Suburban Soliloquy #53

The Blue Fountain Diner

The other night I had dinner at the Blue Fountain Diner. Diners are ubiquitous throughout the conterminous United States; nearly 7,000 of them sprouted before the outbreak of the Second World War. While I drank coffee and ate my Breast of Capon a la Parmigiana, a slab of chicken too large for my plate, and a side of spaghetti, I contemplated my surroundings. The place is essentially the same as when it opened in 1966, my first year of high school. They added a large dining room to the back. They sealed off the downstairs and moved the restrooms upstairs to be more accessible for drunks and the elderly. They have added a stone fašade to the exterior so that the place looks more established and not like a section of train that has had its steel wheels sunk into a block of cement.

I came with my parents on evenings my father decided to spare my mother from the drudgery of cooking. The place was all spanking new. Then as now, the menu was encased in a clear plastic sheath that made it easy to keep clean. The menu ran for several pages crowded with choices, all familiar dishes. Inside were much smaller clear pockets into which were slipped the daily specials. Even then extra pages would be paper-clipped in with still more specials. It little mattered to me, who at that age consistently ordered either the hamburger or the fried chicken.

As a child I always wanted to sit at the counter on the swivel stools bolted to the floor, but my mother always insisted we take a booth. She regarded the counter as somehow disreputable, perhaps because it resembled the bar in a barroom.

A diner is supposed to resemble a railroad dining car. The myth is that diners began life as rolling stock, but were derailed to become stationary restaurants. This is not true. Indeed, the first Pullman Company dining cars were far more elegantly appointed, their interiors made to resemble restaurants. The very first Pullman dining car was named "Delmonico" for the plush New York City restaurant. There had been a few railroad cars and even buses that were converted into diners, but these were the extreme exceptions. The myth was supported by a conscious desire of the manufacturers of diners to build their restaurants in the shape of a railroad car - and even buses. The resemblance is often uncanny and always intended.

The interior of early diners was long and narrow, with tables or booths along the one side that had the windows facing the roadway, and along the opposite side a long counter ran parallel. In those first diners the cook prepared food on the back bar behind the counter. In time the diner evolved an extended room onto the rear and the kitchen moved into it. Still, in most modern diners you can see the vestige of the traditional layout.

Many a night when we were restless and there was no school the following day, my friends and I found our way to the Blue Fountain Diner. It was the hallmark of diners to always be opened and to serve breakfast twenty-four hours a day. Diners harbored the restless, the weary, the out-of-sync oddballs, and those who would skulk through the concealment of night. After the game or the school dance or the late night movie, only a few diners were opened. There we found the truckers, travelers, men on their way to or from sleepless industries, and the refuse of bars after closing time. It was a collection of the rough and rude and ridiculous, folks who chafed the tired waitresses. Fond memories, and there I was again, thirty years down the road, slumped over my chicken breast and java before dragging myself into work.

As kids we would stretch a paper napkin across a large glass, often half-filled with someone's abandoned drink. The napkin was held in place by a rubber band. A dime was put into the center of the napkin. While we talked, with our cigarettes we'd burned holes into the paper hoping not to spill the dime into the glass, for that would be the loser.

Why should a restaurant be made to resemble a railroad car? I think it catered to our twentieth century perception of being a nation of perpetual industry and movement. While I was dining at the Blue Fountain Diner, I speculated that the railroad car's appeal might be as a symbol of speed, efficiency, and convenience with which a meal could be prepared and consumed.

Much of a diner is stainless steel inside and out. It was easy to wipe down and keep clean the stainless steel, the Formica, and the glass. This other night I was alone, not eating with my mother, so I was free to sit at the counter. I was noting the expanse of stainless steel covering the back bar. Every item upon it was encased in matching sheet metal; milk dispensers, coffee brewers, juice dispensers, syrup pumps, and cabinets with sliding glass doors filled with cakes and pies. It's the same layout, the same product line, in so many of the diners I've visited, most of them owned by Greek families. "How did you know I was Greek?" asked the woman at the cash register. She had an accent. I looked past her at the print hanging on the wall, a Greek Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary. I told her it was obvious from all the Greek dishes on the menu.

The Blue Fountain Diner used to display a half-naked naiad standing in a shell that formed a fountain. It was their centerpiece, greeting you when you first walked in. It is now gone and replaced with sculpted children standing under an umbrella. When I asked after the missing nymph, the cashier explained how she had been sent out for repair and cleaning, and somehow got stolen.

Diners have served my nation well during the century of the combustion engine, feeding an assortment of drivers making their way across the country's great distances. Diners and roads are the epitome of twentieth century America, our gluttony for food and gasoline.

The Blue Fountain Diner sits adjacent to the Old Lincoln Highway. Already by the time the diner first opened nobody remembered the significance of the name Lincoln Highway. Lincoln Highway was the first "paved" transcontinental highway in the United States, an idea conceived in 1912 by Carl Fisher and James Allison, the same gentlemen who three years earlier gave birth to the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Lincoln Highway was well established by the 1920s with its eastern terminus in Manhattan's Times Square and its western terminus at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco's Lincoln Park, a distance of over 3,400 miles (5,472 km).

This portion of the Lincoln Highway was also designated US Route 1. In 1925 the United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Public Roads, established a numbered highway system. The States were persuaded to voluntarily superimpose this common numbering system onto their own highways as an aid in navigation for drivers crossing State lines to distant points on the continent. Odd numbers designated routes running north-south and even numbers for those running east-west. US Route 1 stretches almost 2,400 miles (3,860 km). Its northern terminus is Fort Kent, Maine, where the road crosses the border into Canada at a point further north than Quebec. At its southern terminus, US Route 1 leaps off the mainland to island-hop 110 miles (180 km) before reaching Hemingway's Key West, Florida. But for thirty miles between Trenton, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Lincoln Highway and US Route 1 share the same pavement and pass before the Blue Fountain Diner.

Both the Lincoln Highway and US Route 1 have been supplanted by newer high-speed roadways designed with no intersections, with wide shoulders and wide median strips. These new highways bypass the Blue Fountain Diner. What is the future of diners? Fast food restaurants like MacDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken have been drawing away many customers since the sixties. Also, in the last forty years many of my countrymen have acquired more sophisticated tastes. Since more women must work for a living to maintain households, and more young adults have larger discretionary incomes, restaurants have increased tenfold giving the diners further competition. Where once the Blue Fountain Diner stood an oasis for the hungry, now it is in a sea of restaurants.

But what the Blue Fountain Diner remains is a place to sit long hours with friends. They will not chase you out unless they're busy and another customer is waiting for your seat. That doesn't happen often late at night. It is a place for the anxious, the desperate, the hardworking, and for exuberant youth. It is suburbia's enduring community center for the nocturnal.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the fifty-second in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is now available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"