Getting up at the proverbial ass crack of dawn doesn’t bother me all that much, to tell you the truth. It’s being awake just before then that succeeds in wreaking havoc on my senses. Right now it’s early, very early — or very late, depending on your stance regarding matters of the nocturnal.
Presiding over me is that heinous time of night which is special for not really being night, but neither is it day. D’you know what I mean? Everything feels seedy and unpleasant, like no truly positive, decent or wholesome act could possibly be transpiring at such a wanton, iniquitous hour. I feel little compunction in saying it’s rather as though purgatory has here been made earthly, somehow tangible.
The air I’m breathing is cold without being refreshing — really just abrasive — while the sky is inky and opaqued in a way that suggests it’s hiding something apocalyptic above. My eyes are utterly devoid of any moisture, likewise my brain of any rest, such that everything has taken on a quality of being at once hypo- and paranormal. This doesn’t qualify as dream or nightmare; it’s something closer akin to hysteria.
The man hasn’t gotten any fucking sleep, is what he’s getting at.
Be that as it may, such a stage of amusing macabre is that which has been set for this harrowing round with the blight of insomnia that I find myself queerly accepting of the prevailing circumstances. I write to you from the faux-leather booth seat (street-walker red) of a forlorn diner tucked discreetly away in the sleepy Houston suburb of Bellaire, TX.
Regrettably, friends, I must refrain from recounting to you the unscrupulous sequence of events that led me here to the actual epicenter of surreality on Earth. This is partly in the interest of legality, but principally because I’d rather have a go — in all my not inconsiderable delirium — at trying to illustrate the vivid absurdity of what can only be described as the world’s least impressive and most memorable diner.
Journalistic instinct dictates that I focus on the characters around me, for together they make up a deeply wizened and senescent medley of Southern folk indeed. Median age is going to lie somewhere on the latter side of 70, making your correspondent the youngest patron of this establishment (even the staff of which appear to be getting on in years). Rest assured, I am not of the mind so deluded as to believe this fact makes me better than anyone here; it’s just the most immediately apparent observation to be made, right as you walk in.
Were he to summarize the atmosphere of this place using one word, it could only and emphatically be: geriatric.
- Total No. of walkers/mobility aids: 6 (currently visible)
- Total No. of hearing aids: indeterminate (lost count after trying)
- Total No. of fishing/bird-watching hats: 3 (all in the regulation khaki)
- Approx. Pct. of air chemically composed of perfume: 40 (or so it smells)
Chances are good that I’m hypersensitive to noise right now, but even so, it is fucking deafening in here. All of the customers shout hoarsely at each other, and so thus must the servers. A spritely young fellow working the grill appears to be the only one who is unfazed by the ensuing mayhem; he looks a healthy 60-something, and my guess is that he’s grown accustomed to what bedlam would resemble if it were happening on the set of an epochal sitcom.
Some less than subtle eavesdropping reveals limited breadth in the selected topics of conversation, which leave something to be desired and range from the following: 1) Our Good Lord and His Everlasting Grace; 2) group speculation as to fiber content of the wheat — pronounced “hweat” — toast; 3) mutual lamenting and/or consoling for recent losses sustained by Bellaire’s elderly community in the obituary column.
Remember, this is the deep South — no, this is fucking Texas, goddamn it — so naturally, the walls are adorned with autographed photos of John Wayne, Lady Bird Johnson, George Strait (multiple of Strait) and the like. Accents are damn near as thick as the bacon, which I just noticed has the eery quality of looking rather uncannily similar to epidermal excess of the pensioner’s eating it.
He quietly surmises that liver spots could be to the elderly what acne is to the pubescent.
Further attentive listening confirms that choice words and phrases are uttered with just enough disdain to arouse justifiable suspicion of at least cognizant bigotry (e.g. Mexicans, Al-Jazeera and, of course, Obama). My only respite from this relentlessly sustained din are the breaks between shouting matches, which seem periodically allotted for the saying of grace and the drinking of coffee.
Everyone pays cash and nobody tips, though I should point out that nor does anyone seem to take even slight notice of the zombified 20-something walking around in plain sight and jotting things down in his moleskin journal. These people, bless them, are so unbelievably…self-absorbed (or perhaps “unaware” would be a more deferent assessment), but I suppose that’s another one of those things you earn with old age in our culture, the right to unashamed entitlement.
In keeping with time-honored stereotypes, the color beige is a staple in wardrobes both male and female, giving the effect of making everyone look not unlike an anatomically diverse set of prosthetic limbs. It’s difficult to tell whether these women intentionally apply ghastly amounts of makeup this early in the day, or if they’ve just naturally developed the look of being prematurely embalmed. That sounds cruel to you, but looking closely at the subjects in question, you’d be hard pressed to find a more accurate comparison.
As it turns out, today is a man called Sherm’s 84th birthday. I know this because Sherm has just walked in, and is adamant that everyone know and recognize the importance of Sherm’s special day (this proves to be one of the few areas of common ground that Sherm and I can claim). Several of those present are congratulating Sherm for [sic] “having made it another year”, and remarking spiritedly on [ultra sic] “how noticeably his [Sherm’s, that is] shingles have improved”. Please do note that all of this is being conveyed to Sherm very loudly and repeatedly, as though we were in some sort of nightclub for the elderly, because evidently Sherm has forgotten his hearing aid (classic Sherm).
- Total No. of Caucasian peoples: 18 (all of the patrons, most of the staff)
- Total No. of Latinos: 2 (found them working dish duty in the back room)
- Total No. of Black or African-American peoples: 0̸ (I’ve looked everywhere)
- Total No. of “Other”: Me (though I am barely existing, at this point)
Each and every meal is subject to thorough inspection, then methodically cut, and chewed with almost bovine vacancy/infiniteness — shortly after which point it is ruthlessly and audibly judged. Maybe I’m alone in thinking this, but I figure if you come to a diner such as this in the small hours of the morning, it may not be entirely reasonable to expect a world-class culinary experience. Elderly people, however, love to complain, to find fault. They just do.
Faint streaks of pale grey light are beginning to bleed through the sky’s inky blackness; it’s making me uneasy, although I’m not sure why. Meanwhile, an ornery old timer is vehemently refusing to use his mobility aid in the visibly daunting task of getting to the restroom, and further declining any offers made to assist him. “Whatever, man”, I mutter less quietly than is prudent, “shit your pants in the name of pride”. Elderly people can be really fucking stubborn, too (even in the face of incontinence, it would seem).
His mind wanders into thinking if the weather man on TV might technically bring the Total No. of Black or African-American peoples up to: 1 — probably not.
I happen to hold a sincere and tender affection for cheap coffee. There is something very cool to me about its unassuming brand of simplicity. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t see me turning away Colombian or French roast, but I still truly dig the cheap stuff. And I am very happy to report that this establishment’s coffee is of the especially affordable and easy-to-drink variety, the kind you can mindlessly consume cup after cup of without ever really bothering to keep track.
By now my food has gotten cold, dry and generally unappetizing. The youngest of all three servers, who also looks to be in her 60’s, keeps on coming round to ask “if I’m still doin’ alright, darlin’?”. She’s all folksy and Southern and adorable, so I really do try my best to be polite. Take heed, though, it is deeply ill-advised to disturb a writer in the midst of an insomnia fueled binge — be you friend or foe.
Ridiculous though this may be to admit, it’s starting to seem under the current circumstances almost like there’s no indication of a world existing beyond these walls. It’s still so dark out that I feel trapped here, but in a way that feels…somehow safe? I’m developing a sick new form of Stockholm syndrome for the place. Having grown fond of its frankly unrivaled peculiarity, I’m slowly becoming less judgmental of my fellow patrons and more, well, just curious.
And so, inevitably, the questions begin to crop up and multiply. Do they get the same thing every time? What about Sundays? Is there some sort of geriatric mischief they all get up to afterwards? What were they like at my age? Are any of them still having sex? Why do I care? How much does Sherm get around? What happens when someone passes on? Is it frowned upon to remarry? May you covet thy neighbor’s widow? Does everyone remember where they were when Kennedy was shot?
Then it forcefully strikes him, like a nasty case of the shingles: just how much of all this is actually as outlandish as he perceives it, and how much merely a product of his rapidly deteriorating mental state?
Come to think of it, I shouldn’t be mocking these people at all; but it’s not meant to be malicious, honestly. They just all of them live in such a diametrically polarized world from the one I know…and I can’t help but be fascinated by it, this little parallel universe I’ve stumbled upon. Are they happy here, I wonder? Is there some way that this place, this true microcosm of anachronism could be all they really need at day’s comparatively early end [say, around 19:30]?
Part of me — the part which recognizes that even I could be old, disapproving and liver-spotted, some day — rather does hope so. Besides, really, who the fuck am I to judge? Let’s face it, at this very advanced stage in my psychological attrition, the only thing I can be absolutely, unequivocally certain of is that every single person here (that includes good ol’ Sherm, the heavily made up women and, yes, our man who is soon to soil himself) has seen more than a few things that my shit-kicking, insubordinate, puerile ass never has or will.
Wait, maybe that’s just it. Maybe the world has already shown these people what excitement and experience they find necessary, satisfactory. Maybe what’s proven so surreal to me is for them just an extension of the real. Maybe when all is said and done, the checks split and plates cleared, the only thing this deeply wizened and senescent medley of Southern folk want from their last few years on this strange, tiny planet is a place to sit together in relative peace with some amply fibrous hweat toast, George Strait on the walls, and a cheap cup of coffee.
Nocturne skies gives way to sunrise; it is achingly beautiful, in his eyes.