The first time I saw Zah was in a diner. Late breakfast was a pleasure for me. Bacon, sausage, eggs over easy, with the crunch of toast and sting of bitter coffee. It was never a ritual. Food for me was when I remembered or felt like it and it’s a trait that has never really changed, but to seek out a diner, order the simplest food and just sit and be in the space is a pleasure. When I am sad, or need to think, when I need to be grateful and am struggling to find the thing that can be that gratitude, it’s a diner that I find myself in. They are the eternal spaces. The menu is always the same, almost socialist in it’s ability to feed anyone. Cheap meat cooked on a communal grill that has become seasoned by years of people surviving. It is a place of safety in a world where anything can happen and all are welcome through it’s doors. How you are received is determined by your attitude walking in. Nothing is scarier than a diner waitress. If you come seeking gourmet meals and have an attitude when you don’t find them then you will be greeted with more venom than a bag full of rattlesnakes. But come in quietly and with a grateful heart that someone is willing to look after you in basic ways and you will be met with warmth and see beautiful spirits dance between the tables. What we bring into a space is what we experience and a diner is the perfect example of that.
In New York I never had a favorite place. I would send up prays for the right one. “I’m hungry feed me, thank you” was the usual one. It was all part of the gratitude I guess. I was grateful for the ability to buy myself food when I needed it and this was a way of reminding myself of poorer times. Before I began to change as a person I would have ordered burgers and expensive drinks, maybe a steak or a huge salad piled high with everything the chef thought tasty. Those days when I had little yet tried to spend like a king to compensate. But I did change. I came to see it as excess. There was always too much food and the cramming in of it always made me sad and fat. So I reverted to a meal I used to have. Eggs, sausage, toast, and if the cook was able to provide a few fried mushrooms too I felt like I was in heaven. It was the same meal I had eaten in a small cafe back in England since I was a teenager. Brown’s Cafe at the Covered Market in Oxford had become The Flame or The Olympia, but the food was the exactly the same quality and flavor. I was grateful for that. It didn’t matter that the sausage tasted of sawdust or the eggs glistened with old oil. It was the ability to feed myself, that most basic of functions, which was a roar from the crowds that I loved.
And so one day I found myself in a new diner on a new part of Broadway. I was seated in the cheap seats by the waiter and water was quickly put in front of me. It’s a curiously American thing to be given water even before you have chosen your meal. I’ll very rarely drink it but I appreciate the sentiment. “Here is water” they say. “You will drink it. And then you will be given more food than your stomach can handle so you will take it home.” Sometimes I drink it. My meal, however, is never excessive and I hate leftovers so the dogs always miss out. The order for food was given. A coke was ordered. I settled down to wait for my meal and idly looked around the diner at my fellow guests. There was the usual assortment. Business men sweating in suits. Over there was the typical gaggle of Jewish grandmothers all talking at the same time about grandchildren. There were the lonely, the old and left behind, the regulars of these places who are always grateful as much for the few words of another human being as for the food. Mothers with children and fathers trying to escape the family were there. They chewed on pickles, burgers, fries, salads but each was a portrait of humanity which was priceless. Then there was a man reading a book.
There was a peace about the man. He sat quietly with his book wedged up by the salt cellar and the pepper pot with an intent look on his face as he read. He had hair like the wing of a raven with a few silver threads that was carelessly pushed back over ears and fell to the middle of his shoulders. Late thirties, early forties perhaps but though there were a few lines to the eyes they weren’t heavy yet. I have the gift of seeing the aging of a face and I could tell that this one would be beautiful until the day it died. There was too much life behind it. Sorrows yes but a lightness and peace as well. A white t-shirt and a ragged black leather jacket completed the look. Oh, how he shone with peace as he unconsciously fed himself a grilled cheese sandwich and drank his coffee. I was brought back from my own dreaming by the waiter sliding my plate in front of me. He smiled and I thanked him while he bustled off to help some other soul to feed while I quietly sat and let my eggs get cold.
Congealed egg yolk is never fun so I made a sandwich of the eggs with the toast and ate, remembering to be grateful. I’d come to understand the nature of the city. A smile and glance on the subway or in a diner is it. People pass like ships in the night and rarely does the opportunity come for meaningful conversation. So I was happy to observe knowing that nothing would come of it and my feelings were more about talk than sex. He had a book I thought I recognized and it was an unusual choice. My own copy was much loved, well read, and frankly falling apart. Here was someone I could have talked to about it, and yet never would. So spearing a sausage I returned to dreaming of my next story, and let my eyes wander over the beautiful being once or twice just for inspiration.
When I finished the check was given and I left cash on the table for the waiter. I gathered my things and made my way to the cashier to pay. The beautiful man was there and on the counter as he handed over his money was the book. It was exactly the one I thought and so I plucked up courage and said “enjoying it?”
A pair of dark, beautiful eyes were turned to me and a smiling mouth said “it’s amazing.” As it became my turn to pay he lingered. “What did you think of it?” He asked.
My turn to smile and realizing the cashier was prodding me to take my change I stammered “it’s one of my favorites. I love how the story tells such a simple truth so cleverly. That personal isn’t the same as important.”
He laughed and said that he was only halfway through so would I please be careful. I blushed, certainly I looked downwards and remember the scent of him. Something of the woods with a hint of something else which drove a road straight to my heart. It was a comforting, erotic scent. So familiar and yet so alien at the same time. I wanted to sit and just smell his skin but he was a stranger and this was the middle of New York. Instead I chose to walk the way he turned and so conversation continued for two blocks, then ten, then finally twenty. We talked about the characters, talked about previous books, occasionally we would look towards each other and see the other turn their head forward. It was so funny and tragic. It was as though neither of us knew what to say next and so we kept on about the books.
Eventually I realized we had walked thirty blocks and the conversation wasn’t in any danger of flagging. But duty was duty and I needed to get home to work on something. I walked on until we hit the next subway station and apologizing explained my dilemma. This beautiful man smiled a little sadly and shook my hand. Rough skin tenderly touched mine and with a curious smile he asked if I would like to meet later in the week to continue our talk. I blurted out that would be wonderful. Perhaps same place, same time on Saturday would be ok? He beamed and so the date was made. We parted, and yes I glanced back before heading down the stairs, but then he glanced back too as he walked away.
Over time we met more and more. Always the same diner and always the same simple meal. We talked about books, our homes, our love of nature and the hating of a city which turned it into something not quite alive, but we talked for hours. Over time talk turned to touching of hands by accident on the table and from there we fumbled our way to deeper truths and tender moments. But those are another tale.
One evening last spring Zah and I were lying on the sofa when he began laughing. I was poked tenderly in the ribs and he smiled and said “You know we could have talked on the way uptown eh? We both lived uptown and walked those thirty blocks for no reason.” No reason perhaps, except for the founding of a lifetime.