“I am in my favorite diner….”
I can’t think of how many times I have started a post with that line. Most anyone who knows me very long picks up on the fact that I have a weakness for diners and coffee shops. I prefer local places, not chains. Here in Vermont I rotate between two of them, my “Favorite Diner” – a converted train station run by a long time chef in the area and his wife; and my “Second Choice” diner, a place from the fifties with knotty pine interior, mediocre food and the friendliest people. But my history with diners goes back a lot longer.
I could have cared less about diners and coffee shops until the turn of the century. At that point in my life I was running a company that designed and built TV studios and facilities. Even though the offices was where the design work happened, the real work was done in places all over the country.
One of my engineers, Joe Hickey, made a point, when he had to work in this city or that, to find a local dive where he would eat most every day. A diner, usually. Local places, with local people, good food and fast internet. He found, as I have found, that if you go there regularly enough you become a regular, and there, far from home, you build your own little tribe. WHen I traveled to job sites, I’d eat with him regularly, and came to love his out of the way places.
That love of small places came in handy when my divorce hit, fifteen years or so ago. I moved out of our huge old farm house, what had been at the time my dream home, to a tiny little apartment, so the kids could stay in the home they grew up in. One less change for them.
But a huge change for me. I grew to like that little place, but at first, even being there reminded me of everything lost. It was hard to be there, so I ate many of my meals at a nearby coffee shop: Mill Mountain Coffee.
I got used to the good coffee that I did not have to fix (They had a blend, I.V. Drip that was to die for.) The food was OK. The people at the counter were nice. And there were lots of regulars. Many of the new friends I made in that point of my life, I made there.
The most important friend was the pastor of a local church, David Blugerman. David held meetings with his parishoners and at times bible studies and book studies there. At some point, while one of his groups was talking about Paul at the next table, I inserted a comment.
From that, a much-needed friendship emerged. Churches tend to shoot their wounded, but David was not that sort. He was grace filled and embraced me, brokenness and all. He and the church he led embraced me and began my path to healing. Much of it at Mill Mountain Coffee. David is in Maine right now, and still one of the people in my life I treasure the most. From the coffee shop.
At the same time as I was beginning my own coffee shop healing, I had taken on a new job, to create a Mid-Atlantic Division of another company that built Television and media facilities in DC. I didn’t live there. I lived in a tiny little place called Dalevile, Virginia. So each week I would travel to DC and do the work of starting a world-class organization from scratch. There were people to hire. A fabrication facility and offices to design and build. Clients to meet. I lived in hotels during the week.
And I did most of my work in a coffee shop not far from where we decided to build our offices. For a year or so, I met contractors, interviewed potential employees, negotiated with vendors, and had potential customers visit me as I painted the vision of what we were building. It ended up a rousing success, but it began humbly, day after day in a coffee shop where I got on a first name basis with both the people who worked there, and many of the regulars. It became both office and my neighborhood away from home.
Years later, I moved up here to Vermont. I knew exactly one person up here. One. I had no church, was part of no groups. I was rebuilding my broken life. Fortunately, just down the hill from me was a little country store, Duchies.
Duchies was a fixture in our tiny little village. One of those places you find in New England that has a little of everything from flannel shirts to good wine. They would fix you breakfast and you could sit at one of the two tables, though most people just grabbed their breakfast and ran.
Built in the 1880’s, the couple that ran it, WIll and Eric, befriended me as I came down and got my breakfast each morning, sat at one of the tables and wrote poetry. They made a point of introducing me to everyone who came in. Do you have any idea how many people come into a place like that each day? I quickly got to know a whole slew of people. Not well maybe, but it was a lot less lonely knowing faces and names and getting to chat each morning,
The standing almost joke up here is that it takes about three years before the locals begin to talk to you. Another several years before they accept you. Maybe, after ten years or so, you begin to be part of the community. Another New England thing, I was told. Thanks to Will and Eric and Duchies, my timeline was much, much faster.
Duchies, however, burned down on a cold February night. And I had nowhere to go. About the same time, my son moved up here.
He was a teenager suddenly uprooted (his decision, but still, uprooted is uprooted). He’d wake up in the morning ready to talk. Me? I am a quiet guy in the morning. (my daughter is like me that way.) I like to read my devotions. Say my prayers. Down a couple of cups of coffee. Write a while. And I was getting nothing done with my chatty Kathy of a son.
Enter Pawlet Station.
Pawlet Station is the place I call my Favorite Diner. It was not always my favorite diner. For a time it was the only diner. A tiny little train station moved from Nearby Wallingford, Vermont. In its day it has been everything from an ice cream parlor to a higher-end Italian Restaurant. A woman had just bought it and was going to make it a diner.
I began coming to have my quiet time each morning. And in the prices, just like Duchies, connected with my neighborhood. There have been five different owners since then. Some were good cooks. Some were not. None of them, till the people running it now, were good business people. Average life was about a year and half. But always someone picked it up and the diner kept on.
And I was always at the table I am at now. Each morning they were open. Sitting in the corner, writing. And as I have come to be an actual part of the community, and pastor at the local Methodist Church. my time here is often filled with people stopping by and talking. I have become not unlike my friend David Blugerman, a man of grace. I listen. I comfort. I catch up on the local gossip.
It’s a good life, served with some pretty incredible food. The owner and cook has been a local fixture at some of the best-known places in the area for forty-plus years and it shows in his food. For more than average diner fare. He is also a musician, and with his Bose Sound system plays the most eclectic collection of great music you’ll find anywhere.
Mostly though, what I love is the sense of being a part. I am a regular. A fixture. People refer to my table as “Tom’s table.” If they are there when I arrive, they actually apologize! I have named some of the items on the menu. When they try something new, I get a sample. They comp my breakfast a lot. Now and again, they let me put some of my art in my corner to sell.
I love it here. In what has been something of a vagabond life, I have found a home.
Since the Pandemic, they have had trouble getting people to work here. Particularly in the morning. So they are not open as often as they were.
Enter the Pine Grove. What I call my “Second Choice DIner.” It’s in the next town over. Mediocre food. Mediocre coffee. Country music on a cheap stereo. Wonderfully fifties knotty pine walls. It’s your typical local greasy spoon. But they are predictable open every day. And the people who work there, most of them from the same family, are crazy friendly and kind. I eat there several days a week now.
A lot of the people who eat at my favorite diner, come to my second choice diner too. It’s their second choice diner as well. But it IS in a different town in the next state over and there is a while host of new people who I have slowly come to know. I am a regular there. I have Tom’s Table there too. THey see me drive up and by the time I am in, there is a cup of coffee sitting on the table waiting. When I was battling the cancer and fallout from the treatments, they were incredibly kind and solicitous. They have become my friends. As have some of the people who eat there.
Home. I have come to realize that diners are in a way, home. In a life that had me traveling for work way more than was probably healthy, little places like my diners became home. Food was secondary. They are where I connect with my little corner of Vermont. I write here. I do ministry here, maybe more than I do each Sunday in church.
When I am stuck in my writing, or just overwhelmed with the possibilities of what to write about, I write the phrase “I am sitting at my favorite diner….” and just the act of writing a few words tends to break the log jam. Words just come. I have no idea where they will lead. They just come.
So, that is the story of me and my diners. To say I am grateful for the diners in my life would be an understatement, And if you are a regular reader, you have those diners to than as much as anything else. Because here, anything can happen.
Be well. Travel wisely,