It was 2 o’clock in the morning.
The streets were oddly bare, their weather pocked surfaces caught in the tri-color glow of traffic lights. It’s a time when the city’s day-dwellers are tucked safely in bed; where only the drunk and dispossesed roam free.
Finding the local Perkins closed, we headed for Mickey’s Diner, a streetcar-turned-restaurant parked in the middle of downtown St. Paul. The five of us wedged into spots along the counter…no mean feat considering the place seats no more than 40.
Talking amongst ourselves, we waited for the lone, overworked, counter-man to take our order. Counter-man doesn’t begin to describe it. He was equal parts bus-boy, waiter, cook, cashier and bouncer. He hears everything and throws an occasional wise-crack into the conversation.
The wait is short and a curt “Whatllyahave?” gets things rolling. I hesitated, assuming he’d want to grab a pad of paper. With all the patients of a cab driver at a green light he added, “Speak up or it’s coffee to-go.” Slightly rattled, I blurted out my reply but he seemed to understand, not without some satisfaction in having thrown me off-guard. After that, it’s a quick smile, a simple nod, and “Next!” right down the line.
He manages to carry on four separate conversations, argue with a guy that’s trying to pick a fight, read the early paper and not burn the food. It’s like some strange ballet where cooking and chatter replace leaps and spins.
When asked how long he had been doing this, the immediate answer was “since 11.” After a while he came back with the real answer, “16 years, and I love every minute…even if some of them do go on forever.”
Don’t like how he works? “Call my boss and tell him to fire me!” He’ll give you the number.
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