Call it nostalgia, call it nauseating sentimentality, call it my iron gut and a fondness for milkshakes … but if you ask me where I want to eat, I’m going to go with the diner, every time.
Grilled cheese with tomato, and bacon if I’m feeling fancy. Coffee, lots of creamers, lots of refills, please and thank you. It’s the same order I’ve had since I was sixteen years old, when I would sneak out to the diner in my hometown with my friend Charlotte, basking in this newfound and sudden freedom to be in public places without adult supervision. Almost like were were real adults ourselves. Almost. We hadn’t started drinking yet, and experimenting with drugs was years away, so our tentative explorations into french fries and coffee consumption were the next best thing available. Coffee and grilled cheese with fries came to just under five bucks, and I would pay in some combination of babysitting money and coins pilfered from underneath my mom’s couch cushions. Five bucks plus tip is a pretty good deal to take up residence in a booth for hours, endless coffee refills until your temples start to pound, your butt sticking to the squicky vinyl seat, blowing straw wrappers across the table at your best friend.
Sometimes now, if I’m in a bigger, fancier diner, I look at the desserts. I never order them, I just like to watch the way the pies and the cakes whirl around on those mirrored spinning kiosks. Like showgirls in one of those big production numbers from a fifties TV musical, all piped frosting and cherry filling and extremely flattering lighting.
All of this is on my mind and my stomach at the moment because Philly is about to lose another one of the greats. Little Pete’s, this all-night diner at 17th and Chancellor, is tiny, greasy, cash-only, no-frills, no-bullshit, and greatly beloved by a whole lot of people. Including John Hodgman, whom many of you will remember as the PC from those commercials (and a gloriously nerdy subset of you will recognize as the creator of an extremely comprehensive list of hobo names.) Anyway, he gets it right, as usual, as to why it’s so fucking depressing that it’s being torn down to build a fancy hotel:
“Yes, that’s right. There is a hotel across the street from the place where they are going to put the hotel. And unless they plan to tear down the Warwick and put up a Little Pete’s, which would be a good O Henry story, this is just sad and dumb. Not in any special way, just sad and dumb in the way almost all city development is sad and dumb. And also purposeless.
Because look. Unlike the Anchor, Little Pete’s wants to keep going. If I were putting up a luxury hotel over one of the last and busiest and most beautiful all night diners in a city, it would be JOB ONE to try to incorporate that authentically popular, authentically local business into my plan rather than pay buckets of money to some consultant in Elsewheretown to design a generic martini-and-small-plates-lounge to replace it, which bar no one will ever go to because it has been pasted together out of cliches and sadness.
I guess there is SOME CHANCE that the re-zoning law that will allow this to happen will be scuttle if enough CITIZENS OF PHILADELPHIA RISE UP AND SAY TO CITY COUNCIL PERSON KENYATTA JOHNSON “NO WE MUST SAVE OUR OLD FAVORITE PLACE.”
But that won’t work, right? This isn’t a Muppet Movie. This is city politics.”
And that’s exactly it. This isn’t the Muppets, as much as I want to live my life as if it were. This is, ostensibly, progress, although it’s progress in a way that feels homogenized and bland and corporate and yes, a tiny bit tragic. I don’t think this is just about all of us getting older, and I don’t think this is about a collective desire to hold onto our youth. I think it’s about wanting more for a city than a landscape of identical skyscrapers and indistinguishable happy hour specials and immediately-defunct fancy cupcake bakeries. I think it’s about mourning a loss. You walk into this diner and it’s like nostalgia and childhood and comfort and history are all hovering in the air, smelling a whole lot like onion rings. It’s possible that I’m wrong about this, but I just don’t think another overpriced hotel bar with a Tuesday special on oysters will ever be able to do the same.
I had my first meal in Philadelphia at the Snow White Diner at Second and Market Streets, the day that I interviewed for the job that would eventually bring me here for good. I ordered an egg salad sandwich because it was the cheapest thing on the menu, and I sat and I nursed five refills of ice water and I hoped beyond hope that this was the day that my life would change, and it was, and I never forgot. I cried over coffee and I nursed hangovers and I built friendships in that diner, where neither the decor nor the waitstaff had been updated since the seventies, where I felt safe and at home.
It’s now a fancy bar with an exposed brick facade and an ornate mason glass chandelier. You can get a really nice quinoa salad with a lemon-lime vinagrette for twelve bucks. It’s delicious. But.
I had a first date in a diner where I fell just a tiny bit in love, or something very much like love, and I ended it in a different diner several months later, shocked to hear my own voice actually say words like Let’s just be friends and I think it’s for the best, when I quite clearly had no idea what that even meant, didn’t expect my chest to tighten quite so suddenly and so sharply, inhaling the weight of my own words, hearing every excruciating clink of the silverware and glasses nearby. I was young, and I hadn’t quite learned yet that Let’s just be friends and I think it’s for the best can be both heartfelt statements and also an exquisitely cruel way to tell another person that you haven’t fallen in love with them.
One of those diners is still around. I think about that breakup when I walk by, sometimes, although I’m not in that neighborhood as often as I used to be. The few times I’ve gone back in, I think about that breakup and I order a grilled cheese, glad I’m no longer twenty-four, glad I’m no longer sixteen, but sad in some ways to have lost those earlier versions of myself, versions of me that believed in everything with deep, determined conviction and certainty.
I know it’s not the Muppets, and I know there are far greater injustices in the world, and I know there’s not a lot that can actually be done. It’ll be torn down, and the formica will crack, and the stools will be ripped from the counter and the floor will be bulldozed over, and there will be a new lobby installed and a doorman and a bunch of LED lights strategically arranged around artificial plants, and we’ll move on, and we’ll forget, and we’ll all do the responsible thing when we’ve been out too late and want a milkshake, which is to just get in a cab and go home.
But there’s a tiny little part of me that hopes against hope that somehow, these plans will fall through. That time will stand still, just long enough for me to appreciate it. Or that time will suddenly speed up, and I will be very old, and I will be walking down seventeenth street, holding the hand of a grandkid that might even be mine. And we will sit down, and squish our butts into the vinyl booth seats, ordering milkshakes and grilled cheese sandwiches, watching the pies and cakes in the display case spin on.