Most days I start at the New Wyman, a diner about a mile from our house. It’s an old time diner, where people can still smoke while eating their greasy eggs. I’ve been going to the Wyman for a dozen years.
Pete and Mike run the place, and have for as long as I’ve been going. There are photos along the back wall, behind the cash register that show them and various others going back to the 60s. Pete works the register in the mornings and Mike works the grill. They’re brothers, from Poland, and have lived upstairs from the place since the beginning. Never married, they have girlfriends about their age, who live outside of town in a suburb called Marysville. I’ve never met them, but one Christmas Pete showed me a picture of the four of them at the Elks, tipping back champagne, the men in dark suits, the ladies in prom dresses.
This morning Pete is sitting on the stoop at 5:45 when I arrive. The place opens at 6, but the regulars come in anytime after 5. The mayor is in the back booth, reading his paper and eating scrambled and grits, no butter. Anderson from Anderson Motors is at the counter. He pours his own coffee and mine, too, when he sees me. I’ve sat next to him about 500 times and the extent of our relationship includes the occasional comment about the city street crews who dump too much new asphalt against the front driveway to his car lot, and an ongoing problem he has with a worker he calls a dumbshit Polack from Polackville.
Mike waves at me and wipes his hands on the seat of his houndstooth pants. “You want the regular,” he says, and I give him a thumbs up and sit down at the counter alongside Anderson.
I remember with great fondndess when I became a regular at the Wyman. It was about three years in. I no longer had to order from the menu. I no longer was handed a bill at the end, and I could pretty much have free reign to make fun of anyone in the diner the rest of us didn’t know.
That Mike often gives me the wrong meal used to trouble me. I took it as a sign of early dementia in him when he’d serve up a heaping plate of corned beef hash and fried eggs instead of my usual scrambled and bacon. I let it eat at me, in fact. Once, about five years ago, I stopped going to the Wyman because of it. I had earned something for my six bucks every morning. I had earned the respect that anyone does when they do a job right for a number of years.
For a month I went across town to a different diner, one with a score of employees, with glossy menus and bright lights. Where you couldn’t smoke except for a tiny area in the back by the bathrooms.
But I got tired of that, went back to the Wyman, and now eat whatever Mike gives me. I smile at the plate and pass six bucks on the counter at the end.
Cabbie comes in at exactly, gets a Styrofoam cup of of ice and water and slaps
on the back. He sits next to me, wolfs the water and starts talking to Mike
about the lottery. Anderson
Everyone is in the lottery here. Mike and Pete are in about twenty tickets each Saturday. They spend most of Fridays and Mondays going through it. Who owes who what. What the powerball was. Where they went wrong. What they’re going to do when they hit it.
The mayor once told them that lotteries were a tax on ignorant people and Pete said, “Well, they picked the right family.”
Becca, the counter girl, comes in around 6:15 and Pete gives the register duty over to her. He and Mike’s cousin Eddy start bringing out large silver trays of vegetables for the dinner crowd. They cook them in a hot water table right alongside the griddle all morning, then serve from there once comes. In more than ten years I’ve never seen the place except at 6. I have no idea what goes on there after 6:30, and don’t really care. I’m aware that they’re open until 2, but it has never occurred to me to stop by.
Different people, I’m sure. A new cast. I’d imagine the lunch food is good and greasy, and that pretty girls from the nearby businesses come in for the $7 Cobb salad. But it’s not for me. I get my lunch elsewhere.
This morning I finish my eggs, leave six singles on the counter and start for the door. The mayor catches me as I’m leaving.
He’s not the mayor, actually, he’s a business owner. He owns nine places downtown. But he looks like he should be the mayor, with his grey sidewalls and his nice suit.
“Gotta go open up,” he says, as we get to the outside at the same time. “Got a new kid who’s supposed to do it, but he’s never on time.”
The mayor is a big drinker, or so I’ve been told. I’ve never smelled it on him, but some mornings I’ll overhear Mike and Pete talking about a scene the mayor caused down at the Elks. “He damn near fell through the front window,” one of the brothers said once to me.
I give the mayor a nod and he winks at me when we go on our way.
He gets in a nice Lincoln parked outside the Wyman, pulls a u-turn on Howard Street and heads off in the opposite direction from where I’m headed.
My place opens at 8, but I get there by 7 every morning, sometimes before. I have a copy shop. Not a chain, although I’ve had lots of franchisers in my place over the years trying to get me to sign up. I started it 20 years ago now, after I got tired of working for other people. A lot of overhead in a copy shop, all those damn machines. And they break down fiercely, whenever you really don’t want them to. And at 5 cents a throw, it takes a lot of resumes and garage sale flyers to keep the lights on.
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea that I’m running it on a thread. I’ve got the newest gear, and a hundred corporate accounts all over town. It’s not just kids making lemonade stand posters, it’s 15,000 copies a day from the law firm across the street, and I added a bank of internet ready PCs two years ago that pull in $8 an hour.
The place gleams. I’m making a mint here. It’s like printing money. All I have to do is keep the staff working and on time, keep the place open enough hours of the day, and stay on top of things.
It’s my place, is what I mean to say. It’s mine more than our house. I own all of this. It took some doing, but when I turn the lights on and fire up the power supply, it’s all mine.
I sit inside in the dark, though, till 8:55 when the morning crew comes in. The girls and Stanley.
Stanley is my right hand man, and would be a perfect one to leave the place to if I ever took off on a vacation. But Judith and I hardly ever travel at the same time, so one of us can be around. Stanley comes in first, then the girls. The girls have names, I’m not trying to hide them. They are young and pretty. So pretty that they make my teeth hurt, my whole jaw, my whole head. Although I’m in my mid 40s, I don’t feel like it. I feel like a kid still in all the wrong ways. But my appearance, and I really hate to run through this, is that of a 50 year old. 52, maybe. Big belly. Bald. Sweaty all the time. Before the baldness I was prematurely gray. Gray in the sideburns., I still have the same dumb manly problems with young and pretty girls.
Stanley comes in, nods over at me, and goes to the front. He hits the neon sign that says “Open,” and unlocks the front doors, swinging them open to the outside because it is a pretty morning.
The girls, Tara and Jennifer, come over in the middle of a conversation about something. They each give me a wave, Tara coming right over to bump her shoulder against mine but never leaving a dead spot in her chatter.
I get the registers up and running, networked together with my own PC in the small office in the back, and soon the place is humming.
Tara helps a young man get started on one of the computers, and Stanley returns some phone calls that have come in since closing. He’s beside me at the main counter now, and I can see him writing down some requests from some long-standing accounts. He makes a question mark on the paper beside one of the orders and nudges me. It’s a guy who owes us for 6 weeks now, but I nod to him to let it go. We’ll do the copies. The guy is good for it.
By 10 am the place is full, the PCs all rented, some one-timers using the self-serve free-standing copiers in the front, Tara and Jennifer behind the counter, operating the giant Ricoh machines that take up almost half the floor space of the building.
Stanley is working the counter and the phones, making change, talking to someone, taking orders from customers.
I disappear past the machines, down a little hallway and go into my office for the first time of the day. Tara runs in right after I get down into my chair, and motions for me to be quiet. She reaches into her backpack which she’s carrying and pulls out something she hides behind her back. When she gets close, she holds it up above her head, waving it so I can’t quite see it, tiptoeing over.
She lays it down on my desk. It’s a CD, and it only takes me a minute to see that it’s a German import that contains the first two Sabbath albums, remastered from the original master tapes. I clasp my hand over my heart and tilt my head back.
Tara smooches me on the cheek and pats my head. “On the seventh day, the Lord said, let there be dinosaur rock.” She smacks me once more on the head and heads back to the store. “Consider it an early birthday present from me and eBay.”
My private phone rings and it’s Judith. She wants to tell me something about a party we’re supposed to attend, across the street at the pornographer’s house. He’s not really a pornographer, I suppose, but it’s what I call him. The first week he moved in he came over to introduce himself. He said he had a large chest in the back of his truck and wanted me to give him a hand lifting it out and into his basement.
I cooled my jets waiting for him while he backed the truck around three or four times getting the rear gate absolutely as close as he could to the steps that led to an outside basement door.
We negotiated the chest, a giant Army green one, out of the truck and got it to the top of the steps when it twisted in his hands and spilled out down and across the steps.
There were hundreds of girlie photos, nude, topless, some with men and women, one with a girl dressed up like a nun, wearing only the habit. And they weren’t pictures clipped or torn out of magazines, they were regular photos, 5X7s mostly, clear, glossy, stacks of them. Also in the box were 5 or 6 dozen floppy disks and zip disks. I saw the label on one that said: “Tammy Tries Out: Girl on Girl Action, Volume 5.”
What gets me is that the only annoyance he showed was about the 3 or 4 minutes it took us to scoop everything back in the chest. Once we got it all in and closed up again, we just carried the chest the rest of the way and left it in the middle of his basement. I didn’t even get a cold beer for my trouble.
But this dinner party is on Saturday, and Judith tells me this a few days ahead because she knows I have to get my head around such an event. It’s not that I’m unable to enjoy the company of others, but these phony and forced social events tend to turn my stomach into a little carnival.
I imagine that the pornographer and his new girlfriend will be hosting us, Charles and Rosalina from next door, the second marriage people from down at the end of the cul de sac.
Judith is still talking, but I’ve got the first of the Sabbath discs in the boom box and I’ve got it playing just loud enough to hear it. The clarity is startling. I keep bring the level up.
When Judith signs off, I close my door, really crank up the box and I’m in there until 11.
Stanley came to work for me about three years ago. He was a grad student at the time, studying History, writing a thesis, struggling for cash. He tutored kids on the side, worked at a CD store downtown, and now he was coming for hours with me.
I liked him. He was nice, pleasant. He knew he was carrying a heavy load, paying for his own education, working to support himself. I saw he had a worn down bicycle out front, but he showed up clean and ready for work. I gave him 5 hours the first week, 10 hours the next week, and ever since he’s worked exactly as much each week as he’s had time for.
He’s finished his masters, and has stayed on to finish the Ph.D. He occasionally comes in late for morning shifts, but it’s never a problem. He stays late, keeps track of everyone’s hours. He brought in Tara and Jennifer, and the girls who work the afternoons.
Around noon I go out to the store, still buzzing from the Sabbath. I flip Tara a thumb’s up and she smiles back at me. Stanley is running a register check and I notice the place is a little slow.
“I’m going for Chinese,” I say. “What do you all want?”
We have lived in this town, this Somethingville, ever since Grease was born. It feels like a lifetime all its own, although we lived other places that might have meant more.
As I walk to the restaurant, I see cars I recognize, two ladies coming out of a fabric store who are friends of Judiths, and a pal of mine who shoots darts with me on Saturdays at Dingle’s pub.
There’s a comfort to being around the good people of Somethingville. What I mean to say is that at times I have found a comfort in that familiarity, that safety, that sense of we are all in it together.
At other times, though, of course, I have felt suffocated by it. What I wouldn’t give for an occasional trip out of town, a long drive into the western states, where every corner opens up a new little town full of strange faces, new experiences.
This idea, this idea of the western states, has been eating at me for years. But in the last few months it’s become more powerful. In fact, aside from the writing of the memoir, it’s the thing that occupies my mind the most. I’ve imagined that a car trip from here to the Pacific Ocean, with a number of quirky and remarkable stops along the way, would make for a stunning centerpiece in my book. It would stand as a living metaphor for the journey of my life.
Each new town I would roll through would represent another stage of life.
I sometimes get my road atlas out, at work or at home, and I plot out strategies to escape this faceless town and head west. I long for
Havre, Boise .
I could be a giant out there, thumbing my nose at the ingrates of this dead
The fact that Judith always says she’d go along cools the dream a bit. I imagine another wife would hold up the western states as some kind of foolishness, some idiocy brought on by the approaching birthday. Why not get a convertible, some wives might say. I wish that were the case, but Judith is all for it. She’s ready to go, as well. She’s ready to crack the road atlas, and all of that makes the dream a little less mine, and a little less likely.
I get the Chinese and go back to the shop. The four of us spread it around a work table in my office and take turns strolling out to the main room to check on things. It’s 1:30 when the food is gone. Tara cleans it up and deposits the plastic and paper bags into our alley bin.