Kitschy retro diners are supposed to make you feel as though you have stepped away from the outer world and into the protective womb of the fifties. All the counters are clean, all the waitresses wear white, and all the food is decidedly nationalistic — with only slight nods to South of the Border Sauce to even remind you of the global complexities that await outside after you pay the balance of your check.
Today, sitting alone at an empty counter, i found myself wondering how strict a typical retro diner is with its staff about anachronisms. To my recollection i have never been served onion rings in such a fine establishment by anyone wearing a digital watch, but not all potentially meal-spoiling anachronisms are so conveniently dated. What about hair scrunchies?, i mused. And, at that point at a loss for some other easily identifiable item, or breast augmentation? Before i could get too involved in that particular arm of speculation my waitress arrived with a menu and, to my unending delight, bobby pins holding her hair back.
As she handed me my menu i thought that i am never quite sure what to think of my physical appearance, which i described just last night as “androgynously timeless.” Still, today i am surely at my best: just enough stubble to suggest i might not be in high school, bangs carefully crafted with a sticky mess of pomade, wool scarf wrapped around my neck. I never expect anyone to notice me, though; i am typically a cypher on a crowded street, slipping through a crowd while remaining completely unremarked on.
My waitress commenced flirting with me shortly after i informed her that i was trying to decide if i was hungry enough to have something beyond my initial order of rings. Her hair was auburn and pulled back by the aforementioned bobbies, leaving only a few escaped crinkles to frame a face set with remarkably blue eyes. Actually, the flirting coincided exactly with my first free refill of lemonade, which by rights should have cost me a dollar sixty-nine.
The subtle irony of her name being Laurel did not escape me.
I, of course, am oblivious to flirting even when aware of it, if that makes any sense at all. Eventually Laurel coaxed an order out of me, and by the time she disappeared to put in a request for Smokehouse Turkey Burger i had finally caught on. Back she came, burger in hand. She smiled. As i ate i listened to her talk to a co-worker about how she needed off on Friday because her roommate was in a show, and she had promised months ago to attend but had then totally forgotten. She intermittently peeked over her shoulder at the fryer, idly drumming her fingers on the counter if she felt as if it was taking too long.
I decided the cut of her khakis could not have existed before the seventies, though i have no ideas about the origin of the style of underwear which non-too-quietly broadcasted itself through said pants. She came by to give me my fourth free lemonade refill and asked me if everything was okay, and i quickly gulped down my food to reply. “Yes. You could bring a check,” which came off as very charming, i’m sure.
As i came within three bites of finishing my burger i wistfully glanced out the window at the bustle of South Street, trying to imagine the stores that would have dotted its sidewalks fifty years ago. I can already tell that i will be one of those old people that talks about how different things were when i was young because i do it already and, i suppose in connection to that, i am fascinated by the idea of Philadelphia as it was decades ago. The buildings, the cars, the fashion, the people.
As much as i might like to pretend, we had no place there: me with my headphones draped around my neck and her with those bothersome khaki pants. Unable to find a way around my unsuspended disbelief and into the background of a scene from Dobie Gillis, i decided to leave. Laurel deserved twenty percent, if not for the pleasant flirting then for the seven dollars of free lemonade, and i found that my wallet contained exactly one hundred and twenty percent of the bill — down to the last cent. I placed it on the counter, neatly folded on top of a clean napkin, and left without a word.