The clanking of the plates and silverware was constant. The waitress smiled as she refilled the diner’s coffee cups. She laughed at the old men’s jokes. Jokes she’d heard many times before, but she always laughed. Her laughter made the men feel good, and it didn’t hurt her tips.
The cigarette smoke hovered in a thick haze under the ceiling tiles. After filling and refilling cups, she emptied their ashtrays.
This went on in constant repetition. So reliably that you could exit this scene and be guaranteed that it would be just as you left it when you returned.
There was a comfort that came from this.
It was the late 1960s. The Vietnam War was raging and Nixon was beginning his first and only full term. True Grit with John Wayne; and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Paul Newman and Robert Redford were tops at the box office.
All of these things were discussed over the coffee, the Winstons, and the Marlboros. Some preferred talking about one topic each time they came, while others enjoyed discussing all of them.
But, there was one special table. Actually, it was often multiple tables pushed together to make one big table. The “Table of Wisdom,” we called it.
There, the men, mostly the older, retired men of the community, would postulate, problem solve, and prophesy.
You could hear the verbal wrestling. Other than the rare curse word, the chats could become loud, but they remained mostly civil. Each discussion began with a topic, which was often brought up by the same person.
Some at the tables would sit back and just listen. But, you could always tell when they were about to put in their two cents. They would take a drink of coffee and then a long drag on their cigarette. Holding it deep in their lungs, they’d look at who they were about to address before exhaling toward the ceiling.
And this was how it would go.
Sitting at our booth, I would eat my hamburger and fries and watch and listen to them. My mother and father would talk about whatever concerned them at the moment, while my sister pushed her food around her plate in an effort to make it look as if she had actually eaten some of it.
I could hear when someone dropped a dime or quarter into the slot on the jukebox. The mechanism would engage and the sound of the needle touching the record they’d selected would punch the nicotine-covered speakers to life.
This would give a respite from the political discussions, but only for as long as the coin they had chosen. A dime was one song. A quarter meant three.
Joe South’s “The Games People Play” was frequently heard. Sometimes twice in a row.
Oh the games people play now
Every night and every day now
Never meaning what they say now
Never saying what they mean
When the coins ran out, the discussions could again be heard. The waitress was behind the counter making more pots of coffee and emptying ashtrays, while talking above the din to the cook in the kitchen. She tore another order from her green and white pad and slipped it into the silver carousel before spinning it to where the cook could see it.
She headed back to the tables with more coffee.
The chatter would raise and lower like waves. Some peaking higher than before, while others faded to calmer, but never placid waters. The men couldn’t resist the occasional discussion of politics or religion. But, unlike today on social media, they could at least keep their heads about them.
After awhile, some would have to go to work, others were just talked out. But here and there across the diner, men would rise, throw a tip on the table, and tip their hats to the waitress and others before rejoining their day.
When adults were chatting, the children knew better than to talk. That limited them to listening. And there was lots of listening.
The kids didn’t know that those who were talking didn’t have any way to affect real change on the problems they discussed, but they did know that each would at least hear another man’s perspective.
None of them walked away feeling any better. But they did enjoy their chats.
Almost five decades later, the same scene still can be found every now and then. Stop at a small town convenience or grocery store and you’ll often find a table that’s filled with the older, local fellas. The waitress, coffee pots, and cigarettes are gone, but thankfully, the hometown wisdom remains for those who want to sit down and partake.
©2018 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage, A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon.
Email John at John@thecountrywriter.com.