The inspiration that motivated the compilation of this piece was a direct response to the state of unease in the world. Over the past several years, it has been hard to ignore the divisive rhetoric that bellows from our leaders. The language and lack of leadership have put strains on our society and created a world of ‘us” and “them”. You’re either ‘with us or against us.’
Three days into putting the piece together the world exploded with COVID-19 outbreaks, including here in the United States. With a global pandemic along with already increasing tensions, it seemed ever more important to capture the lessons found within the story of “The Diner”. A celebration of a place that,despite a world overrun by xenophobia and a growing cultural mindset driven by fear, continues to be an example of how to treat people with dignity and respect.
In a time where we find ourselves facing many unknowns, let this story be a calming reminder of the things that will allow us to get through these unnerving times with our integrity and highest character intact.
PART 01: Shelter from the Storm
Tucked away amidst the hustle and bustle of the streets and between the towering concrete skyscrapers extsts a tiny oasis for many of the city's locals. The Diner has been open for over 80 years, embedded in the fabric of the city and the lives of the surrounding community.
The staff at The Diner have witnessed families grow up around them, attended wedding celebrations, borne witness to separations, celebrated milestones with individuals and families and mourned with them. Throughout all the highs and lows of life, The Diner has been able to provide a place of refuge and human connection for all walks of life.
As soon as you enter the door of The Diner, you can feel the anxious haste of the outside world fall behind you. The sounds of the street are overtaken by a warm crescendo of chatter mixed with the white noise of the sizzling griddle and running water from the kitchen. Snuggled in the corner of The Diner is a little radio that has been on the same classic rock station for the past 20 years. The FM station consists of about 90% commercials and 10% music, but no one pays this much mind.
The Diner sits in a narrow nook running perpendicular to the streetside. The seating capacity is 16 people; eight at the counter and eight at the two-seater tables nestled tightly behind those at the countertop. The space is tight and to maneuver through it requires a person to side shuffle. Hanging above the grill reads a sign, “If you got a call, please kindly take it outside. No phones inside.” Not only is this a common courtesy, but it is an open invitation to unplug for a moment and be present, whether that be with the company you keep or alone with your own thoughts.
Every soul that walks through the door of The Diner is treated with the same friendly greeting and sincere welcome (as sincere as New York welcomes go). Regardless of your race, the amount on your pay stub, or what has defined your life leading up to the point of entering, you are treated as a human being deserving of kindness and respect the very moment you step foot inside.
These two elements, kindness and respect, create a harbor in which judgment is replaced with decency and kindness. Within the walls of The Diner no one has to prove to anyone else their worth or their contribution to society. Within this space and, for, a brief moment, in time, everyone is accepted for who they are.
The humanity within The Diner attracts the most beautiful array of people. No one would be able to describe a regular customer at The Diner because at any given time you will find, white, black, brown, yellow, gay, straight, rich and poor. Young skaters and punk rockers mixed with elderly couples, and immigrants from all corners of the globe. Artists and producers sit among blue collar and white collar workers. Everyone from Wall Street to those paving the street crosses paths at The Diner.
Such diversity in the patrons inherently brings with it a rich palette of languages and accents. The timbres float through the air and collide with one another, resulting in a worldly rhythm that breathes a life into The Diner that could only be defined as supernatural. The buzz of conversations acts like a source of energy that breathes life into the people who dine there.
The restaurant owners and employees are as diverse as the daily visitors. It is owned by a Polish Catholic and an Egyptian Muslim couple and operated by a combination of Hispanic, Polish and Egyptian. Each employee has learned a bit of the other's mother-tongue, and they flip back and forth between three or four different languages when speaking to one another. The 5th unofficial language is one that has evolved organically throughout the years. It is a combination of mumbles, whistles, hollers and howls, accentuated by the percussive taps of the spatula on the grill and the clatter of ceramics through the kitchen and onto the countertop. Whatever the language is, the staff have adopted it as a way to conduct business and keep the hot food moving through the place effortlessly.
The ease and comfort with which the staff operate their duty is a result of their history with one another. Of the four main employees each of them have been a part of The Diner for 43, 31, 24 and 17 years respectively. The work is tiring and thankless at times but many of the daily visitors reciprocate the kindness and love back to the employees. It is not uncommon over the course of a meal to see a number of friendly passerby pop their head in to say hello and wish the staff well, going down the countertop and addressing everyone by their first name, yelling all the way back to the dishwasher.
With all the joy The Diner brings, one would be remiss not to acknowledge the challenging times it has been through. Over the course of 80 years the Diner has endured a world war, five major US war disputes, a terrorist attack, financial crisis, gentrification and rising prices around them. A year ago, a gas explosion in the neighboring building shut down operations for months and put the diner at risk of ever opening again. When The Diner found itself in peril, it was the community they had been servicing for the previous 78 years that rallied around them and supported the restaurant through its reconstruction.
A couple months later, The Diner reopened with the same staff and menu. Everyone was undoubtedly shaken by the experience, but The Diner was quick to find its rhythm again, providing an important pulse back into the community.
PART 02 : A Call to Humanity
Over the past few years the world has felt….well, pretty fucked. We can’t deny there has been an increase in divisive rhetoric and behaviour. This is not to ignore the fact that racism has been embedded in the very fabric of the US since its founding, rather to acknowledge what feels to many like a regression in the progress we have made. Xenophobia, racism, immigration policies, United Right marches, public shaming and belittling of minorities and all in the name of what? Fear? Supremacy?
The underlying issues influencing this swell of hatred are multilayered and systemic, and there is no silver bullet that leads to a world where we accept one another for who we are. Though, as we work towards that north star, we need reminders that humanity still exists. That it isn’t a foriegn or hypothetical concept, or that it can only show its face in times of crisis. The Diner and its employees do just that: demonstrating the value in treating others with dignity, kindness, and respect. Or, in other words, what it means to treat each other like human beings.
So as we continue to work on ourselves, and to work towards a better tomorrow, let us learn from The Diner and practice putting their teachings into our daily lives. Remind ourselves that we are part of something greater than our individual selves, or the walls that define our space. Treat strangers with respect, with dignity and kindness. To not only accept our differences, but give them space to breath, to exist and express. And may we take the time to step out of our own bubbles and learn from our differences and collective experiences. Whether it is simply a new word in a foreign language, an alternative perspective on a subject, or learning about another person’s unique journey through this crazy thing called life that we are all living. If The Diner is any proof, those who navigate their lives in such a manner will find reward, for such acts are reciprocated exponentially in the form of new ideas, stories, experiences, and a feeling of connectivity to something outside of yourself.
Art by Pete Gibson