Friday, October 1, 2010

The Doppler Waitress...

...and other tales from our local diner.

Having a neighborhood place to eat where they know you by sight and possibly by name is a comfort. There is something about people noticing that you've existed before and that you continue to exist -even better, with money, in their establishment- that makes you feel like you're part of the strange circular machinations of human social structure.

We had 2 diners to choose from at one time, but the poor benighted Starlight Diner succumbed to the economic downturning of the country and is no more. Rest in peace, you made awesome grits and biscuits and gravy... *sigh* BUT... this left us with the great Happy Days Diner (aka the "Finer Diner" in smaller neon looping underneath the main name in bright glowing red) that is as 50's prone as one might think given the name. There is a jukebox in the middle of the room that at one point played CDs but now houses the tuner for Sirius/XM radio, always tuned in to the 50's channel.

It is run, ironically, by Egyptians. A family, in fact, and we know each and every one of them because they all work there and we see at least one of them each time we are there. It's kind of neat watching them because it's obvious they work hard for the place and are trying to make a go of things feeding working class folk on the outskirts of Philly. At one point one of the waitresses, intent on being friendly, advised us that the cook, related to the owner somehow, was kicked out of Egypt for political reasons and is now living in our area after having been granted political asylum. He apparently was a learned professor of some sort. Now he cooked our scrambled eggs. I didn't want to know that as I ate my breakfast. It seemed horribly unfair; at the same time it was immensely fascinating. If we were cast ashore on some foreign country, former white collar workers used to using our minds and not our hands for work, would we survive? As I crunched on my bacon my mind assured me we would fidget to death washing dishes, and I should probably not cause political unrest or anything interesting enough to catch the government's attention... the prospect of cooking someone's eggs in another country seemed a bleak and depressing fate.

We get to know some of the waiters and waitresses that stay there... not their names, but they get nicknames. Like "the happy guy", or "the gal with a lot of bracelets", or "the owner's kid". Titles meaningful only between the seats of our booth. But for the most part the rest of the staff, a good 80%, change constantly.

We only make it out there perhaps once a month these days, just enough to note the change in staff, the addition of things like pastry cases and a new omelette to the breakfast menu. They know us on sight, smile, and immediately take us to a booth. It's always the owner or his brother that seats us, and I'm fairly sure they know when we walk in that we're going to ask for a booth. They're good like that.

But tonight we noted the permanent departure of what was probably one of the most interesting characters we'd ever encountered there. More interesting than "new girl learning the ropes" who stood there in stark terror when told to ask us for something in our order as she was being trained. More interesting than "guy cleaning the salad buffet" who dropped an entire bus container of glassware and spent 10 minutes swearing in Spanish at people giving him crap over it.

She... she was unique. She was "Doppler Waitress".

At first we couldn't figure out WHY we had such a hard time hearing her. We would know she'd just asked us a question, but only catch the last third of it. We would also only realize she'd asked us after a few moments, not aware she'd walked up. Both of these seemed very strange. For about two visits we bandied about the idea that she was one of those notorious low talkers, but it didn't hold. When she was next to us we heard her clearly. So what was going on?

At one point when we were there waiting for our breakfast order, I watched her round a corner, looking intently at a table of four behind and catty-corner to us. She was 30 feet from them. But that didn't stop her from beginning to voice the question she had for them about their order, speaking in the same tone all the way down the aisle as if she were standing right next to them.. I watched their oh so familiar momentary confusion, overheard them ask her to repeat it, then watched her walk off.

Further observation bore out this behavior. As soon as she had her patrons in sight, she would begin talking to them, asking them how their food was, if they wanted X with their order, if they needed anything else... sometimes not even bothering to check if they were listening to her or waiting to start because they were in the midst of conversation. She simply started talking, and you only ever caught the last half to the last third of it as she walked up.

Thus identified, we learned to keep an eye out for her and lipread to guess what she was trying to ask us from 50 feet away. Because of her tendency to come towards you, bouncing sound whether you heard it or not, we dubbed her "the Doppler waitress".

Having not seen her the past two times, tonight's visit signals that she has officially moved on from Happy Days Diner, asking people from many dozen yards away if they want more coffee at some other locale. We wish her well... and that she would sort of wait until she got to the table to ask if we needed anything else.