FROM OCTOBER 2018 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
Michael Winter settles into the pre-dawn shift at Vesta feeling heavy loneliness with a side of doom. But his slo-mo odyssey at the classic lunch counter changes everything by sun-up.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, gripped with anxiety. The anxiety is over love or money or the health of a friend, or the memory of a failed promise. I’m worthless and there is no sleep. I get up, careful not to wake the young boy who also sleeps here, and go for a walk in the dark. This morning I take my bicycle and follow the east-west roads of Hallam and Yarmouth until I’m at the corner of Dupont and Bathurst. A city bus plows by, illuminating the white X on a construction worker’s vest outside the Apollo 11 diner. Inside, a man uses a squeegee on the windows, lifting the neon Open sign as he rotates around the moon of his little capsule. It’s 6 a.m. Across Dupont is Vesta Lunch, “reputable,” the sign says, “since 1955.” That’s where I’m headed.
“Coffee? I’ll put a fresh pot on for you. Breakfast? Bacon? Over easy?”
I reply yes to everything.
There is comfort in this, the easy answer to questions, because my life, unlike anyone else’s, of course, is full of complications and failure.
There is one other customer, a woman my age in a dark T-shirt and denim farmer pants. She is staring industriously into her laptop, typing. She looks the way I used to look when I had a young child and had to get up early to get any work done.
I know better than to interrupt her.
I’m sitting on a vinyl stool – there are 15 stools along the narrow counter. My server chops home fries on the grill. She’s using what looks like a paint scraper. She’s wearing a white apron.
At the end of the counter is a plasma screen with a movie on the action channel. It’s the kind of movie I’ve seen on buses in Turkey during long trips between Ankara and Lake Van. There are mountain climbers. White snow and crash helmets. Actors who are thinking: “What am I doing in this movie?”
This narrow counter reminds me of life on the East Coast, living next to a sea, where the direction of travel is amputated because of a vast body of water. In Vesta, you can only move on this east-west axis. I am precisely one meter from the sidewalk. Frenetic traffic stops and starts very close behind my vulnerable back.
My breakfast arrives and I realize what she suggested is the special, which started at 6 a.m., which is when I arrived. She is thinking, “He waited out there, in the dark, until the special commenced.”
The grill is by MKE, the gas stove is Garland – good restaurant names. There are other stovetops further down the row, jammed against one another, unused. They are castaways, continuing, I’m guessing, through the wall and into the next building further along Dupont. The long trail of the vanquished, a scrapyard of industrial kitchen waste.
The counter has little metal guards to stop the condiments from slipping off. Ketchup, sugar, vinegar, paper napkin dispenser, salt and pepper. I acknowledge each of them as personal lonely souls in the world of social camaraderie, the way children animate toys.
A man comes in and orders a takeout breakfast and a bottle of water. He pays and she says, “You have five cents?”
“Actually,” he replies, “you owe me money.”
They work it out, both very patient over the numbers, aware that each of them has worked a long night. She apologizes.
A bus stops outside every 12 minutes. I believe it is the same bus, making a 12-minute circuit around me, a satellite hovering around the loneliest man on Earth.
The raw onion, a soft, glistening dish of relish, a jolly bundle of eggs. I welcome them into my sphere. If I stay here long enough, I too will become a condiment. And would that be so bad?
A TTC worker orders a coffee to go. Cream and sugar? Yeah, yeah.
He is travelling from Oshawa. Took the GO train at 5 a.m. He works in Scarborough. “I know,” he says, “in Toronto you think the world ends at Steeles.”
He drives to Markham and Sheppard – that’s an hour’s drive – and starts work at 4:45. “I bought a four-level place,” he says. “Got a fireplace, hot tub. It’s quiet.”
Her shift started at 12:30, and now her replacement arrives: an older man who immediately dons an apron. She removes hers, fishes her handbag out from under the counter and waves me farewell, all within a minute. The new guy starts a carafe of coffee and places hers, half-full, on the warmer above.
The patty presser has a green cloth tied to it with what looks like a shoelace. Range Guard protects us, I see, its steel tubing gathers itself behind the east end open door in an elevated canister that contains fire retardant. Just waiting for the pin of alarm to be pulled. Above the grill is an old portrait of the man who must have started Vesta. Vesta: the goddess of the hearth, daughter of Saturn. And we all know Saturn ate his own children.
I finish my breakfast. The egg, the toast, the bacon and the hash browns – while they all have distinct appearances and textures, they taste the same. They have the same pH, perhaps. Even the coffee.
A motorized sidewalk-cleaning cart trundles noisily by.
Lario, the new man, sits by the cash, understanding he has inherited me and I have not yet paid. Lario, with his reading glasses and newspaper. He has poured himself coffee into a disposable cup, as though he may leave us. He looks up at the Dupont and Bathurst intersection just as the sun rises. You don’t see light from the east, but the bright flat roofs of buildings to the west. The Vesta windowsills are painted a cheery custard yellow. The yellow-and-white striped awnings. My god, life can be good.
In a tight space, you appreciate the placement of things. It’s like travelling in the galley of a ship: the stacked coffee cups and Gordon Choice hot chocolate pouches touching a bowl of toothpicks with their coloured ribbons for club sandwiches. Lario abandons his loyal paper and goes outside to the corner. I can’t see if he’s smoking or if he has a mystical event with the sun I am not wise to. I have learned to never discount anyone’s personal relationship with the revolving heavens.
Under the grill is a sill of a cardboard box full of caught grease. And there, on the floor by the grill, is a flattened clean cardboard box. The movie has been replaced with world news. A hurricane in North Carolina. People have shovels and front-end loaders but no wheelbarrows, apparently.
The sun finally reaches me and my loneliness evaporates. I receive the assurance that is meant for cats. The awning outside casts a frilly shadow upon the counter. Frilly is silly, and silly is lighthearted. Lightheartedness kills despair. Mother Teresa’s portrait is over the main door. A 10-year-old calendar features a Greek island.
Even though an exposed tub of fluffed butter has been sitting in front of me all night, I have not see one fly.
A new customer arrives. George. In a beige Hawaiian shirt, with palm trees and ’50s sedans.
A new server comes behind the counter to help Lario. He won’t tell me his name. He is in his seventies, has strong wrists, a grey ball cap, khaki pants, a short-sleeved shirt. I feel like I should order something from this man, too. Meanwhile, a typhoon lands in the Philippines and an Amber Alert in Saskatchewan makes me scour the sidewalk for a missing epileptic girl.
A street-cleaning truck goes by. This is different than the small golf cart of a sidewalk cleaner.
And now it’s just me and George and his shirt from a Flannery O’Connor short story.
The new guy is cutting a big onion. I follow his hands and find solace in his slow, steady arthritic movement. Sometimes my son asks me what else I could do in life and I tell him I could be a gardener on a big estate. This floors him. I realize now I could also peel onions as the sun rises.
Another man arrives in shorts. He has a blue carrier bag. Without saying a word he puts coins on the counter and Lario fixes him a coffee to go. He flicks through Lario’s newspaper.
The old guy wipes the bottom of the small fry pan that has tape on the handle. I could easily do that and find pleasure in it.
George, meanwhile, checks his phone and slips it back into the breast pocket of his Hawaiian shirt that is doomed to be murdered.
These men with their solitary lives – are they snipped off from family and friends? Or is it just me, projecting?
A football player retires midgame. Canada moves on in the Davis Cup and Lario now has the radio on, which I can only hear vibrating in my wrists. The place is dead.
The sun has reached 10 of 15 stools.
A man in construction boots, fluorescent T-shirt and cargo trousers orders a western omelette on toast. He looks weary, like my brother who drives a cement truck in Edmonton. My brother once told me that he’d get a lot more work done if he didn’t have to eat.
The old man cracks two eggs into a mixing bowl and adds chopped ham and onion. He touches the stainless steel bowl to the grill to hear it sizzle, then adds oil and flops the omelette mixture down.
I ask if it’s too early for a souvlaki dinner. I realize he’s thinking I’ve asked for his opinion on a dining choice, and not the practical nature of preparing a dinner at 9 a.m. From nowhere he has found a tray of skewered chicken.
The hands that have prepared ten thousand souvlaki. He is deft at blocking my view with his backside so I don’t witness his entire magic. This long narrow counter, it’s like living in Chile. Behind me the 15 gold molars of the Annex Dental Clinic sign, each molar surrounded by stars. Lario chases the first fly of the morning out the door with his shoe.
I eat and marvel at the momentum of this cook. He moves like a ship. You don’t notice him navigating coastal waters, but when you look up he’s in another bay preparing a salad. Blink and he is lifting half-cooked bacon with tongs from the grill to stack and use through the day.
Lario tallies my bill and, when I try using a credit card, he says, “Cash, cash, cash, cash, cash.”
When I first arrived, with that bad movie on, it felt like I was on an overnight flight to Europe, the aircraft cabin transformed into an empty diner. And now, as I leave, the first happy couple of the morning arrives. I wait to hear her order a fried egg sandwich to go. And as I unlock my bicycle I can’t leave without seeing them first, on the street. She is unwrapping the waxed paper and lifting a toasted point to her mouth. And he is looking at her, happy to see her eating.