24 Hours at Denny's

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Published in the Austin American-Statesman

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4:15am, Saturday, August 23: "Why did I agree to this?" I ask myself as, bleary-eyed and bed-headed, I crawl behind the wheel of my car. My editor had even admitted his idea was crazy ("...like a fox," he kidded himself): For XL's "Late Nite Dining" issue, I would spend twenty-four consecutive hours in the diner-style Denny's on I-35 at MLK. The management would be unaware of my, ahem, journalistic credentials. Heaven help me, I said yes.

4:30am: I enter and am immediately confronted by a long-forgotten greeting: "Smoking or non?"

4:30-5:30am: My cheerful waitress, Karen, wears a nametag reading "Serving you since August 2001." "I'm not even supposed to be in here 'til 6," she says, explaining that she has been up since 4:30 the previous morning. "Do you like harmonica?" she asks -- and proceeds to give an impromptu recital for a family of early-morning patrons. I watch the last tired remnants of the Friday night post-clubbing crowd go home.

5:30-6:30am: I finish my first meal (called a "French Slam," it was not geared to those self-conscious about patriotism or their health), push the plate aside, and the real challenge begins: waiting. For much of the hour, I'm the only customer, so I scrutinize the decor: The happy neon and creased sheet-metal shout "It's the '50s!," but the halfhearted greenery by the entrance speaks to a different decade. I decide the vibe is less corny than Disneyland, more square than Johnny Rockets. Chairs in my section are being put up so the floor can be mopped. I ask Karen if I'm in anybody's way and she says, "Stay as long as you like, sweetie." The words will haunt her.

6:30-7:30am: The day manager comes in and I overhear him mentioning me. Karen says that I'm fine, but he looks suspicious. The overhead music, which until now has been a hit-tastic source of comfort, turns bad: "Uptown Girl," "Simply Irresistible," "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)."

[Songs delivered unexpectedly by the diner-music gods to help me through this 24-hour ordeal: "Strawberry Letter 23," "Rock With You," "Borderline," "Every Day I Write the Book," "96 Tears," "She's About a Mover," "A Girl Like You," "Dancing Queen"]

7:30-8:30am: As the sky brightens, so does my pessimism about the long chore ahead of me. The breakfast crowd is young and chipper, save for one ex-hippie in a hawaiian shirt who is rubbing his face vigorously to wake up. The half-gallon coffee mug he's carrying should help.

8:30-9:30am: The place is starting to fill up, and I realize that many of today's customers are parents bringing their offspring to college for the first time. As a family near me scrutinizes their campus map, Dad looks out curiously at the Erwin Center and makes chit-chat about the Killer D's. Austin is a strange place, yes -- luckily for Junior, Dad doesn't know the half of it.

9:30-10:30am: The longest hour so far by a long shot. Business is so heavy that there are usually multiple parties waiting to be seated. Babies scream and waiters scramble. A dapper old black man, the first obvious regular I've seen, hobbles over to the lunch counter, where he is welcomed warmly. As the room nears 100% occupancy, guilt descends: It's one thing to have strangers think I'm a loon, but I don't want to cost them money by taking up space paying customers need. I placate my conscience by ordering a side of biscuits and gravy that I don't want. Karen, bless her, still smiles and calls me "honey."

[Smokers observed outside, reading the entire front page of the newspaper in the vending machine without buying it: Three.]

10:30-11:30am: What was an exercise in boredom is now agonizing self-consciousness. The minutes creep by as I fight the impulse to free up my four-top booth for hungry Americans. I'm made to feel better by a middle-aged couple who plant themselves at the next booth, spread their newspapers all over, and order something they know is "not on the menu any more." Clearly, I'm not the only guy who thinks he owns the joint. But how long can I deprive Karen of her much-deserved tips? I'm just too nice for this racket.

11:30am-12:30pm: The rush dies down, transforming into a calm but steady lunch crowd, now more black than white. I order a turkey sandwich, no longer on pins & needles. If it gets bad like that again, I don't know what I'll do.

[Songs I hear twice during 24 hours: "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "You Can't Hurry Love" (once by the Supremes, later by Phil Collins), "Simply Irresistible" "Jim Dandy," "Jungle Boogie," "Uptown Girl."]

12:30-1:30pm: Two men are seated who clearly are on a break from sweaty labor, a big bearlike man in overalls and partner with dirt all over his t-shirt. The manly men are ordering milkshakes!

1:30-2:30pm: Karen goes home, the place empties out, and I catch myself yawning five or six times in the span of two minutes. Time is undeniably marching on for some folks, but my brain is in stasis. It's a beautiful day outside, but I can't kid myself: If I weren't here, I'd be on my couch, shades drawn, watching Billy Wilder movies.

2:30-3:30pm: I am bored beyond words, and want nothing more than to be away from this booth.

3:30-4:30pm: A group of leather-clad bikers stride in and are seated on the other side of the diner. More waiters count their tips and go home. My belly is full of free refills.

[How much liquid can the average stomach hold? What about the average freelance journalist's?]

4:30-5:30pm: Halfway through, I don't know if I'll survive this thing. I decide to reward myself with a milkshake, but the waitresses have all become so accustomed to ignoring me that I can't hail one. Twice, I'm able to make eye contact, but they just smile and keep walking. Abandoning my psychic powers, I give a big wave and am helped by Kate, a smiling beanpole with a long blonde braid and an unlimited amount of energy.

5:30-6:30am: First contact. The gray-haired day manager hunkers amiably over to my corner of the world. "So, you a student?" Nope. Am I bothering anybody? "No, not at all," he says. "It's just that you've been here a long time ... You're buying stuff, and it's no problem. We had a guy once who was in here for two days and then freaked out, so we like to keep an eye on things." I'm dying to know what "freaked out" means, but I figure that asking him would require me to reciprocate by opening up. That's against my policy. I've decided one way to make this interesting is to see how little I can explain without getting the boot. So far, all I've said is "I needed to get out of the house for a while." The manager, having sized me up, goes back to work. Then it occurs to me the likelihood of me "freaking out" isn't as remote as I've led him to believe.

[Possible explanations for my unnaturally long stay: a) had a fight with my girlfriend and told her I'd be here when she cooled off, b) am on a road trip, and am waiting for another road-tripper who was to meet me here; maybe he had car trouble, c) am a deranged madman with a lust for maple syrup.]

6:30-7:30pm: The manager from this morning has come back to work; I'm spanning multiple workdays for these people. I can't tell if he notices/recognizes me. Despite forgoing coffee for hours, I'm completely jittery and my eyes can barely focus. I need to do some jumping jacks. If my fifth-grade self was told that he'd someday utter those words, he'd spit on the messenger. Business is slow: aside from a caravan of a dozen Asian youngsters, mostly it's small family groups with senior citizens. I see somebody I recognize from the lunch crowd: one of the milkshake-drinking workmen, who has now cleaned up and looks much happier.

7:30-8:30pm: I start seriously playing time games with myself: "Exactly 24 hours ago, I was five minutes into a lousy movie. If I'd turned it off then, I could have had two more hours of sleep before embarking on this silliness." The smell of hot fried food from other tables travels far and fast. I continue to think of things I might've brought with me -- though I've never used it and I'm not entirely sure what it's for, one word comes to mind: Bromo.

[Other things I could've done with this 24 hours: a) listened to the complete works of the Beatles, twice through for the really druggy albums, b) learned to play kazoo, washboard, and jaw harp, then made a lo-fi indie record c) watched the second-season DVDs of "NYPD Blue," and then spent an hour trying to forget the sight of Detective Andy Sipowicz's naked butt.]

8:30-9:30pm: I catch the night manager eyeing me warily. "Come on Eileen" plays for the second time, and I have the disturbing thought that I may have heard this song more times in the 90s than in the 80s. I'm still thinking in fractions: Two-thirds of the way through this thing. If only I could make it more than 15 minutes without looking at my watch.

9:30-10:30pm: My mood brightens immesurably when I hear the opening beats of Elvis Costello's "Pump it Up" -- then the song stops after 20 seconds when somebody pays to hear Counting Crows on the jukebox. No kind of food or drink sounds good to me at the moment; I'm giving sober thought to becoming a vegetarian, or maybe even a breathe-air-ian. (Is that what they called it on that "Barney Miller" episode?) A waiter, Lou, comes to the next booth and does the old stoop-down-informal "need anything else?" thing. He does not do this at my booth. Lou knows I'm no good and not to be encouraged. I commend him for his wisdom. Kate comes to refill my coffee instead. I wonder if anyone has toyed with the idea that I'm a corporate spy, sent from town to town by HQ to surreptitiously gauge customer service.

[Songs I heard three times: "Boogie Shoes."]

10:30-11:30pm: I find myself reading the same paragraph (on page 297 of the book I started this morning) for twenty minutes. My attention span has dropped to the microscopic level, and I fear this means that the minutes will grow even longer. I go to the men's room, happy I can still walk straight, and do a little split-second calisthenics to wake myself up. It's a good thing Denny's doesn't have a bar. I'd be comatose, and would be spending all Monday trying to explain why the Statesman should pay a $400 food bill. The place is quite dead.

11:30pm-12:30am: I make contact with a new waitress and order a glass of lemonade that tastes like nectar from Heaven. I finish my book and wish I'd brought another pulp novel, instead of imagining I'd get some writing done. Sure, I've written in my sleep, but this is something else entirely. I'm brain-dead, and 4:30 is a long way off. What if I snuck out and just pretended I stayed the whole time? How outlandish could my diary be without my getting caught?

[How would former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair have handled this assignment?]

12:30-1:30am: Four young women walk in and warn the host he's in for a loud party. They're right: a middle-aged lady struts in behind them and bellows, "Wake up, everybody, we're here!" Naturally, the nine or so family members are seated by me. The place is fairly full now, with some folks clearly arriving after an evening out, but nobody seems drunk. Except maybe a guy in a Kangol hat two booths over, who is fighting with his girlfriend on a cell phone. Finally, a conversation I'd like to overhear, and it has to happen when I'm next to the Bigmouth Family Reunion. When the BFR suddenly decides to start making loud clicking noises at each other, I realize what the two-day freakout is all about.

1:30-2:30am: I experience a moment of doubt that I am actually sitting in this booth. Am I hallucinating? I wish. The place has a brief period of stillness, then starts to fill with obvious night-on-the-towners. A quintet of young cops come in after their Sixth Street shift. Sadly, Denny's has gotten too loud for me to evesdrop effectively. I order a burger before the crush of last-call refugees hits.

2:30-3:30am: I visit the men's room and find a roll of tissue sitting in the toilet. Finally, confirmation that it's Saturday night. Outside, though, the alleged revellers are calm and composed, despite their sparkly clothes.

3:30am: A trio of urban cowboys erupts in a shouted profanity. Action! They're eyeing some women across the room while bragging about their night out.

3:40am: There are more cell phones in use right now than I've seen all day. Who are these people calling at four in the morning?

3:45am: The ersatz cowpokes spill a glass of water and are very proud of themselves. Without bothering to set it upright, they move across the room and start hitting on a pair of unresponsive-looking ladies.

[Accidental dish-droppings by staff: Only one, if you don't count the waiter who fumbled the ketchup bottle he was juggling.]

4:10am: It couldn't have waited 25 more minutes: An unseen perpetrator goes to the jukebox and pays to have Celine Dion tell him her heart will go on.

4:17am: I am giddy. My heart may go on, or it may explode at the prospect of finally leaving this place.

4:20am: One of the cowboys emerges from the restroom with a sanitary paper toilet-seat cover around his neck, smirking with satisfaction. That's what I gave up my Saturday night hoping to see, fellas -- now don't let the door hit you on your way out.

4:30am: The heavens open, angel choirs sing, and I stride joyfully through the exit. The manager gives me a bemused smile as I pass him, and I know we're both thinking, "Good riddance!"

4:45am: I will sleep for the next 14 hours, and will not dream of Grand Slam breakfasts.

[from the Austin American-Statesman, September 2003]


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