Every farm town has a diner. Those old towns that rise from the Midwestern prairies aren't governed from marble towers, but around old tables and Naugahyde chairs in the midst of the scent of frying bacon, mouth-watering burgers and fresh coffee.
Every so often I remember the little town I used to call home, and which may forever be my "hometown", for something about it draws me back, again and again even though the last time I saw it I was at the threshold of my teenage years. It is but a shadow, but a vivid one indeed, that occasionally comes to me and calls me back to it through all my senses.
Our little town had a very small "downtown" only two blocks long, if that. The barbershop had a twisting pole, the Ben Franklin had a big sign running the length of the store upon its false front, and the sidewalks were covered intermittently by the ports over the doorways, inviting people in simply by providing protection from the elements, be it the heat or rains of summer or the snows of winter.
Some businesses, though, by their very being and the scents wafting from their interiors invited us in, and indeed, that was Ma's place in our town, the only diner, a timeless place of burgers, fries, and farmers.
I could be describing any small town diner here: You open a creaky partially-rusted screen door complete with peeling white or grey paint, and let it slam behind you as you enter the low roar of the diner. Depending on the time of day, you're greeted either with the dominant scent of bacon or burgers, and always, always always the inviting aroma of coffee, visible while it brewed: the brown rims were calf-inated, the orange were de-calf.
I never did understand what calves had to do with coffee, but after all, it was farm country and there was a lot I couldn't grasp. Even so, I loved entering the diner and seeing men just like some of my uncles, taking a break, eating together in their John Deere hats and overalls, smelling of the barns and fields no matter how cleanly they tried to be.
There was a homeliness about the place, with its counter running the length of one side and booths on the other. All the tabletops were a type of yellow-creme color, while all the chairs were a variation of ripped Naugahyde of red and black.
You can walk into such a place in Anytown, Mid-Western USA and find a seat, and the same kind of friendly waitress will come to your table, pad and pen in hand, pouring coffee, asking to take your order. She'll set tall glasses of ice water in front of you in cloudy old plastic glasses, and for the kids, she'll take straws out of her apron pocket with a glint in her eye, knowing you'll rip off one end and blow them at your sibling.
But it's worth it to her to pick up those stray straw wrappings because she remembers doing it, too, and in fact, does it herself when she and her co-workers clean up at the end of the shift.
She hands you a Naugahyde-backed menu clad in cracked clear plastic detailing the fries, malts, burgers, sandwiches and desserts common to the venue: fries, onion rings (maybe), vanilla, chocolate or strawberry malts, hamburger or cheeseburger, chicken or pulled pork sandwich and a slice of pie for dessert, or maybe a scoop of ice cream or a Sundae.
You never have to order ketchup or mustard, because they are already at your table, in opaque plastic red or yellow containers; red for the ketchup, yellow for the mustard, right next to the metal thing that holds the napkins, salt, pepper, sugar and jelly.
The burger comes on a plate with dill pickle spear on the side, the bun is buttered and if you ordered cheese (like my brother always did), it's melted perfectly. The fries come in a little red basket lined with wax paper, and you always have to check the cap of the ketchup bottle and the salt/pepper shakers to make sure the lids are on tight before you tip them onto your burger and/or fries.
The malt comes in the metal container in which it was mixed and the waitress pours it into a tall plastic glass for you, gives you another straw and then sets the container down so you can pour in whatever is left after you've drained your glass a bit. Because it's so cold and thick, you can't drink the malt but instead scoop it up with your straw and lick it off the end. The malt usually comes before the burger and Mom always has to warn you to slow down on the ice cream so that you have room to enjoy the burger that is still coming.
The place mats are simple white ones with "ruffled" edges that look like a child's drawing of a cloud, and Moms everywhere offer pens and pencils as entertainment. It's not always necessary, though, because the shellacked photos in the diner are fun: they are photos superimposed upon a wooden border matching the same cloud-shaped border design as the paper place-mats, but the photos are of children dressed like farmers and saying mysteriously adult things such as, "You been farmin' long?" In the photo, one child-farmer appears to be wryly amused while the other kicks at the gravel in dejection.
There was always a hum of conversation, a homey-ness of a home kitchen and a familiarity between the farmers and servers in the diner my family couldn't quite touch, even though we were "regulars" there, too. It was a treat to go to Ma's.
In the summer we'd arrive and step over the rust-stained, watery sidewalk where the air conditioner drained, avoiding the drops as it sucked the humidity from inside. We'd enter the relative coolness, only to emerge after our meal or malt break into the furnace-blast of a hot, humid summer day. In winter we'd traipse across the icy sidewalk, beneath the silence of the air conditioner and enter into the humid, fragrant warmth of the diner, welcoming us into any seat in the house, only to emerge later into the winter desolation from which we'd received only a friendly respite.
Ah, yes, the farmtown diner, a staple in any community, the place where the problems of the world are left behind in favor of the greasy goodness of a perfect hamburger, basket of fries, and thick malt.
A place where we could sit and meditate on pictures like "Keep On Truckin" right next to John Deere advertisements and listen to the NPR Radio in the form of conversation of the everyday family farmer, the salt of the earth, in one of the most decent places in the world.
I never used to understand that old photo, "You been farmin' long?", but now, more than 30 years later, I understand it far more deeply than I ever sought, and now I understand the sympathetically wry smile of the kid in the red hat and the sad dejection of the boy in the black hat.
Somewhere in my distant memory, I remember the dog days of summer, the hot blast of Illinois summer heat when the screen door of Ma's slammed behind me for the last time, leaving me on Main Street side-stepping the drip of the air conditioner; but the sound still rumbles in my ears and I can still smell the scent of fresh burgers on buttered buns, and I can still see the frost coating the exterior of the metal malt mixers as they were set on our table.
Most importantly, I can still remember the farmers talking shop, the endless fields, and the land that is the heart of our country.
That is where my heart beats.