I liked my coffee cream-no-sugar. And when I realized my political and social stances, and when I finally found my writing voice.
One of the many things I love about a good diner is that they are come-as-you-are. No pretenses. Nothing formal. Always affordable. Certainly no reservations. And some of them even double as dive bars or bar & grills. With years of grueling business travel I stumbled upon a few personal favorites around the country. The 5 Point Café in Seattle’s Bell Town some night after midnight I barely remember, with 3 guys I had met at another bar downtown. The Dublin Bar & Grill at State and Rush streets on Chicago’s North Side, still miraculously holding its ground around new condos and rising rents.
But it’s the classic, old-school New York City diners I love most. One of my all-time favorites – the aptly-named Manhattan Diner on 77th and Broadway – is sadly now gone, felled by a new condo building and a CVS. But the great Waverly Restaurant, in the West Village on the corner of Waverly and Sixth, is still miraculously there. The Waverly diner has it all. Come as you are. No reservations. Always affordable. Great service. A lunch counter. Vinyl-covered booths with a first-row seat of the street ballet of a quintessential New York corner. The A, C and E subway trains of the 4th Street station rumbling below your feet. Steaks and eggs and toast and hash browns and whatever else your palate desires, all there. And, always open.
Diners are a part of our American psyche, captured in beautiful noir style by painter Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks, famously re-imaged and re-depicted countless times. As they do in life, in film and TV – the 1960s Manhattan of Mad Men of course featured dozens of them, and half of the ‘90s show-about-nothing sitcom Seinfeld takes place in a coffee shop – diners establish that critical, visceral sense of place, the supporting characters in an endless 24-7 parade of celluloid memories, and some of the best dialogues and pivotal moments in movie history. They’ve been characters and settings in numerous films in the noir style, and in classics like In the Heat of the Night, The Sting, When Harry Met Sally, Back to the Future, The Big Lebowski, Swingers, Heat. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese is obviously a diner-phile, featuring coffee shop scenes in Taxi Driver, After Hours, and Goodfellas among others. Quentin Tarantino too, with key diner moments in Reservoir Dogs and the brilliant opening and closing bookends in Pulp Fiction. And back to television for a moment, who can forget the excruciating climax of The Soprano’s, which was set in the North Jersey ice cream parlor Holsten’s that is also, clearly, a diner. Barry Levinson gave top billing and a leading roll to one for his film Diner. A diner is a key loop in Bill Murray’s over and over day in Groundhog Day. Heck, even Dumb and Dumber has a great diner scene. And of course, a diner is the setting for one of the seminal coffee shop scenes in cinema history in the 1970 Five Easy Pieces, with Jack Nicholson’s indelible Jack moment as the sardonic Bobby Dupea.
Waitress: No substitutions . . I’m sorry but we don’t have any side orders of toast.
Nicholson’s Bobby: What’ya mean you don’t make side orders of toast, you make sandwiches don’t’cha? You’ve got bread. And a toaster of some kind?
Waitress: I don’t make the rules.
Bobby: Ok I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like an omelette, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce, and a cup of coffee. . . Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich and you haven’t broken any rules.
Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Bobby: I want you to hold it between your knees.
Diners are democratic. They’re inherently social, of the human kind – social media has no seat at the counter here – the place to swap jokes and ideas and be seen by your neighbors, local store owners and local leaders. There’s a reason coffee shops and lunch counters became the setting for the sit-ins during the civil rights movement in the ‘60’s. By their openness and light they beg for human contact and elbow-to-elbow points-of-view, where we interact, share the same space, air, and energy. They beg for the practice and push for democracy.
And the kitchen grills – oh the grills! – are often within view of we patrons, so can we watch our eggs and our patties sizzling right in front of us, hypnotized and mesmerized by the cook’s skills with the spatula and the ballet of the short-order and what’ya havin’, mack?
But drive-thru’s, they’re anti-social. They’re isolationist. They’re for the lemmings in all of us (ya, myself included sometimes). Bumper to bumper behind fumes and windshields in our shiny metal boxes, on the road and in too-damn-a-hurry. Drive-thru’s kill human to human contact. And with the oncoming AI wave, I wouldn’t be surprised to one day soon see them run by bots, synthetic servers over the squawk boxes, delivered by robotic arms.
And drive-thru’s are killing our chances for bike- and pedestrian-friendly corridors. Navigating around drive-thru’s on Union and out on Poplar – Chick fil-a lines and Starbuck’s drive-thru lines anyone? – is hard enough in a car. For walkers and bikers it’s a take your life in your hands proposition.
And at the old CK’s spot, I fear for what the new drive-thru will do that already look-left-and-right-and-over intersection, where bumper to bumper cars will line up around where Evergreen meets Poplar and veers through the intersection to Belvedere, and Evergreen splits to Belvedere and ends at Poplar, across from the Evergreen Theatre and right in front of Drake’s Cleaners – ya, confusing. (As they are written and codified, yes I understand the allowances and limitations of our building United Development Codes along our commuter corridors like Union and Poplar. I get it. A drive-thru is technically allowed by right at the former CK’s spot. But damn, on a gut level I can’t see how this drive-thru will do anything but create a mess and put one nail in the walkable streetscape coffin.)
CK’s Coffee Shop was but one small building. And maybe I’m being fatalistic – we’ve all seen things in the last five years that none of us could have imagined – but its demolition feels like yet another blow to our humanity. Another death-by-a-thousand blows to what it means to live.
Of course, thankfully and mercifully we still have many of our local favorites, including a handful of savory and wonderfully greasy Waffle Houses within a short drive. We still have the great Arcade on South Main, the Cupboard Restaurant on Union, Brother Juniper’s off Highland, and my personal go-to, Bob’s Barkdale Restaurant on Cooper, where everyone knows your name. No they’re not open past 2PM, but I’ll take it anyway. It satisfies the craving, and always delivers. What’ya havin’ today, hon? Eggs over easy, check. Patty melt, check. Vinyl booths, check. Endless hot coffee, check. Affordable, check.
And in their own affordable, come-as-you-are way, we have Sunrise Memphis on Jefferson and another out on Poplar, we’ve got Celtic Crossing on Cooper, and we have our bar & grill home-away-from-home in our local Huey’s restaurants. Always friendly. Always good. Always a place to settle your brains and your nerves.
They say you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. Well there’s a lot of that goin’ ‘round lately, CK’s Coffee Shop being one of them. I am fully aware of what we’ve got, what we’ve got left and what we’ve lost, and as I watched that backhoe do its last scraping and rummaging, the memories of meals and 24-7 conversations past came back to me. And it was right there and then I decided that I want my last meal to be in a diner. Long live Barkdale’s, the Arcade, Brother Juniper’s, our Waffle Houses, the diners and coffee shops of our dreams. A place where another pour of hot coffee is always on its way, and a place that’s always open.
Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis. Sometimes he writes.
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