“Did you hear about Milton?”
“No, what happened?”
“He’s not here anymore.”
“Have you seen him around?”
“No but he’s probably just on vacation or something.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Look there he is!”
“That’s not him–why do you always do that?”
“Because it makes you laugh…that’s the fake Milton.”
“It does look like him.”
A week later I asked Gus about Milton.
“Oh, who’s that?”
“What do you mean Gus, Milton’s not here anymore?”
“He was supposed to be here one day and he didn’t show up– that’s all I know.”
“OK thanks, Gus.”
Obviously, that was now the company line.
The Diner has been a sort of home away from home for many years now.
A place to meet friends. Conduct business and to hang out.
I call the place Old School. Because of its old school approach to customer service. When you walk in, Irma at the cash register (where she keeps the lollypops), says “Hi” and asks about the family. They bring you an iced coffee without being asked and keep refilling it throughout the meal.
Of course, when I told my best friend Franz Mugler, a stickler for propriety, to meet me at “Old School” one morning, I got a stern lecture about using silly nicknames instead of proper names for a dining establishment. Yesterday I ran into a terrific couple at Old School. They often see me there and make fun of me for being a “regular.”
“Hey Craig, funny seeing you here! What’s the special occasion? Oh… it’s another day”
I thought that was a very clever line.
Of course, this whole thing about Milton has me a bit flummoxed.
Part of me is happy that he is free from the routine of working at the diner. Perhaps, free now to pursue more exciting adventures with his young life. But part of me hopes he knows that he will be missed– that beyond his always friendly salutation of, “Iced coffee Mr. Craig, decaf with skim milk, Ms. Trixie,” one could feel a solidity of character underneath his dashing exterior. Milton left “Old School” once before when the diner briefly changed owners.
It was a total disaster.
The place lost all its magic and life and turned run-down almost over-night. It felt like an empty bus terminal. Manfred Gogol, the dismissive artist and social cynic, met me there once during this low-ebb period and criticized the sticky silverware, that the booths were too cramped (for him) and that the large, raised plaster mural of a lighthouse scene across the entire southern wall of the diner was “utter dreck.” Only Manfred could dismiss such a delightful oddity.
Then, almost like a miracle, Steve and Irma came back to the diner and breathed life back into it and even Milton returned– and the place was buzzing and humming and filled to the brim with happy customers, friendly neighbors and the fastest, friendliest service in NYC.
It all starts and ends with Steve. He is always watching his customers and employees to make sure everyone ispic happy. He is on the case and on top of all the small details. From daily deliveries to table service to inventory to staff to customers–the man is a maestro who conducts his business through a daily cacophony of loud conversation, clinks, clanks, sizzles, laughs and shouts of “Whiskey Down!”
“Gus, give Mrs. Hossenpfeffer that table in the back…how is your son…what’s his name?”
“Is he still in college?”
“Yes, Steve -you have such a good memory…he has one more year at Vassar…he loves it!”
“That’s great, that’s great…know your family a long time.”
“OK, your table is ready now, thanks for waiting.”
“Thank you Steve.”
“Gus, Herbal tea with lemon for Mrs. Hossenpfeffer.”
“Thank you, Steve.”
These types of small exchanges occur throughout the work day for Steve and Irma and their attentive, friendly staff. The food comes to the table almost as quick as it was ordered and the line outside starts to build around 11:30am.
One old friend of mine. A writer– goes to Old School almost every day. It is part of his daily routine. Like Einstein. He keeps certain things simple.
“Have you seen Evan? He was just here asking for you?”
“No Irma, but I’m sure we’ll bump into each other eventually like two ships passing in the night.”
Irma looked at me quizzically. She rarely gets any of my literary or pop references. That’s ok. We’re cool.
It’s funny, how I always used to only order delivery from Old School and then one day it took over an hour for them to deliver something (probably a burger deluxe) late at night. Then it happened again. I spoke with Steve on the phone and he told me brusquely. “We’re very busy.”
That’s Steve as I’ve now gotten to know him better. No nonsense. To the point.
At the time, in my younger days as it were, I took that treatment and service to mean that the diner did not appreciate my long-time patronage. So, I switched diners and started ordering from The Viand exclusively. I had made a promise to myself– never to order delivery from this other, rude, unappreciative diner ever again. And so it went for a number of months.
Eventually, on whim, I decided to stop into the “rude” diner one morning. Something I had rarely if ever done before–to grab some coffee. Suddenly there was a buzz.
“That’s him.” “That’s definitely him.”
Apparently, one of the delivery boys (who I made eye contact with upon entering) who worked the counter, recognized me and told Gus–“That’s the guy who used to order from us… for years.”
Gus being Gus–a charmer of all ladies and the elder statesman of the diner–with the good looks of an old time movie star –beloved by all, knew exactly what to do.”
“So? Apartment 10B, right?”
“Yes, you have a good memory.”
“How come you no order cheeseburger deluxes anymore…you on a diet?”
So funny. Gotta love Gus. Everybody does. I told Gus the story of being a pissed off loyal customer and being left high (literally) and dry waiting for delivery and he was very amused. We both were.
Funny thing is, I still have not ordered delivery from Old School since the now famous “phone argument with Steve.”
Call it principle, stubbornness or perhaps, it’s just more fun to go there in person now –and listen to the 80’s music playing on the radio while chilling out in the Old School atmosphere and observing all the interesting characters that frequent the diner.
There’s the Rabbi’s wife who wears baseball hats, sequined shirts and tons of make-up. The grumpy Professor reading the New York Times on his laptop, leaving the occasional “reservation note” on his preferred end table for unsuspecting interlopers. The well-known News Anchor who has his pre-workout breakfast meetings…whose famous older brother will probably announce a run for President of the United States one of these years…and then there’s me–speaking in a British accent at times to make Gus smile, drinking my iced coffees, scribbling work notes on napkins while working on the Daily News crossword puzzle.
They even let me use the bigger “ladies room” bathroom all the time and never say a thing instead of forcing me to use their super-claustrophobic men’s room– which is the size a broom closet or small locker-room at a mini-storage facility.
The coffee is just OK, really…and the Old School prices are a little too steep for my taste. But what am I going to do–hang out at Starbucks? That’s Manfred’s racket.
Besides, I bet Milton comes back again. He and Gus are like an old comedy duo and seemingly the best of friends.
A couple of weeks later I discovered that would not happen after eavesdropping on a conversation between Irma and Steve.
The shock has still not worn off completely but some things are best not to speak of further.