There’s a special corner of the restaurant universe reserved for the diner. With many open 24 hours and serving scrambled eggs at 11 p.m. or steak at 5 a.m., diners are like a time-warp of breakfast, lunch, and diner anytime, on your own terms. Plus, when you can go in and order a coffee and a slice of pie for less than $5, diners also bring in a spectrum of families, alcohol-fueled college students, singles just wanting to read the newspaper, late-night couples, and entire children’s soccer teams after a game. And that’s what makes them so unique.
Working the crazed, line-out-the-door morning rush of frazzled customers just looking for their first hit of coffee on a mid-Sunday morning has brought the servers of The Wellington Diner in Ottawa, Canada together—not just forming a quasi-family among employees, but with their customers, too.
“We have a lot of people who do that, who come in for breakfast every day and come back for lunch or dinner, too,” Dominika, a Wellington Diner server said. A customer once brought her mats for her car after he overheard her telling another server she had to go get them, in a snowy, messy winter.
While I was sitting, chatting and enjoying my coffee with her a patron waved to her, rubbing his stomach after eating his meal and said, “I feel like I’m pregnant right now.” After she waved back, she turned to me.
“I used to babysit him,” she explained.
It turns out that oddly personal customer exchanges like that are the norm for diners.
“To point out a weird customer experience would be to say, one time a guy walked in and ordered over easy eggs, bacon, and white toast,” another server Bev, said. Diners are just places where all kinds of strange interactions happen. In honor of diner week, here are the strangest on-the-job experiences from eight diner servers.
“The parents brought in their own cereal for their kids, so there were Cheerios all over the floor, so I’m looking down but I heard the dad saying, ‘Sorry about that!’ It wasn’t the cereal. I turned and the kid is currently peeing in every direction all over the place and the floor.”
—Jeff, age not given, Ottawa, Ontario
“For 4 years during college I worked at a ’50s-style drive-in diner that specializes in burgers, fries and hard ice-cream, hand-scooped milkshakes. Bellingham is home to Western Washington University so the town is much quieter during the summer months when all the students go home for the summer. To keep busy during the mid-afternoon lull we would invent new and clever games. We used to hang a bucket on the freezer door and play HORSE, like in basketball, and try to see how many places we could stand in the kitchen and behind the pass-thru counter and still toss the ball in the bucket. The ball usually consisted of a balled up pieces of checkered burger wrapper.”
“When it was hot out, which was often since it's in an old building, and many of the foods are fried, we would freeze bar towels in funny shapes and the cooks would wear them as hats to keep cool when they were using the grill or the fryer.”
—Carrie, 33, Bellingham, Washington
“A homeless man came in and said he was hungry, so I bought him dinner. Then, a cab driver came in ordered a to-go coffee and went to the bathroom. The homeless gentleman stole his cab and totaled it down the street. The next day the homeless guy came back and said he was hungry. I just looked at him and said, ‘Out.’”
—Solomon, 48, Boston, Massachusetts
“I worked in a small Jersey diner during a single summer in college but I was a terrible waitress mostly because I lacked the upper body strength to carry all the plates out at once, as was the diner's policy. The veteran waitresses could balance six to eight large, piping hot plates on their arms, kick open the swinging door, and strut out of the kitchen. I could barely keep my weak wrists from caving in when carrying a heavy plate with one hand. In desperation, I would have to enlist our sweet bus-boys to be my muscle and help me carry my orders.
The other older waitresses didn't quite welcome me with open arms but out of pity, they did sometimes feel compelled to throw me, the struggling interloper, a line. I did make one friend, though. She had been working at the diner for almost 20 years. She once told me, as we waited for our bread to toast, that she preferred the feeling of slowly raking her fingers over a bug bite to an orgasm. I remember just nodding, pretending that I knew what she was talking about.”
—Rebecca, 27, East Brunswick, New Jersey
“It was a Sunday morning, and I was probably a little overtired. It was super busy, and I had a table of nine, so I put nine tall glasses of water on a tray and I walked over to the table. As I was going to put down the glasses, I cracked a joke, ‘Who’s ready for the wet t-shirt contest?’ But, karma, because I proceeded to drop all nine glasses full of water onto one customer. She looked like she just came out of a pool.
So after cleaning up, I walked over to the customer and said, ‘The winner of the wet t-shirt contest is this girl, I’m buying you lunch’ and everything after that was nonstop jokes. They kept ordering more food and drinks, and they couldn’t stop laughing. Another waitress overheard the table saying how funny I was. By the end of it, the girl I spilled on gave me a tip, even though I insisted she not. That’s the difference between a diner customer and a typical restaurant customer.”
—Bev, 33, Ottawa, Ontario
“I worked at a nearby diner in Pennsylvania. I had never worked in the food industry before and it was quite an interesting experience to say the least. Now let’s get to the meat, but literally. Scrapple. One morning I was assigned to the morning shift, different from my usual afternoon shift, for the first time. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The morning was going fine until I took the older of an older woman with bleached blond hair. She said, “… and a side of scrapple.’ I was puzzled, and wondered if I was losing my hearing. Confused I asked her to repeat. Same response. This went back and forth few times until finally I became worried and stressed, so I simply said OK, speedily walked back to the kitchen and swarmed to my co-workers.”
“I said to them, ‘So this woman kept trying to order something, but I didn’t get what she was saying. Scrap… Scrop… something like that.’ Me, convinced she was crazy, expected them to laugh and say they had no idea. To my surprise all three of them said, ‘You mean Scrapple?!’ I turned bright red. What the heck is scrapple?!
“Apparently this is a common Pennsylvania breakfast meat, but to this day, I will never forget the back and forth banter between me and this 75-year-old woman who just wanted her breakfast meat.”
—Cassie, 16, Allentown, Pennsylvania
“I work at a small Greek owned diner in North Jersey. One day a man came in and sat in my section. When I introduced myself and asked if I could get him something to drink. All he did was ask if we served liver and onions. I told him we don't and he told me he needed more time. I came back a minute or two later and he was just gone, all because we didn't have liver and onions I suppose.”
—Maria, 21, Fairfield, New Jersey
“Back in the early 1980s I waitressed at a place that was less than a mile off the interstate, and served typical diner fare— burgers, hot dogs, etc.
Part of my job was to lure truckers in off the highway, by saying, in my sexiest voice, "Breaker one nine," and then talking to the truckers that responded, and persuading them to stop. I wore a mini skirt.
One of the owners worked the night shift with me and kept her baby behind the door in a playpen. You know, I've often wondered since, did she always wash her hands after changing the baby's diaper before cooking?”
—L.J., 64, Woodruff, South Carolina
“One day the husband-and-wife owners decided to have grilled steaks for a late lunch during a lull in the diner. So she was cooking up a steak for him, and meanwhile a truck pulled in with one of our regular customers for coffee. He sat down with the owner, as they were good buddies.
When the husband got his steak, the customer’s reaction was one of awe. He asked, ‘Are you going to finish all that?’ but when the owner offered some, the customer said he’d better not because it would spoil his dinner. When he went to take his first bite of the steak, the plate exploded into a million pieces. The gas attendant came into the kitchen and asked if the meat was seasoned with gun powder.
To this day, no one has any idea what caused the plate to explode, but needless to say the poor man definitely lost his appetite for anything in the diner that day.”
—Maria, 60, Oro-Medonte, Ontario