“Ordering! 2 eggs poached medium, side of bacon crispy with rye toast – hold the home fries please!”
Sitting in a little diner in Philadelphia, where it really is sunny, and where I was greeted by a marathon of 80,000 plus people running for the cure for breast cancer, I overhear the stout and pretty silver-haired waitress yell my order in the kitchen.
I am reminded of when I worked in a similar little diner – a truck stop called Sophie’s Choice out by the airport in Toronto. I’d just graduated and needed to make some money so I could drive west. The owner of the restaurant was Romanian, an old white-haired man, short and pretty grumpy most of the time.
I worked with some ladies, not unlike the ones you might have met upon entering Mel’s Diner – Alice and Flo – and we would all yell our orders at the cooks in the kitchen, always to be prefaced with a loud, “Ordering!”
That diner job was quite an experience. Tommy, the owner, took a chance on hiring me, a preppy kid straight out of university. He didn’t know I only intended to be there for five weeks, or until I could get enough money together to drive out West. And what I didn’t know is that I’d enjoy the job as much as I did.
I worked the 6:30am to 2:30pm shift and this meant I had to get up around 5:00 each morning. This, in itself, was enough to lead me to believe I would struggle at this job. I’ve never been a morning person, much the opposite actually. But, as I got into the routine, I began to enjoy the tranquil mornings and how great it felt as the workday flew by and was over before 3.
The customers were another added bonus. They were a mix of truckers and industrial workers – some “suits”, but only a few. The suits called me “Jill” because I reminded them of Jill Taylor from Home Improvement. I wish I could tell them about the time, years later, that a casting director told me I’d make a great TV Mom.
Then there was Butch. Butch was a tall, thick man with bottle-rimmed glasses who could drink close to a 2-4 of beer on any given visit. He always sat at the bar counter to socialize with the staff. To those who didn’t know him, he might have been intimidating, big and covered in all sorts of tattoos, but Butch was a really sweet guy. He even hooked me up with a place to stay during my road trip; “If you can make it to Thunder Bay on your first day, call my friend Jim, he owns a hotel, he’ll help you out.”
After 17 hours of driving, my girlfriend and I arrived much to Jim’s surprise. It wasn’t the lengthy journey that shocked Jim, a truck driver himself, it was the fact that we were two young girls in a V-W Golf, a far cry from the biker babes he might have expected his trucker buddy to send his way. He put us up that night in his hotel, complete with swimming pool and hot tub. The heated indoor pool even had a slide! We took full advantage of this water therapy after our long journey, thanks to Butch.
There was another trucker at the diner all the long-time waitresses warned me about: Donny. Donny could be mean so I wasn’t to take it personally. Donny usually sat with Skippy, a fellow truck driver. The antithesis of Donny, Skippy was a young guy, kinda cute, and very sweet. He had this baby face, bright eyes, and a thick head of sandy brown hair. Donny had longer grey-black hair, was thin, and it wasn’t hard to see a lifetime of experience in his face.
The day finally came when they sat in my section. I approached them somewhat tentatively to take their order. “Get me a coffee bitch” is what I heard Donny say. He may not have actually said ‘bitch’ but for all I was expecting from him and the tone of his voice, he may as well have. “When you ask nicely, asshole,” was my immediate response. Ok, I may not have said ‘asshole’ but I may have and my tone certainly did.
We were instant friends.
I grew quite close to Donny during those next few weeks, and Skippy always made me smile. I think he liked peanut butter and that’s where his nickname had come from. Funny, I don’t think I ever did find out what his real name was.
Donny was in his late 40’s. In fact, we celebrated his 50th birthday together, he and I. It was a few days before I was set to leave for my road trip. Donny insisted he take me to his mechanics, to get my car serviced. He wanted to ensure I would be safe on my adventure.
After work that day, I followed him in the little shell of a pick up truck he drove when he wasn’t driving his big truck: he and his oversized Rottweiler, Apollo. He instructed the guys at the shop, in a ‘do it well or else’ kinda fashion, to take care of his “daughter’s car” while I climbed into the little pick up next to Apollo, the large square mug of a mutt’s face panting just inches from mine. “Nice Apollo,” I kept saying, “Niiice Apollo.”
We drove just up the street to a local Kelsey’s restaurant. I learned here that it was Donny’s 50th birthday. He told me stories. Crazy stories. Stories about when he lived in Alaska and slept with a gun under his pillow, nearly shooting one of his daughter’s once when she startled him awake.
He told me a bit about Vietnam, cursing and swearing through it all. I don’t remember the details, just the cursing. There was so much cursing it was embarrassing, drawing attention to us from the other patrons trying to enjoy a peaceful lunch.
I sat silently in awe of most of what he told me, learning a bit about his association with the Hell’s Angels, and his twin daughters, Barbie and Betsy I think their names were, who were close to my age but who he didn’t see much anymore.
Though I had traveled quite a bit in my life, I was still a somewhat naïve young girl with little to no understanding of the things he spoke of aside from what I might have seen on television and in the movies. Even so, I liked Donny and he was good to me.
I never did see Donny again after my final day at the diner but learned later that he may have been battling cancer and that, if it was the Donny everybody was talking about, he was actually pretty high up in the ranks of the Hell’s Angels. Probably a good thing I didn’t know this at the time. I may have made some snap judgments and missed giving myself the opportunity to know him. And what a shame that would have been. Sometimes, it’s just better not to know these things.
I never saw any of those guys again actually, sweet Skippy, mild-mannered Butch, the suits who called me Jill, but they gave me a hell of a send off. Even Tommy bought me a tequila shot shocking the hell out of the other servers and all the regulars who’d come in to see me go.
I drove across the country again 8 years later in that same VW Golf. I was having some trouble through the mountains in BC. My car was really slow and just couldn’t push much past 60 clicks. An older guy on a Harley had been on the road with me for much of that day, passing me until I passed him and so on, back and forth until I passed a rest stop and he pulled out beside me. He flagged me over at the next town.
While it all felt fine, my little brain ran the potential scenarios in my head involving a single female pulling off the road to chat with a biker she’d never met before. “This could go one of two ways,” I thought to myself. Instead, Pete told me he was concerned about my car and that, in his travels, he’s always been the one trying to keep up with the Volkswagens, not the other way around, and that perhaps I should give my car a rest.
I had been pushing it on that trip. Nowhere close to 17 hours in one stretch but my car was older now and weighed down with all of my worldly possessions. So Pete and I pulled into the local Dairy Queen where he bought me a burger and a shake and we chatted for a couple of hours. Pete was a project manager for a construction company out of Calgary, en route to the town we had stopped in to manage construction of a new Home Depot.
To me, not unlike Butch and Donny, Pete was an angel. Not a rough and tumble, motorcycle-riding Hell’s Angel, though I’m not sure it would have made a difference if he was. Nope, Pete and Butch and Donny were guardian angels, taking care of me while I was on the road, each one ensuring I got a good rest, kept my engine running smoothly, and made it safely from A to B.
And for that, I will be forever grateful.