Our Urban Oasis: The Local Diner

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By Dr. Alita Buzel As several of us stood waiting to pay for our breakfasts, bundled like overstuffed penguins in our winter down coats, colorful hats, and woolen gloves, huddled together in the little area where the unflappable cashier holds court, I stopped to appreciate the comfort of this morning ritual. All of us laughing and commiserating about the cold, the bitterness of the wind from the river, the inconvenience of winter, looking more like a kindergarten class getting ready for recess than a bunch of middle aged neighbors getting ready to head into our respective days.

We remain snuggled up in our coats during our breakfasts, none of us willing to brave the frigid wind that rushes through the little diner on Broadway, Café 82, every time someone opens the door, which is about every two minutes. That doesn't stop us from coming for our breakfasts every morning. I imagine that if our diner was, for some reason, full of snow, we would simply wipe it off our seats and tables and wait to be fed.

One time, during a major freeze, the pipes broke and the diner was closed. A bunch of us stood forlornly in front of the locked door, squinting into the darkened interior. We bumbled around and then walked, dejectedly, to the coffee counter at Zabars, our day already off kilter.

We humans, at heart, are creatures of habit. There's something wonderfully warm, lovingly maternal, and reassuringly familiar, in having someone cook our breakfasts for us and to partake of that morning meal surrounded by familiar and kindly faces. Not that we know the names of those faces, though we see them every morning, greet them with a warm hello, laugh at the incumbent weather together, and get into heated, fun discussions about the latest political brouhaha. If a tourist innocently stumbles in, and, God forbid, pulls out a map, we are all over the poor creature, each of us offering the best route, the must-go-to restaurant, the don't ?you-dare-miss show. What must they think of such overly enthusiastic, noisy, opinionated, New Yorkers?

We, a potpourri of people; couples, singles, families of all variations, getting ready to head to an office, picking up coffee for the others guys on patrol, dressed sharply, dressed for the gym, New York Times splayed over table, laptops tapping, iPods and Kindles precariously balanced on coffee cups. All orchestrated by our busboy who holds all the power in the diner. He's the one who controls the seating: He likes you, you get to sit away from the blasting wind door; you piss him off, you freeze. Extra rolls, butter, iced coffee, bread sticks? Be nice.

Only really friendly, sweet waiters last. We all know their families, their stories, their immigration status, their hopes and dreams.  They tolerate our attempts at Spanish; they put up with, and know the names of, our screaming grandchildren and growing children.

And, of course, like any social gathering place, there are dramas and intrigues, romances and infighting and the inevitable cliques. We've seen young couples with their growing families come in each morning only to find out they've broken up, and we feel their loss. We've seen normally quiet and reserved divorced men come alive during the weekends when accompanied by their sons and daughters; tired single moms taking their brood out for a weekly Sunday morning pancake breakfast; a break for them, a treat for their kids; families taking up way too much space in the pint-sized diner, but filling that space with laughter and life. Lots of sticky, little fingers and faces, lots of pancake aroma drifting on the air. The aisles become a gauntlet of baby chairs and strollers. A river of humanity flowing through this little urban oasis.

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