I recently traveled to a small city situated somewhere near the boundary between the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. If you’re ever there, and want to meditate on the folly of nostalgia, there’s a restaurant you should try. I’m going to call it The Cupboard. It sits on the western edge of downtown, one desolate block north of the river, just off of Americana Boulevard. Aside from the fading imparted by forty-one years of sun, The Cupboard remains unchanged since its opening in 1972.
Physically, The Cupboard is more or less identical to whatever notion you might entertain of the classic, All-American diner. Nuclear families and elderly couples fill the vinyl booths. Coarse-voiced waitresses bustle about in polyester uniforms and heavy eyeliner. In one corner, haphazard piles of newspaper cover a long-unplayed upright piano, and in another, a veneered folding table supports a collection of variously yellowed Little League team photos. The whole space is permeated with kitchen clatter, and filigreed with green splotches of artificial foliage.
Perhaps The Cupboard’s quaintest feature are the telephones attached to the walls of the booths. To place an order, you pick up the phone, which automatically rings a switchboard in the kitchen, and tell the operator what you want. This type of system was relatively common in mid-century diners, but few still exist. A&W, for one, adopted it in the ’60s, but phased it out over the course of the ’80s. Long-lived, independent diners such as The Cupboard are the last bastions of order-by-phone technology.
I visited The Cupboard around 11 a.m. on a Sunday, with my friend Britt, who had told me about it the day before. I was on the tail end of a weekend trip, and I wanted to see the phones in action before I left. When we walked in, a waitress recognized Britt from across the room and gestured to indicate, “Sit wherever.” Britt excused herself to speak to the waitress, and I claimed a two-person, window-side booth.
When she joined me at the table, Britt said, “I wasn’t expecting her to be here today, but that’s my mom. She’s our waitress. We’ve been having some issues, but don’t worry about it, I told her to save it for later.”
I remarked that the place seemed unusually empty for a weekend. Only four other tables were occupied, but Britt assured me, “It’ll get slammed after church lets out.”
Britt’s mom, Carol, soon arrived at our table bearing a coffee pot and a broad but brittle smile. She poured with a trembling hand, and didn’t seem to notice that she’d left my mug barely half full. She recited the day’s specials, made distracted small talk about the hot weather, and then, because I was in privileged company, offered to come back and take our orders personally. As much as I wanted to order by telephone, I obliged because it seemed like the polite thing to do.
According to Britt, The Cupboard’s owners don’t maintain the phone system simply as a cute relic. They rely on it to minimize operating costs. Even on a busy weekend they employ just two servers at a time, enough to take and deliver drink orders, clear tables, and run plates to a room with a seating capacity of one hundred and fifty. But, since we beat the rush, Carol had time to give us the personal touch.
Ten minutes later, as she hurried across the room carrying food to another table, Carol glanced at us, paused, and exclaimed, “Oh! I was gonna take your order! Where is my head today?” During those ten minutes, Britt explained a few things.
The Cupboard is staffed largely, if not entirely, by ex-convicts. Britt is unsure to what extent that policy is motivated by goodwill vis-à-vis the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, but she suspects that it’s weighted towards the latter. Depending on the individual’s circumstances, the credit amounts to somewhere between $1,200 and $9,600 per hire. The arrangement generally works out well for both parties, but there are occasional hiccups with respect to the repeat offenders.
For example, this was Carol’s first day back at work after being unaccountably missing for nearly a week. Her home was vacant, her car was gone, and she didn’t answer her phone, for five days.
“This happens once in a while, sometimes for longer,” Britt told me. “I knew she’d be back, but it always stresses me out because I can never be sure.” It was clear from Carol’s tableside manner that she was preoccupied by whatever had been going down, which, in light of her history, may have been some serious mess.
Over the past fifteen years, Carol has used three aliases, had forty-three warrants out for her arrest, and spent five cumulative years in prison. Among the charges lodged against her are armed robbery, fraud, arson, drug possession, and distribution. A few years ago she blew up a rent-by-the-week motel room in a low-budget meth-cooking mishap. Once, in the service of collecting a debt, she wrestled a woman to the floor and cut off her hair with a pair of box cutters. For some period of time she was involved with the Mexican Mafia, but Britt was unclear on the specifics of that episode. All of this is well reflected in the lines of her face.
“She was fine,” Britt said. “She was pretty normal for most of her life. She had a job. She was married. She raised me and my sister pretty well. Then out of nowhere, when I was around thirteen, she went on a trip to Amsterdam, and I don’t know what happened there, but she’s been off the rails ever since.”
That morning, as a waitress, Carol recommended the salmon benedict. I wanted a Cupboard experience, so, without thinking much about it, I went with the Cupboard flow and took her suggestion. Britt had a lesser appetite, or maybe she’s just more prudent. She ordered two scrambled eggs and an English muffin, toasted and buttered.
The food arrived with startling quickness, and with a startling abundance of gelatinous hollandaise sauce. I shoveled some of the sauce onto the massive pile of hash browns, and plunged my fork into the poached egg, through the salmon, and into the muffin. The texture wasn’t what I expected. I had envisioned smoked salmon, but instead it was baked or poached or somehow otherwise cooked. Again, I didn’t think much about it. I just needed some sustenance.
In the booth behind Britt, a gray-haired couple each stared into the space behind the other while mechanically consuming an omelette. A small boy who I presume was their grandson poked apathetically at a plate of pancakes and squirmed in his seat. Over the course of my meal, I didn’t hear a word spoken among them until the boy’s squirming reached a critical point and the grandmother scowled and hissed through clenched teeth, “Sit down!” The boy quietly lowered his head and settled himself.
I ate all of the salmon benedict and half of the hash browns, and from the fruit cup I ate the strawberries and blueberries but left the melon alone. The food did what food does. After I ate it, I wasn’t hungry anymore. Carol visited once more with the coffee pot and this time she filled my cup to the brim. It was just as bitter as the first cup, but for the sake of caffeine I drank it down in one long swig.
My time was short, so I called a cab for the airport. Britt and I paid at the cash register, I left a nice tip on the table, and we waited outside in the shade of The Cupboard’s tiny, two-table patio. The near table was empty, and the far table was occupied by a lone woman with a double baby stroller and a massive ice cream sundae. She was cooing into the stroller and alternately spooning ice cream into it and her own mouth. “Mmmmm… You haven’t had vanilla ice cream for a while, have you!? Oh, you like that, don’t you? My pretty little things…”
The cab arrived shortly. I parted with Britt and wheeled my suitcase into the parking lot. From the other side of the patio I could see inside the stroller. It held two chihuahuas dressed in baby bonnets. I got in the cab and closed the door. Carol emerged onto the patio with a cigarette between her lips and a lighter at the ready. She lit up and inhaled deeply, then saw me staring and gave me a wave. I waved back. As my car rolled out of the lot I watched her pace along the edge of the building. Her face was tense and her non-smoking arm was wrapped tightly across her chest, hand tucked into the opposite armpit.
The salmon gave me a foul case of diarrhea.
William Foster is from Virginia. Names have been changed.