One of the primary tripwires for anxiety in our modern age is the looming threat of someone stealing our identity, decimating our carefully constructed sense of self and and absconding with all we hold dear. I sold mine for $2.99 at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino’s coffee shop just two hours into my maiden Las Vegas visit.
Vegetarian is just who I was for seven years—an abstention I believed made me a more fascinating, discerning person than the meatloaf-and-porcupine-ball-chomping suburban teenager I’d been back home. Plus the boyfriend who’d convinced me to join him was a vegetarian and he had cool hair and Doc Martens and who was I to dissent? But it stuck, even after we parted ways (and he cut off his silly white-boy dreadlocks—seriously what was I thinking?) because the label had just become part of me. It had never been rooted in particularly moral ground, more a battle of will versus senses, and I’d somehow convinced myself that I would become unlovable if I failed.
And here I was, sitting in Sin City across the table from a shiny new love who had whisked me off to this strange, glitzy place he’d visited since childhood. He didn’t seem to need me to be anything other than the girl he’d just boned up against a Strip-facing hotel window. The steak-and-egg specials wafting as the waitresses trundled past us smelled madly good. OK, maybe not good in the sense that a 24-ounce, dry-aged, black-and-blue T-bone from Keens, Peter Luger, or Delmonico’s might. But to a broke and broken 26-year-old who hadn’t eaten (or been much able to afford) meat, fish, fowl, or even gelatin since my junior year of art school, it felt like Eve sidling up to a warm apple pie. Viva! It suddenly felt safe to succumb to other pleasures of the flesh—and that flesh tasted pretty damned good. (And again: $2.99.)
This is a 24-hour restaurant’s greatest power: transubstantiation. It’s a safe space to be and become who and what you need to be, and makes no assumptions about their clientele other than that they may have just woken up and could use some eggs, meat, carbs, and caffeine. Hell, you don’t even need to verbalize your need for coffee; it is that universally assumed. Just manage some manner of head movement when it is offered, and a cup, sometimes even a whole pot, just manifests in front of you. Potatoes and toast just come with, unbidden. There is so little required of a diner patron—including money—that not only are all welcome to come and break bread; they are gifted with the freed-up intellectual and emotional space to let their weirdest selves hunker down at the table beside them. There’s a reason every misfit kid from your high school (including me), congregated at the Denny’s, Perkins, truck stop, greasy spoon, or local analog in your hometown. It’s safe and kind, there is no closing time so you have forever and ever to scheme about who you need to be next. The coffee keeps on coming.
I’m not 26 anymore, haven’t been for a long time. I’m unapologetically omnivorous (though I did sip coffee from my official Morrissey “Be kind to animals or I’ll kill you.” mug this very morning) and have been sitting across the booth from the same man for over a decade. We’ll talk or we won’t and it’s lovely either way. I’ll order the cheese omelet with buttered rye toast and he’ll get the two-egg breakfast combo. I’ll steal some bacon off his plate and he never protests. He doesn’t expect me to be any other way.