You could say The Swan is a bit of an anachronism. Actually, you could say it’s a complete and utter, outlet-on-a-castle-wall-in-a-bad-movie anachronism. Maybe that’s what I like about it. It’s an honest to goodness, bad lighting and vinyl swivel stools diner. Has been since the forties. It used to be in good company on this street, but over time, all of the small independent shops ran to seed, and were bought up by this and that chain of cafes where coffee comes in a paper cup and cost three times what a coffee should. Hell, maybe It’s just my age, but I like it that at The Swan you still pay less than two bucks for a coffee that you can nurse well into the night without being bothered.
My coffee’s getting cold. I look at my watch. Have to squint to read the hands. Feels like an hour has passed since the last time I looked. Nope. Seven minutes. The waiting has become the hardest part.
The Swan is the kind of place where, in days gone by, blue-haired ladies would come on an afternoon to eat soggy-crusted pie and drink tea from those metal pots with hinged lids that would never close properly. A place where people would take a paper serviette from the metal stand on the table, unfold it and place it on their laps.
Whatever happened to all the blue-haired ladies? Nowadays they all take yoga classes and join book clubs. They drink decaf coffee and eat sugar free cookies. Lord above.
I have my usual table, a booth right next to the front window. The glass is late-night black and I see my shadowy, transparent self looking back at me. I want to put my hand out to see if it will go right through my reflection, but stop myself. I watch my face. Seems it’s been a while since I shaved. Can’t remember the last time. An all-night streetcar rumbles by, confusing the images. I look away.
The coffee tastes weak, but it does twice the job, caffeine-wise, of a coffee you get anywhere else. Another reason I like the place. And they serve it in those off-white cups and saucers with a band of off-white swans swimming around a robin’s egg blue rim. Robin’s egg blue. Not a color you hear of much anymore. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember the last time I saw a robin. Let alone a robin’s egg.
The middle-aged waitresses here are also from another time. Their uniforms are that color–since we’re on the topic of almost extinct colors–that used to be called mint: that pale, slightly sickly green that went out of fashion decades ago and for good reason. But I kind of like it. Here at any rate. It wouldn’t be the same if the waitresses were all eighteen and went around in tight black tee shirts and jeans. Wouldn’t be the same at all.
The clientele has changed over the years. And not for the better. They all look the same these days: the old and young, the rich and poor. And everyone looks so damned clean and fresh and healthy. Squeaky clean. Much as I hate to admit it, I’d love to see a kid with a hipster afro, or a foot-high punk mohawk hair-do walk in here. Hasn’t happened in ages.
I look down at my wrist again. Eleven minutes. That’s better. Though I’m starting to get that fluttery, colony of moths in my gut feeling. I’m sure they should have been here by now. But, as I know well enough, there’s no rushing these things.
I tap my cigarette pack on the table top. Used to be able to smoke in here. Not anymore. Not for a long time. The waitress is glaring at me from behind the counter. She’s already given my cigarettes a warning stare. Now she’s coming over, slowly, on white sneakers that squeak slightly on the linoleum floor; the kind of shoes you can only find in service uniform shops. She reminds me of an overworked nurse as she makes her way to my booth, holding out the coffee pot like it’s a bed pan she’s just changed. I feel sorry for her. I really do. She looks tired. But I can’t help fidgeting with the end of a cigarette, pulling it slowly out of the package. The damned thing is I don’t even smoke. Never have. But I like the way a pack of cigarettes feels in the hand. Just noticed that my hand’s shaking. More than usual.
She comes closer. Then out of nowhere, I get the taste in my mouth. God. Can’t even begin to describe it. And it’s a bit different with each person. Depends, I guess. Although I try not to, I find myself chewing. There’s nothing in my mouth but that taste. And as I chew, the image of two people appears, just behind the woman, grainy in a bad TV reception sort of a way. One’s the waitress. The other some guy. Their images sort of cling to her as she saunters through the diner; warping slightly each time she takes a corner. Damn. They aren’t always this strong, but she must have been musing on it today. Whether relishing or regretting, I’ve no way to know. Don’t much care, either.
“Refill?” she asks. I nod and put the cigarette back in the pack and push the pack away. She pours coffee that’s never quite hot enough into the cup. The swans keep swimming around and around. I swallow half the cup in one go. She walks away and I notice that one heel of her white sneakers is worn down more than the other one.
The bells over the front door jangle to life and my heart bounces into my throat. My hand rests on my throbbing neck as I turn to see who’s come in. I’m disappointed. And relieved.
A young couple bubbles through the door. They’re nuzzling each other and smiling like they just got away with a bank robbery. In spite of the hour, they still look annoyingly, artificially fresh. I’ll bet they go to a tanning salon. That’s probably where they met.
They approach the booth next to mine, then stop for an instant. Their faces change as they look over at me, then carry on to a booth further down the row. I don’t take offense at their not wanting to sit at the next table, I’m not looking too terribly fresh these days, but what I do take offense at is that they don’t look the least bit embarrassed by not wanting to. Can’t say I’m not used to it. And I can’t say I care. Really.