I don’t imagine I was the only person in the 18-to- 22-year-old-chronically-single set to seek comfort and companionship in the paid for attention of the 3rd shift wait staff at my local 24-hour diner. There’s no shame in being lonely, and there’s no reason not to get to know the people who bring you your Monte Cristo sandwich every night either. Plus, I’ve always had a weird thing for guys who look like Jesus. Not the “real” Jesus, but the one in all those Renaissance paintings. You know, the Aryan one.
Ben the waiter was, as far as I could tell, perfect. Or at least sort of adorable. Or at least present and willing to chat with me for a moment or two as he dropped off my coffee. Whatever. The object of my nightly tipping was tallish with brownish, blondish, curly, shoulder length hair. He had blue eyes, but unlike Jesus, Ben wore glasses. What more could a woman who knew she would only ever sleep with other women ask for?
This all happened during the years when I was technically old enough to move out, but not quite sure why or how to go about it. To experience something like freedom, I sat in diners all night every night. When I was 20? (I’m going with 20, because I seem to remember being given a late night Irish coffee by the bar tender and feeling like I’d done something daring by drinking it) a new diner opened up a mere 15 minute drive from the comforts of the suburban ranch house I grew up in, in Downtown Dayton, OH. It was just across the street from Neon Movies, still one of the hippest places to see an independent flick. It was also within short walking distance of every music club I cared to frequent, which I did roughly 5 nights a week. Other than just the fact that this new diner employed a bespectacled Jesus, it was a departure from your standard Denny’s or Perkins in a couple ways. One, the food was legitimately good–as in they hired a professional chef who created his own menu. Two, as Ben eventually let slip (or told me deliberately to impress me), it was owned by the mob.
If you’ve ever been to a place with a bar during off hours, you may have seen someone sitting at the end of the bar pouring over receipts or ledgers of some sort. That person is either the manager of that place with a bar, or the least professional accountant who’s ever existed. But in most cases it’s the manager.
The bar in this diner was oval shaped, and the back side of it faced the main dining room, which wasn’t used after dinner hours. For some reason, they still let people sit on that side of the bar though. That’s where I did all my sitting. It’s also where the manager, with his receipts and ledgers, tended to hang out. Sitting at the bar seemed the thing to do for a party of one. I got more direct attention, because the bar tender was always standing right in front of me, and I didn’t have to feel bad about taking up a booth all by myself.
The manager of this diner (the name of which I’d tell you if I could remember it) was a super enthusiastic, chatty guy who also thought of himself as quite deep. I feel like I was a child back then, because it was over a decade ago, but come to think of it, most of the staff, including Mr. Manager, couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 years older than I was.
I think it was around this time in my life that I got into writing, which means it was also about the time that I thought appearing deep in thought while scribbling hurriedly in a notebook while in public looked very very cool. Well one night, Mr. Enthusiastic Manager noticed how cool I was, and decided to come over and chat. We’d talked before, because as the late night manager of a place that didn’t get a lot of late night customers, he wanted to encourage people to come back. He did this by being personable. Anyway, we were already on a first-name-basis by the time M.E.M. walked up to me to talk about writing. Talk might not be the right word here. He was actually eager to participate. He suggested that we do that thing that people sometimes do where one person will write one line, and then the other person will write the next line, and you just trade back and forth until, in our case, your writing partner is certain you’ve just written the greatest, deepest, most mind-blowingly far out essay the world would ever know. Let me just pause here to assure you that what Manager and I wrote was, decidedly, not good. A little depressed. A little new-agey. A little self-involved. Still, I got the impression that my writing partner thought, as a direct result of our little exercise, scholars were going to line up for the chance to make us the subject of their philosophy dissertations. I think through the writing of our stream of consciousness drivel we may have come to the conclusion that life was actually meaningless after all. Big whoop. Well it was a very big not at all sarcastic whoop to Mr. Manager. I knew how impressed he was with us because he told me. Over and over again, he told me. He’d invite me back into his office so we could strategize ways to get this essay (I swear to god it couldn’t have been more than 500 words) out into the world. And that’s about the time I started sitting in a booth at the front of the restaurant.
I know there were other servers who took care of me during my time as regular at this diner, but Ben is the only one I remember. It wasn’t his Jesus-y good looks. Or his quiet yet friendly personality. No, it was two things. One, the fact that he was a coke dealer. The other the fact that I gave him a ride that maybe, possibly saved his life.
I’ve always been the sort of person to whom others are perfectly comfortable sharing things about themselves which they should not be perfectly comfortable sharing. I call it bar tender syndrome. I’ve got a face that seems vaguely familiar to complete strangers and I’ve been told that I give off the impression that I’m not judgmental. I don’t know if that’s why Ben felt comfortable telling me his story, but I can promise you it’s not because I ever asked him if he’d ever dabbled in the narcotics trade.
One night after refilling my coffee, Ben sat down across from me in my booth, and told me that the reason he was working at the diner was that he owed some people some money. $2500, if I remember correctly. See, he’d made sort of a big mistake. He’d come up with the brilliant idea of selling coke to students at the University of Dayton. He was probably correct that he could have made a good bit of money in this endeavor, but the problem was that it’s hard to sell coke when it’s already found its way up your nose. Poor Ben, in a tale as old as time, had partied his way through everything he’d meant to sell. Oops. I’m sure the folks who’d supplied him with his inventory were pleased that he’d had a good time, but they still wanted their money. Ben made a verbal agreement with them that went something like, “I will hand deliver my measly tips to you, Mr./Ms. drug distributor, every night right after work if, in exchange, you agree not to kill me.” This seemed fair to everyone involved. The only emotional reaction I had to Ben’s story was one of pity as I looked around the diner and counted the current number of customers in Ben’s section (1) and mentally figured out how much he was probably walking out the door with on a nightly basis (not $2500). And this was all that was said of the situation for a while.
After that, I kept coming in to the diner like usual. I’d sit in my booth and read or write for a while. Chat with the staff. Sometimes Ben waited on me, sometimes one of his coworkers did. Everything was easy breezy. Then, one night, after I’d been there a couple hours, I asked Ben how he was doing? It turned out he was not well. “I missed the last bus out to where I have to go after work.” I didn’t hesitate one second I was so desperate to be liked and needed.
“I’ll take you.”
“I don’t want you going out there,” he protested.
“Don’t be stupid. It’s no big deal,” I assured him.
This back and forth went on for a while, just as rivetingly as I’ve described it above. Eventually Ben gave in. He got his stuff and we headed west, over the river.
My mom worked at a hospital in our destination neighborhood for nearly twenty years. Every once in a while she’d have to take my sister and me into work with her–for a meeting she couldn’t miss even though she couldn’t find a sitter, to pick up a paycheck–and when we drove through the neighborhood her hospital was in, she gave us strict instructions not to make eye contact with anyone. Not because this was a predominantly black neighborhood and she was a racist, but because sometimes people in this neighborhood would shoot other people in this neighborhood for no damn reason. She’d have given the same instructions if we’d been driving on the equally shitty, yet predominantly white, east side of town. So with a decade or so of training on proper decorum in this neighborhood under my belt, I agreed when Ben gave me strict instructions to drop him off at the gas station across the street from his destination and then immediately drive away. “Don’t even wait to make sure I get to the front door.” I may have gone along with it, but I didn’t like just stranding him. How the hell was he going to get home? I never had the chance to ask. I pulled up to the gas station.
“Are you sure? I can wait for you.”
“Nope, just drive away.”
Then he said something else as he slammed the car door shut. I couldn’t quite make it out, but as I pulled away I decided it sounded a little bit like, “Thanks, Carrie. You’re a real life savior.”