- Hopper at the Train Yard
It wasn’t the only diner on the way to pick up my dad from work. We went by a bunch of them, more or less derelict, more or less condemnable: Breakfast $1.99. Dinner Special, ___, a low price that never changed, advertised with orange tape in the window that showed a huge crack, often masked with black tape. And original gray lettering took me way back to an older Los Angeles, another LA. DANNY’S. SHERMAN′S. BIRDY’S CAFE. Broken sidewalks erupted like a concrete carpet rolled out on opening night many years ago, approaching the entrance from both sides, worn out by many guests since. Dim lighting came from within, sent out as an invitation to all, no RSVP necessary. Walk in or walk by. Inside the empty restaurants, waitresses moved quickly, holding up a tray for who-knows-who. I saw nothing, I saw all.
I accompanied my brother there. He said little, a brooding teenager, almost an adult, 19 going on 20, buckled in next to me, one hand on the steering wheel, the other patting his thigh, maybe the radio on low, maybe not. He had no job. He had one role, one function to perform in his life. “Let’s go pick up Dad.”
“Let’s go.” So we went.
We stopped at red lights and slowed when the big trucks on the street made wide turns into the factory lots and narrow streets, honking horns and using blinkers for the hell of it, it seemed, owning the road and powerful enough to stop traffic in both lanes for hours if a tire blew (it happened once) or a few minutes if a driver jumped out of the cab and just decided to chat with another driver in the street, a security guard, a fellow worker meeting him at the gate. [End Page 61]
We knew the road, and the diners, and the trucks, and the bars, and the liquor stores. But we didn’t know anything. I didn’t gauge the importance of it but only liked getting out of the house. I didn’t know both men and women lived and died knowing nothing better than a lonely diner or a three-stooled bar. I didn’t know both men and women lived and died without regard to the rest of the world, and the world paid little or no attention itself and just went on and on and on and never stopped, never even slowed.
I only knew the momentum of life itself, without thinking of the bigger stuff, the threatening stuff. I only knew what I saw and felt.
I saw the diners, night after night, and I saw my own reflection in the window looking back at me. Behind me the backdrop didn’t change, only I had, moving from inside the car to outside on the street, looking back at what I had lost. I turned away to make myself disappear, and when I came back to the window the rest fell into place again.
I saw the same old street without me, the same old sights and landmarks—the tire store and the muffler shop—and the same old diners, uneventful, humble, scarred. And I saw Edward Hopper entering and taking his place at the counter of the loneliest, most broken down one at the head of the Santa Fe Railroad train yard.
I fell in love with this particular diner. It stood out among the brooding few that set themselves apart in the downhill race for pure diner recognition, or picturesqueness, or winsomeness, or even something grander, perhaps vying for an art show ribbon like those pinned to the best paintings shown at our Annual City of Commerce Art Show down the street, the long street behind us. BEST WORST DINER. It beat the rest, getting it right with flat out heart in the aching heart of LA and causing the most thumps in my own scrawny chest, hands down. Ah, yes, I was so sick, I didn’t know any better. I was so enfeebled, so romantic at heart, so much a city boy...