After moving to Philadelphia in 1982, I quickly discovered McGlinchey’s, home of the 50-cent draft of Rolling Rock, and Bacchanal, where there were poetry readings on Mondays. When I had a few extra bucks, I also treated myself to a chopped liver sandwich at the original Latimer Deli, or a meatloaf and mashed potato dinner at a now-disappeared diner on 11th and Locust.
When I took a girl to Latimer, she smilingly said, “I’ll try that too,” but after the messy, putative crime was shamelessly produced, the cornered victim simply twisted her pretty face, “What is this?! It looks like chicken shit!” She did eat it.
Later, I’d have many fond memories of diners across America, in Cheyenne, Denver, Saint Paul, Saint Louis, Des Moines, Detroit, Joliet, Bellows Falls, Scranton, Richmond, Raleigh, Savannah, El Paso, San Antonio, Reno and Wolf Point, etc., though I’m still traumatized by the fraudulent chicken fried steak I somehow managed to ingest, waste not, want not, at an otherwise charming diner in McCook, Nebraska.
With its futuristic signs, chrome plated walls, colored neons, cozy booths, democratic counters, no-nonsense waitresses and ample portions of comfort food, the American diner is both wholesome yet sexy, down-to-earth yet cool, especially to foreigners, for most have only seen such eateries in glammed-up Hollywood films like Swingers, Grease, True Romance and Pulp Fiction, etc.
For the educated, the Swiss-born Robert Frank’s diners will always mesmerize, and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is as iconic an image of America as any. Stark alienation has never looked so good.
In any foreign city, sooner or later I’d look for an American diner, because, it’s only natural, man, I couldn’t help but crave some breakfast sausage, home fries or a legitimate cheeseburger. Plus, I wanted to see how American culture had been translated, distilled or refracted, an ongoing investigation.
Living for four months in Busan, I’d take a two-hour train ride to Waegwan, just to enjoy Country Restaurant’s all-American menu, as expertly prepared by a Filipina cook. Facing Camp Carrol’s main gate, its clientele was almost exclusively young American soldiers, with most of them black or Hispanic.
Its South Korean owner had just enough English to banter. Overhearing a female soldier say, “I think I’m an alcoholic,” he jumped in, “Alcohol, kill virus!” Later, as she and her friends were leaving, he shouted, “Merry Christmas!” It was mid-May. “Happy New Year!” she hollered back.
Country Restaurant wasn’t quite a diner, however.
Barging into Rocky’s, I blubbered, “This looks like a real diner!” I was more than ready to kiss her feet, or at least hug her thick thighs.
“I said this looks like a real diner!”
She showed no comprehension.
“Uh, are you American?”
What’s another disappointment in a life filled with them? Rocky’s Crosley jukebox was merely decorative. Its burger was pretty damn good, though.
Five hundred words into this article, you’re probably wondering, “What the hell does all this have to do with the bait-and-switch title?! Have I been jewed again?” Watch your anti-Semitic language! Be patient. I know you’re running out of time.
Here in Tirana, the closest I’ve found to a diner is Stephen Center. With its pancakes, huevos rancheros, BLT, chef salad, bacon cheeseburger, tuna melt, beef burrito and fried chicken, etc., it’s as down home as you’re going to get in the Balkans, and this is Albania, remember, a country so isolated 30 years ago, it was tagged the North Korea of Europe.
All its cutesy signs are so knowing, they couldn’t have put up by non-Americans, and sure enough, Stephen Center is owned by an American couple. Here as soon as Albania reopened in the early 90’s, they’re missionaries.
Their evangelism is evident through Stephen Center’s Christian messages, placed here and there, and even on the sugar packets, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life—John 3, 16.”
In Washington DC many moons ago, I used to frequent Scholl’s, a cafeteria with a Christian message at each table. Whatever, man, the food was good enough, and super cheap, though often overcooked, to accommodate its mostly elderly, thus dentally challenged, patrons.
Stephen Center’s Christianity, though, is ultra specific.
Done with a satisfying Santa Fe omelet, I decided to order a pot of tea and read a free magazine or two, from a rack by the door. Through large windows, blessed sunlight warmed us all, down to each smirking microbe. It was a beautiful day.
You won’t believe this, but so many elegant and dignified individuals kept walking by. Seeing a baby stroller being pushed across the street, I felt an unreasonable fear for the infant’s safety. Trusting her guardian completely, she innocently raised both hands, as if in triumph. Another astonishing day awaited her.
Opening Word—from Jerusalem, I was greeted by its editor, Jurgen Buhler, who informed me that, despite Covid-19, “Our staff decided to stay [in Israel] and we ended up packing thousands of Passover boxes, delivering groceries for the elderly and, at the Haifa Home, our Christian staff and volunteers were the only ones allowed to care for the 70 Holocaust survivors living there […] Meantime, we brought over 550 Russian and Ethiopian Jews to Israel and helped cover the extra cost of their two-week quarantine upon arrival, all in cooperation with the Jewish Agency.”