Thursday, January 18, 2007

Nowhere To Run To Baby, Nowhere To Hide

I am spending way too much time alone. I realised this again today as I made some soup and realised that I had been having an animated and somewhat tetchy conversation with it for the past five minutes. Something is wrong when your lunch starts to take on a personality of its own, and an irritating one at that.

One good thing, however, about descending into the vaults of loner-y weirdoness is that you can discover places you wouldn't usually be on the look out for if you were with someone else, actually enjoying yourself, or having a life. So I'm cycling up the main road towards Shoreham today on 'Jeopardy', my aptly named death trap of a bike, hoping not to be squashed by a lorry or hurled headlong into the road by the surprise opening of a car door (I've not quite regained confidence in my bike or in my cycling skills since I quite unstylishly fell off her on Hove Lawns last December and had to be prised out from underneath her by a gaggle of purple haired old ladies and one jogger).

Then, out of nowhere I spot an American style diner by the side of the road. Apart from the fact that it's pretty rare to see a diner in England at all, it is even more unusual that I would find myself actually choosing to cycle in the direction of Shoreham per se, nevermind doing so in a gale force wind storm, since, for a slightly morose feeling person, it isn't the most conventionally uplifting of locations. I mean, the power station does have an incredible dark kind of beauty to it, but it's hardly the most life affirming of sights for someone who is a bit down.

I've vague recollections of my friend telling me about a diner around this area, but I've never been able to find it. But by chance, there it is, all neon strip lighting and big windows. I decide to cycle past it on my way home and stop for a coffee and write. After all, that's surely what diners are for: coffee and writing in your notebook as the waitress refills your cup.

I love diners. In fact, if I were to cite my reasons for wanting to live in America (an urge that comes over me from time to time), the presence of diners is one of them. As I entered 'Woodies', I forgave myself for my lack of ability to be scathingly critical of the fake American post-moderniness of it all. 'Must everything become a replica of the American dream, a dream which is, and has never been real?' Ah well, more to the point, how fat will the pancakes be? I'm quite up for sitting here and looking out over the corrugated steel rooves and pretending I'm not in stinky England.

It's a clean, smart looking place. But, sadly, the most important thing about a diner is missing - booths. Booths, to me, are like restaurant versions of the hidden room behind the painting in a stately home. They are inherently romanticised in my brain. They bring to my mind that one off reunion between two, now elderly gay lovers who haven't seen each other in over forty years, who, silently, as they wait for the bill, touch each other's hands, and smile a sad smile before both looking away. Or the overweight divorcee who's just had to move into rented accomodation, who rattles his change nervously in his hand and sweats loneliness. Or the female serial killer who's just notched up another policeman on the roadside, and who checks her lipstick in the silver napkin holder, and is not even bothered if she makes it to the border. Or there's the three gangsters in crumpled suits who are discussing their fat wives and praising the shape of the waitress's legs through her uniform, belching into their Root Beer, whilst outside a dying gagged man is locked in the trunk of their car. Or the nineteen year old boy with a notebook and a grey duffel coat who turns up every day and orders tea, who, in two years will have finished writing one of the greatest novels of the last fifty years, and which will never get published. These and other numerous somewhat cliched images in my head are why I love diners.

But I am appeased by the fact that, as I am shown to a table by the window by a pretty waitress with electric blue eyeshadow and white pumps, they are playing 'Stoned Love' by Diana Ross on the jukebox. In fact, they continue to play great music for my entire time there. I order a coffee and realise I've forgotten my little notebook, so instead I begin to write on the napkins. They bring my coffee and it's good, and they don't mind me writing on their napkins, and, as the sky darkens outside, I'm feeling a peculiar kind of contentment, the joy of being warm, hearing good music and feeling anonymous.

'Time For Action' by Secret Affair comes on the jukebox. Wow! This has to be the most evocative song of my childhood, and the happiest (perhaps matched only by 'Reward' by Julian Cope and 'Mirror In The Bathroom' by The Beat). How does a song do that? One minute I'm in a strange diner on a miserable January afternoon, scribbling on a napkin. The next, I'm seven years old again, and happy, balancing on the rotten strip of wood that went all the way around the flower bed that the tree in our back yard grew in, up past the convent wall, next to the plastic shed roof with the rusty motor boat under it. I make sure I don't swallow my gum as I tip and sway, as I sing and pull at the ivy that is climbing the tree, crossing my fingers it isn't poisonous and about to bring me out in a scary rash. I thought I was it then, the baby sister who would sit on the knees of my older sister's male friends whilst they painted their faces like Alice Cooper and drank beer. 'Time For Action' reminds me of running down our stairs and standing in the hallway in sunlight whilst my sister talks on the phone. It reminds me of going into our lounge, with its green velvety walls, its leather sofas and its French doors, and slowly opening the dark wooden doors of the dresser under the window where inside sits the record player like some holy relic. And I put that record on, listen to it crackle and jump as I dance, pretending I'm a Mod boy, in cool clothes, in a cool gang, walking through the streets of some unknown Northern town.

They are playing 'Nowhere To Run'. I'm really happy. I wonder to myself if the pancakes are really like the ones in America, not just, as it usually is, some lame British version. Why is British food and service so rubbish? I remember when I was driving from New York to Boston last year with Chall Gray and stopping off late at night at a diner for pancakes and coffee. That diner was fucking fantastic, the counter gleamed, the booths were pink and everything was mirrored, and there was even an entire open refrigerator full of fresh food on ice which you could pick out for yourself. It was something else.

But here, I like it here. I like the fact that it is a chrome paean to Americanness and that it lies on one of the busiest and most grim and unAmerican main roads out of Brighton. I like the waitress, I like her pumps, I like the view, I like not knowing anyone. It's that right balance of cheerful, clean and a bit weird, and I know the power station is looming up behind me as I sip my drink to give me that David Lynch feel. I shall return to haunt this place again soon, rattling up Kingsway on my trusty 'Jeopardy', and next time, with a notebook stuffed in my pocket.


laurel said...

ah, beauty!! diners are best when the weather is crap...all that was missing was the truckers... I guess you've come as close to it as I ever have..the elusive comfort of the you think they have diners in Oz? I hope I shall probably be there by the time next winter rolls around...

just hearing your experience took me back more than a few years, and I wondered why I haven't been in a diner in sooo long...I used to write in them also..I think I still have a snippet of poem on the back of coaster somewhere...

Tom said...

yes, redemptive writing.