By Arthur H. Gunther III
It may seem hilarious and even back-woodsy, but there was a moment, a long one, when at 2 a.m. in a diner, say Hogan’s in West Nyack, N.Y., when you instinctively pulled up your feet as the floor guy came by, splashing Clorox and water at the terrazzo floor. Hey, if he hit your shoes, they were washed too — for free.
Hogan’s, the old one, the place that looked like Edward Hopper’s image of a diner, was not fancy, although the food, short order mostly, was so well practiced a craft there that it could have been cordon bleu. Hogan’s would not be fancy — it’s clientele would not have that. It was just a down-to-earth comfortable joint, and joint was OK. It connected the dots in your life.
I’d sometimes hit the place after my photographer shift at the also old, original Rockland Journal-News in nearby Nyack. I might sit at the counter, where stools were placed on a bulkhead, so you didn’t worry about the floor guy. Other times I was too tired for that and needed a rest at my back, so I took to one of the 8 or 10 booths along the defining front windows of the railway car-like diner.
Also at about 2 a.m., the waitress would come by and swing a fresh bottle of ketchup across the table, and you hardly noticed that either, reflexively reaching for it with left hand while grabbing the near-empty with the right and then swinging that back to her in a return shot. You did this with the sugar, too.
It was life in an old diner, and if you were a regular like me, you were family, so you helped out. You may not have known the cook, the waitress, the floor guy by name, but a wink or nod was all you needed to keep in touch anyway. Diners weren’t much about talking.
Ketchup was a quality marker in the old diners. Hogan’s used fresh stock to refill, but some others watered the mix. Aficionados, and they went to old diners, too, understood that ketchup, a freshly filled bottle, had to be slapped at the bottom to get the flow going. Or you could use the old slide-in-the-table-knife trick. If a full bottle poured easily, it wasn’t choice.
Like everything else at Hogan’s, the ketchup passed mustard. In that, and in the place itself, the new day’s anchor was set at its mooring for night newspaper stiffs like me.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This essay is adapted from an earlier version.