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Diner heaven

Polly Letofsky/Special to the Daily
Vail's Polly Letofsky, who is walking around the world to raise money for breast cancer, got a little boost on her long trip in one of America's treasured greasy spoons.
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Editor’s note: Vail resident Polly Letofsky has been on the road since she left town Aug. 1, 1999, on her mission the become the first woman to walk around the world and promote awareness of breast cancer. From Vail she first walked to the West Coast, then crossed to the two islands of New Zealand, up the eastern coast of Australia and on to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, India, Turkey, Greece, Great Britain and Ireland. She’s now back in the United States, having arrived in New York City and crossed New York State to the Canadian Border at Niagra Falls. She’s expected to reach Vail sometime this year. This is a recent installment from her journal, written in June. You can follow along with Polly’s journey on her Web site, http://www.globalwalk.org.

HIGHSPHIRE, PA – There’s a neon sign up ahead on Highway 230 and I can’t quite read it yet but my heart skips a little beat at the promise of a diner.

Sitting in a booth at a diner with my hands wrapped around a hot drink and the newspaper spread across the table is my happy place. If some Hungarian were to ask me where to go to get a feel for the real America, I’d tell them to go sit in a diner.

Diners are as close as America gets to historic cultural treasures – the greasy spoons that hum along under neon signs on Main Streets and rural roadsides. Inside, old men flirt with sassy waitresses named Flo and Bev, who pour coffee in big thick cups and scream orders to the hash slinger in the back. They sit back in one of the red vinyl booths or the orange twirly stools up at the counter, slurp on their bottomless cup and talk about how they’re going to catch the big one at this weekend’s Trout Run Fishing Derby.

As I walked closer and saw the big shiny word “Diner,” I got embarrassingly giddy.

Signs send me

I should make it clear that it’s not the eggs-over-easy soaked in bacon fat or the quarter-pound hamburger smothered in cheese wiz that gets me excited – it’s about ambiance. I love tacky.

A diner sign in shiny chrome mixed with aqua is the best of tacky, the kind that makes you feel like you’ve just stepped back to the ’50s where tacky began. I went snap-happy, and when I walked inside I was greeted by a number of waitresses with white aprons and pencils in their hair.

“We saw you taking photos of our sign. Why on earth would you want to do that?” they asked

“I just love these old diners, and this one is perfect, full of character,” I said. “This is as good as they get.”

Everyone guffaws and says, “THIS place? This place is a dump! We haven’t even changed the sign since Gus built the place in 1952.”

I tried to explain to them that these original diners are like when those little old ladies sell their paintings at flea markets for a dime only to discover that it’s a Picasso they’ve been hiding in their attic all these years. These old diners have been going under a big resurgence the past few years and are pieces of American history. But it’s hard to explain to an old lady that her cobwebbed painting is priceless.

“Are you doing a picture book?” they ask. I had to disappoint her and say, no, I wasn’t doing a picture book of American diners, but hey, that’s a great idea – maybe I’ll do that next.

When I tell them that I’m walking around the world for breast cancer they all “ooh.’

Someone up at the counter says, “Well, I’ll be! Didn’t I see you in the paper yesterday? Congratulations, that’s just great. You are a piece of work. Hey, Sheila! We got a celebrity in the house!”

Then she turns to me, “Lunch is on me!”

Chicken salad

Sheila handed me a menu and even though I knew I wanted the chicken salad plate with saltines, I perused the 12-page menu just for entertainment. I always peruse the menu and always order the chicken salad plate. I then slid into a booth, threw the newspaper over the table and my soul was happy sitting in red vinyl.

In the Eastern U.S., I’ve learned all sorts of juicy tidbits about diner history. Every time I stop in one and slide into a booth I learn a little more. They tell me that most diners were built in the East back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s and contrary to popular belief, they were almost never built from old railway cars, just made to look that way.

They were purpose-built, mass-produced, shiny restaurants that were cheap to buy and maintain and could be set up in hours. Their charm was that you could set them up anywhere you could find a flat piece of land. And when the spirit or market moved you, you just loaded it onto a flatbed truck and moved the whole kit-n’-caboodle across town.

It has also become clear that East Coasters are innately protective of their diner heritage. East coasters insist that any diner out west, or in the Midwest, is only a second rate copy of their diners and hold that if the sassy, wryly charming waitresses exist elsewhere, it’s because they’ve been scouted and recruited from the East.

It was sneaking up on 4 p.m., dinnertime for the older generation and the waitresses greeted them one by one as they shuffled down the diner to the booth of their choice. “How are you today, Melba?”

“Fine, fine thank you, Bev. The bursitis is acting up a bit, but had to get out.”

The diner was filling up quickly and that was my cue to get a move on. I had to leave my booth free for the next customer or there was going to be a geriatric revolt.

I handed all the waitresses a brochure about breast cancer and thanked them for lunch and a great trip back to the American ’50s.


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