Friday, October 14, 2005

Scenes from a Family Restaurant, 12:06 a.m.

What you are about to read is true. Even the unicorn part. The names have been changed to protect the random people of Gaithersburg, Maryland...

Around 11:30 last night I realized that I hadn't had dinner, and I had no food in the apartment. So, pathetic wretch that I am, I decided to join the glitterati at IHOP. I opted for the Gaithersburg outlet, as the Rockville IHOP garners a less-than-savory crowd late in the evening. I think I've mentioned before that the Rockville IHOP is not far from the Montgomery County pokey, and it's a big hit with peeps who have just been released from the drunk tank or made bail after a bad bustup with the live-in whatever.

We think it would be a great marketing coup if the Rockville IHOP started making a goodie bag for people just getting released. A discount coupon, a sample of Purell or baby wipes, and a t-shirt with the IHOP logo, with "IHOPped outta jail!" on the back.

I have dubbed this lovely locale the "Incarcerated House of Pancakes" and I only go there on Christmas morning when the crowd is more friendly, and I am in the company of the Atomic Editor and his lovely spouse. As I am a lapsed cafeteria Catholic and they are God's Chosen People®, it's an excellent spot for Jewish Christmas Brunch before a movie at the multiplex up the street. (Sadly, as the Atomic Couple have moved to the Windy City, I'm afraid my days of celebrating Christmukah are behind me.)

So, Gaithersburg it was.

It was drizzly and foul outside, and people were driving like loons on I-270, one of the big commuter roads up here in Montgomery County. This is not a surprise, as most people on 270 drive like they're on the track at Daytona. I think most of them have forgotten that their vehicles could easily be turned into their own personal Number 3 deathbox car if they keep it up.

Jesus. I made a Nascar reference. Someone kill me now.

[smacks self upside head.]


I'm better now.

Sadly, the Gaithersburg IHOP was closed by the time I got up there. I forgot they shut down at the witching hour on weekdays. I had only two choices left: the drive thru at Mickey D's (yuck) or, God help me... Denny's.

Not the finest of choices, but, with an eye toward a meal with non-fried vegetables and the possibility of fresh fruit, I opted for Denny's. Now, back in the day, one of my brothers was a short order cook at the Denny's in lovely Moline, Illinois (Farm Implement Capital of the World.) And, while it probably pained him to have to cook for us at home, he could make a helluva diner breakfast for you. So, I figure, at the very least, Denny's cooks know their way around a grill, so I can get an omelet, a glass of milk, whatever passes for the "fresh fruit cup" and be on my way.

But then, I forgot what a freaking Twilight Zone the Gaithersburg Denny's is 'round midnight. No one there is normal, unless you're a little... different... and you equate "normal" with the characters from "OZ."

I miss Augustus Hill.

Last night was no exception. One small wing of the restaurant was jam-packed with a colorful assortment of customers, but the rest of the place was empty. While I waited to be seated, I had a few minutes to scan the room and get a feel for the little dramas playing out among the shadow people holding court there.

There was a couple clearly on on a blind date - I'm guessing Internet-inspired. She was tiny and well dressed and looked horribly uncomfortable. He was enormous and unkempt and swathed in baggy painter's jeans and a too-tight t-shirt. I watched the discomfort when they went to pay the bill, and, waiting by the register for a table, I had no choice but to listen to their tentative chat.

She: "This wasn't exactly what I expected."
He: "Well, I figured Denny's would be a good public location for a first meeting."
She: "No. That isn't what I'm talking about... This is bad... This... is... uh... not good... Can you pay? I've gotta go."

Yikes. Sounds like someone maybe wasn't completely up front in his personal ad. And even if he was, Denny's, dirty hair, and painter's paints = not a good choice.

A booth of four hard-looking women were cackling loudly. I caught the word "meth" a couple of times. That was all I needed to hear.

The table in the far corner was occupied by a young man with a predatory look. He wore an oversized black leather Avirex jacket and a stretchy black cap pulled tight over his head. A weighty gold chain draped down his chest over a black t-shirt. A nervous peroxide blonde, her hair teased into a bad 1980s Texas cheerleader 'do, cleaved to his side, picking at the wooly Avirex logo that ran down his right jacket sleeve. She was thin. Too thin. Heroin thin. Chain smoker thin. And she had trashy dark smudges of liner circling her eyes. Cleopatra of the Trailer Park. He shot angry glances at anyone who looked their way. I briefly caught his eye and I attempted a disarming smile, but it was met with more of his icy look. He won. I turned away.

Anita, my waitress, finally fetched me from the entryway and took me to a table on the empty side. "You look like you could use a quiet meal," she said, smiling at me. "I wouldn't wanna sit with all them people." I agreed. The only other occupied table was right across from me, where two young men, one black, one Latino, held court, taking cell phone calls and greeting more young men of color who came through briefly, offering offered handshakes and loud greetings. "Dawg" was the word of the night.

"Whazzup, dawg? Whatcha doin' here? You ain't workin' tonight, are ya? Dawg, I wouldn't hang here when I'm not workin'! Shiiiit."

The Latino table king vanished for a couple of minutes and returned with a large plate of scrambled eggs and breakfast meats and another stacked with pancakes. He ate with one hand and sketched out something on a napkin with the other.

Another waitress appeared. "That was my dinner! Shit, Juan, you gotta buy me some dinner now!"

Juan smiled, "Awww, Marisa, c'mon. It's no biggie!" She gave him the finger and some rapid fire Spanish shot between him and the angry waitress. He laughed and she turned away, pounding across the floor in search of the other waitress.

"Shit! Anita! Juan ate my motherfucking slam! Bastard!"

I couldn't see the booths around the corner, but the level of conversational buzz never dipped. It was as if no one had even heard the outburst, which was bellowed at full volume. Apparently, no one cared.

The "motherfucking slam" in question

Juan continued to sketch, immune to the waitron's rants. The black guy across from him finally spoke. "You know, if I were the manager here, I'd fire her ass. Screaming and shit and using fucking obscenities in front of the customers..." (Apparently, he didn't notice me sitting right across from him.) He had an African accent, but it was hard to place. His tone was staccato, not lilting like the voices of most of the Africans I meet in the DC area.

"But you're not," Juan replied, not looking up from his sketching. "Me, I don't care. I mean, I come here, I do my job, I go home. I'm gonna be an artist, dawg. I'm gonna open my tattoo shop."

"You're really gonna do my ink, man?" The African stood up, excited.

"Yeah, sure I will. I told you not to get them done in prison. I would do it for you. But what do you want?"

The African held his hands out before him, envisioning his inky dream. "I want a lion and the Lord Jesus Christ on my left shoulder, okay?"

Juan nodded and started sketching on a fresh napkin. "Okay, dawg. I got it."

"And then," the African said, standing up. "I want the man I shot across my back, down low. Like this." He got down on the carpeted floor between our tables, stretched out. "This is what he looked like after I shot him. Just like this." The African played dead, or at least bleeding, on the floor, slack-jawed.

I was totally captivated, in a really creepy way. Plus, this man was lying on the frigging carpet at a not-so-clean Denny's, his head near my feet. WTF? Suddenly, my Denver omelet didn't seem so intriguing.

Juan nodded again and sketched madly. The African stood up and continued.

"And, in the middle of my back, I want me, walking away from him, like this." He turned his back to Juan, his hand at his side, mimicking a handgun. "I want it to look exactly like it was after I shot that fucker."

"You know, this is getting a little complex," Juan said slowly. "I'm just starting my business, dawg..."

The African dropped to his knees in front of Juan. "And you know those Muslim women, how they wear those scarves on their heads? I want a woman on my right shoulder. She's wearing one of those scarves, and she's kneeling, and in front of her, there is a child, kneeling, too, and he has his hands cupped, like he's praying, right? And he's looking up at her and--"

"Daaaawg. This is getting really complex. Let's go back to the lion and the lord, okay man?"

The African stood up again, all fired up. "And in the middle? Next to me? I want a unicorn!"

I think that's when I heard the crickets start chirping.

Juan stopped sketching. "Awww, dawg. No."

The African tilted his head. "Why not?"

Juan looked appalled. "Dawg, c'mon. I'm an artist, and you are a proud African man. You've done time in prison, daaaawg. I'm not gonna put a unicorn on your back! Let's focus on the lion and the lord, okay?"

"But I want a unicorn! What's wrong with a unicorn?"

And then, both their cell phones rang. One conversation started up in fast Spanish, the other in French.

My dinner of runny eggs (minus the advertised cheddar cheese) and crappy crucifried hash browns was done. I finished my glass of milk and walked the few steps to the register. Neither waitress had been in sight since the "Slam Incident." Finally one woman arrived to take care of me. As she counted my change, a new couple came through the doors. Another anxious-looking, rail thin, peroxide blonde in the shadow of a tall brother in a stylish Nautica jacket. He had a stern look and a cell phone to his ear.

I gathered my money and turned to go. The couple waiting to be seated looked at each other. Her harsh features melted and his iron features morphed into the goofiest, broadest grin ever seen. "You are so cute when you smile," she said, giggling like a fifteen-year-old. "You too," he answered, tapping her nose with one finger. The smiles were unmistakable - they were those ridiculously stupid grins only seen on the faces of people so much in love, they've totally blocked out the rest of the world.

I couldn't help but smile in response. Even in the middle of the Denny's Twilight Zone, there's a little normalcy after all.

God bless us, everyone. And Juan, buy Marisa a new motherfucking slam, okay?


suze said...

wow. what a great night to be eating late!!!

excellent recount :)

Claire said...

"A nervous peroxide blonde, her hair teased into a bad 1980s Texas cheerleader 'do, cleaved to his side..."

I loved this phrase. And the unicorn...that's just hilarious.

Merujo said...

You have to wonder if Edward Hopper were alive today, would he have painted a Denny's instead of "Nighthawks."

Weird damn place.

alwswrite said...

Thanks for the tip -- I'll definitely avoid the Rockville IHOP from now on.

You are officially invited to MY neighborhood for Chrismukah brunch. Seriously, start a new tradition, let an old one die. It's the natural order of things.

paulnojustpaul said...

When you described Avirex Jacket man and Nervous Peroxide gal I was so seeing Pulp Fiction in my head. :-)