The Black Diner Experience

Featured Image: Saimon Ma

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My grandma owned a diner in D.C. called “Mary’s Place” for over 30 years. Every summer as a kid, I found myself tying an apron around my waist to help sweep and deliver food to customers’ tables. As I weaved around customers, trying to sweep every piece of trash and drop of crumb that fell from someone’s plate, I vividly remember the sound of my Grandma’s voice as she yelled out another order. She had a voice that raised above the clamor and business of the restaurant. A voice that seemed to soar to everyone that needed to hear it.

My Grandma would wake up at 4 am every day to open the diner and she would gather me right along with her. I would ride in the backseat of her blue Chevrolet, half asleep, nodding in and out of a state of wakefulness. When we arrived at the diner I perked up, mainly because the lights were so bright and my brain assumed I would miss something if I went into her office and fell asleep. She would turn on the TV, this old fifteen-inch television that sat on top of an RC Soda refrigerator, and got the grill started for the day. My job was to squeeze the lemons for the lemonade, after that, I would make five pitchers of pancake mix, then peel a large pot of potatoes. It was usually 7 am by the time our opening ritual was done and we did it to perfection.

Mary’s Place was a focal point of the Black community in Northeast D.C. It is where I saw Black plumbers and mechanics sit next to and eat with Black politicians and lawyers, exchanging stories in African American Vernacular English, allowing themselves to be Black and happy. It is where Marion Barry, the popular and beloved mayor of D.C., would come to eat and chat with my Grandma about local politics. It was truly my safe space and as I grew older, I began to realize how much of my life has revolved around Black diner culture.

During undergrad, I was on the constant search for a place to study. The public libraries only stayed open until 9 pm, the campus library stayed open until 2 am (only during finals), and it was the diners that stayed open 24/7. I found this diner in Downtown Bethesda called “Tastee”. I would leave campus when the campus library closed, head home to shower, then head down to Tastee’s. Whenever I went, I would get there around midnight or 1 am, and the diner was always full of hospital workers changing shifts around this time.

My first time there, I scanned the menu. Looking at the menu up and down, I asked the waitress how big their waffles were. She removed the pen from her hair and made a sample size with her hands. She further enticed me by offering a veggie omelet. She pointed to the stack of books and my laptop, which cluttered my booth, and said anyone who works this hard needs a good omelet. So there it was, whenever I went into Tastee’s, between midnight and 1 am, I ordered a waffle and a veggie omelet with cheese. It became so routine that the chef at the grill would see me walk in and shout, “the usual?!” I would silently nod my head or put my thumb up, not wanting to make too much noise out of a weird shyness.

I wish I could capture the feeling I had during my first road trip with three of my friends. It was the summer of 2010 and we rented a car and drove down to Fayetteville, North Carolina. We arrived in Fayetteville around midnight, just in time to see a rush of people entering a Waffle House that was between a Popeye’s and a gas station. This was prime time for people to start heading to the clubs. While some people like to eat Waffle House post-nightclub night, some people like to enjoy a good waffle before the club. When we entered, the first sounds that I heard were the sound of coffee mugs clinking together. The clings and clangs of empty mugs lightly tapping each other is a sound that still prompts my ears to perk up.

The next sound that reached my ears was the different type of Black English I was hearing for the first time, because make no mistake about it, this is a Black space. No matter the dialect of AAVE being used, there is a sense of familiarity in every word that is spoke, a familiarity that cannot be appropriated. As the waitress approached, I noticed a couple in the back, sitting as though they were on top of each other, but they were just very close. He was wearing a throwback jersey, one of those jerseys that had all the NBA teams on them. He had the matching cap to go with it, which was sitting crookedly on his head. A huge cross chain dangled from his neck, hovering over his half eaten waffle. While looking into his partner’s eyes, I assume he said something clever, because his partner gave him a sheepish but sensual smile.

As he turned to face towards his plate, I caught myself staring and snapped out of whatever trance I was under. A man wearing a dirty apron came from the back, holding a stick of butter, and for some reason this was now the focus of my attention. He yelled out, “butter up!” and proceeded to throw the stick of butter two feet into the pot of grits. The Waffle House errupted in claps and applauses; us being the out-of-towners were throughly impressed and said something in our DC slang. One of the girls next to us asked where we were from, which led us getting into every club that night for free. She was a DJ and wanted to be able to say “we got DC in the house tonight!” That weekend, we were taken to club after club and every night ended with us at a Waffle House around 2 am, ordering multiple plates while holding multiple conversations. All of this centered on the fact that the communal space of the diner allowed for us, as Black people, to be in this space and comfortable.

Not all of my diner experiences have been comfortable, and not all of them have a happy ending. Driving home from a former partner’s family home, we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall diner, the true definition of a greasy spoon. It was a little past midnight and we both ordered coffee. We sat there, stirring our cream and sugar around in our cups, trying to find something to say, trying to find the words to address the lack of energy we both felt in our relationship. When our food came, she pushed her plate away and said she would take her food to go, that she lost her appetite. I was still hungry, and I ate as she watched, then she finally said it — this, us, we just won’t work. For some reason, I remember the man sitting in the booth across from us. He was wearing a black and white flannel shirt and reading a newspaper a few days old.

He heard what she said and glanced up from his outdated newspaper and quickly looked away. I looked at this person, a person I once loved and suddenly and unexplainably did not love and did not protest. Sitting there watching her eat her hamburger and french fries with a pickle on the side, she grabbed an extra napkin and wiped the mustard from the corner of her mouth. The waitress came to the table and asked if we wanted dessert. We looked at each other. The days of us sharing desserts were over, but we looked at each other as if we both wanted to split a slice of cheesecake one last time. We both smiled and asked the waitress for the check, and my ex-girlfriend interjected that we go with separate checks.

What comes to mind when I think of the Black diner experience is Black people sitting at segregated diner counters and being humiliated, beat, and arrested for engaging in peaceful protest. Pictures of a Black woman sitting and having a soda poured on her, of Black men being pulled by the collar of their shirts, and white people being disgusted at the mere presence of Black people in public spaces.

Growing up and experiencing Black people engaging in diner culture freely and joyfully is a privilege. There is no way I would have gotten through undergrad without Tastee’s. The space that this diner, a diner with pictures of random local politicians and celebrities hung on the walls, a mini jukebox at every table, and sticky menus, provided me is priceless. Some nights when I had nowhere else to go I would sleep there overnight, spending over six hours drinking decaf, studying, and trying to sleep.

Luckily, there is another Tastee’s by my current office. While I have not been there in a while, nothing beats walking through the doors, unbuttoning my suit jacket to hang it up on the little hook, sitting down and ordering the same thing I’ve been getting for years, a waffle, a veggie omelet, and a glass of orange juice.