The sharp economic downturn took place shortly after we moved into our corner of the city, and the result was that our neighborhood was coming undone just as we were settling into it. Restaurants and stores emptied as quickly as dominoes falling up one side of the street and around down the other side. Yet the small corner diner was one of the last businesses to go, which seemed odd, given just how horrible the food was there. Since the window blinds were always drawn shut, it was hard to know when (or whether) the diner was even open, but the blinds did serve to hide an especially dreary interior from the view of passersby.
After the old diner finally left that sliver of a storefront, it became a kind of civic blindspot, a place on the block where no one bothered to look any longer. For quite a while, there was nothing to see but a fading “For Rent” sign and a local phone number. The new diner moved in speedily, almost under the cover of night, except that it was after the evening hours that it made its presence felt and known. Then it burst forth in a blaze of outsized neon. Though the new place was named Tiny’s Diner, it provided light enough for the whole city block. As soon as the sun set, there was no doubt whatsoever that it was open for business.
This year, my husband and I were not travelling for Thanksgiving, since we would be celebrating with friends and neighbors nearby, people who were very kindly doing the cooking for the holiday. So that Wednesday prior, at the end of my workday, instead of hopping a train or plane, I had a late lunch at Tiny’s – so late, in fact, that it probably qualified as dinner. That point is moot, however, because breakfast is served all day and all night, at every imaginable hour, and breakfast is what I ate.
The service was slow and each one of my pancakes was burned on its underside, but I still cannot recall a more enjoyable meal that I’ve eaten by myself. Tiny’s has the advantage of being cozy; you could number its few tables and booths on your fingers and the number of seats at the counter on your toes. There was a solitary waiter covering tables, booths, and stools all by himself, but he remained casual and chatty and called people by their names. They clearly knew who he was and they clearly felt known by him. I found myself feasting on that fact alone.
My husband and I are both big fans of Hemingway short story called “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” a little gem in American literature, although the place in its title is actually a Spanish cafe. Near the end, the older waiter tells the younger one, “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café…. This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good also, now, there are shadows…. It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant.”
On the day before Thanksgiving, Tiny’s was all those things and more. It was also warm and dry, safe and sound, things everyone in New York takes notice of during these days after the storm. Who really cares if the pancakes were burnt? In the Gospels, Jesus quotes that Torah portion reminding us that “man does not live by bread alone.” While the pancakes were necessary, they were certainly not sufficient to the moment. We live very much by and in the spirit – of places, of meals, of encounters. These provide us with the context for connection, but not ultimately the quality of that.
The next day, as our neighbors were in and out of their kitchen cooking the ceremonial turkey, we sat discussing the local scene with their teenage son and his octogenarian grandmother. Tiny’s soon came up as a topic of conversation, and the teenager’s father fretted over its future. Pretty much all the meals there are mediocre at best; we all understood the nature of
his concern. Then his son upbraided him, saying, “Dad – it’s a diner.”
The point was well taken. Ideally, a diner is a clean, pleasant, well-lighted place in the same way that Hemingway’s café was. It opens early and closes late, seven days a week. It offers daily specials and stray seats at the counter. With its picture windows, checkerboard tile, and neon signage, Tiny’s stands as a beacon of hope on a city block in the middle of a turnaround, at the margins of a city continuing through the early stages of what will no doubt be a lengthy recovery. Affection, disbelief, and a dash of faith will bring me through its doors again, not the cuisine, but I know that once I’m inside, I will not be alone; I will surely find myself in good company. For that, I truly do give thanks.