Broad Street Diner, January 16, 2009, photo by Mimi Lipson
I love/hate the Broad Street Diner. It may be the worst diner in Philadelphia, but I live practically across the street. When I first moved here, I was excited about having a 24-hour diner on my block. I imagined Saturday morning pancakes, a convenient bowl of soup, late night snacks on my way home from louche outings. I imagined showing the place off to envious houseguests who didn’t have 24-hour diners on their blocks. Boy, did I ever have a lot to learn.
It looks pretty inviting from the outside. It has an attractive white brick-face façade with stainless steel trim. Mid-century. I come from a place where diners are tiny things, sometimes in old train cars. Stools and a counter, maybe a booth or two, somewhere to hang up your jacket. But around here the diners are grand, with picture windows and acres of terrazzo and “Bakery on Premises,” sometimes even cocktails. The Broad Street Diner is — or rather, once was — that type of place.
Out front, a towering sign:
BROAD STREET DINER
A Place For Ribs
Look at what's going on in the parking lot and you start to get a feel for the place. There's always an attendant on duty…either the fat, ruddy halfwit or the skinny, bug-eyed freak. Most of the time I really don't know what they're doing. The skinny guy will sometimes open up the fire hydrant on the curb and flood my street, sending a river of trash down the block where it eventually comes to rest in damp, stinking piles.
Step inside. The dining room is big enough to accommodate two horseshoe-shaped counters, side by side (ostensibly Smoking and Nonsmoking, though the whole place is usually enveloped in a fog bank of smoke). There are two rows of booths to your right, one row to your left. There's an IN door and an OUT door, and to leave you have to pass through a turnstile and past the cashier, who sits reading the paper in a bulletproof enclosure.
Forget about American Graffiti
or even Alice
, because any charm the place may have once had has been stamped out by various desultory attempts at redecoration. The booths are covered in '80s vintage Burger King vinyl. There are plastic philodendrons in hanging baskets, and the ceiling is covered with white Formica. Two neon signs flicker and buzz on the far wall, one red and the other blue, spelling out — identically, redundantly — “Broad Street Diner” in airport bar cursive. Someone thought that was a good idea.
It smells like…like something septic beneath something antiseptic. And of course like cigarette smoke.
Above the counters, where you might see daily specials in some other diner, are photographs of food. Like in a ghetto Chinese takeout joint, but instead of pork lo mein and kung pao shrimp and fried rice with lobster sauce it’s meatloaf, spaghetti, chicken croquettes. I love pictures of food. One day I noticed that someone had taken down the pictures over the Smoking counter, so I asked the manager about it. I said I wanted them if they were getting thrown out anyway. He grudgingly took my phone number and shoved it behind the cash register. That was over a year ago. Nothing has been put up in their place, and the photos over the Nonsmoking counter are still there.Desert menu at the Broad Street Diner
What I really
covet, though, is the illuminated dessert menu in the vestibule. It’s a grid of photos on a florescent light box: various colorful parfaits and cakes and such, and then…momentarily unrecognizable beneath a ghostly nimbus of scuff-marks…sitting upright on a plate, its red flesh faded to orange…a half-slice of watermelon!
The food at the diner is an abomination, unless you stick to the Hamburger Alley section of the menu. Otherwise, beware: anything called a platter or a meal will arrive bobbing in a pool of sweet, glutinous gravy. No amount of cajoling, no specious claims of allergies will prevent them from putting mayonnaise on your grilled cheese sandwich. The fries have some sort of acrid flavor dust on them. You would think they couldn't fuck up breakfast — after all, it is
a diner — but the eggs taste like rancid margarine and the potatoes are almost raw. Even the oatmeal is sticky, cold, congealed, and the less said about the coffee the better.
I wonder if anyone ever orders ribs there.
The first time I came in, a guy in head-to-toe military camouflage was handing out menus. I moved into my house in a snowstorm, in the middle of the night, after a 3,000 mile drive. How wonderful to pull on my boots and my coat (I didn’t even bother buttoning it up) and run across the street, and how unexpected to be greeted by a lantern-jawed guardsman or reservist or whatever he was. But I never saw him again.
The waitresses wear old-fashioned uniforms and opaque support hose. To say the service is bad would sell them short, because actually it approaches Zen-like detachment. They never make eye contact, but they are more languorous than crusty. Ask for a glass of water and see what happens. In a while — maybe five minutes, maybe fifteen — your waitress will casually deposit a half-filled plastic tumbler of warm water at the edge of your table as she drifts past on her way to the counter. For that is her real place: sitting at the counter smoking, or tending to her side-work, or dreaming of a footbath…or five o’clock…or a soft Panamanian moon.
Our waitress hands R. his check and says, "I think I added that up wrong. It's got a one…seven, eight…four…I don't know.” Slaps it face-down in front of him.
One peculiarity of the place is that everyone always gets his or her own individual check. No exceptions.
She puts another check in front of R.’s four-year-old daughter.
So now you have your check. Maybe you’re paying with a twenty and you need to get change for a tip. That means you will have to go through the turnstile, pay the cashier inside the bulletproof booth, and exit the diner. Then, and it is impossible to make this seem intentional, you go back into the diner and leave your tip and go through the turnstile again.
* * *
I’m sitting at the Nonsmoking counter absorbed in my newspaper when I become aware of someone standing next to me. I look up. It’s the skinny bug-eyed freak from the parking lot.
“You’re at 1337.” (My street address.) (Momentary panic, followed by acknowledgement.)
“I used to live there. In the brown room.”
“There’s no brown room in my house.”
“There’s a brown room, and I lived in the brown room.”
A Lebanese family named Thomas owned the house before me. As far as I know, they’d lived there since the Forties. I’d met the surviving members: a 95 year-old woman in a housecoat and her son, of indeterminate age, who occupied the living room on a hospital bed. I try, fruitlessly, to insert the skinny bug-eyed freak into this domestic arrangement. Later, back at home I notice for the first time that some of the bedroom doors have deadbolts.
* * *
Crystal Room at the Broad Street Diner, July 6, 2007, photo by Mimi Lipson
In the basement of the diner is the Crystal Room, a function room with a separate entrance. Some of my older neighbors remember when they used to have "gypsy weddings" there. You would hear gunshots, they say. Now it's mostly graduation parties and such: white stretch limos, Mylar balloons, party clothes. The teenagers like to bring the party up to the sidewalk, where they shriek and fight and sing and call to each other from opposite ends of the block. Sometimes they’re at it until 4 AM when the trash truck comes to empty the dumpsters. Between the Crystal Room and the trash truck, it’s hard to sleep with the windows open; but Philadelphia is hot in the summer, and sometimes you can’t avoid it.
Recently, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a bunch of people yelling right outside my house. Then I heard a police car, and then more yelling. But I'm used to the shenanigans by now, and I drifted back to sleep.
In the morning, there was blood splattered all over the sidewalk, and some soiled bandages. My neighbor told me someone had put his fist through the window at the diner. They bandaged him up and tossed him out, and then he had another freakout in front of my door. Sure enough, there it was — and there it remains: a fist-sized hole in the vestibule with a piece of cardboard taped over it.
I could sympathize. Who hasn't had the urge to put their fist through the window at the Broad Street Diner?
The strange thing is, the Broad Street Diner is always busy! Here’s what I’d like to be able to say: that through the doors pass a vibrant and many-hued pageant of humanity. I wish I could tell you about sassy grandmothers and moony-eyed lovers and wise characters in tattered overcoats and fingerless gloves with stuffed parrots on their shoulders. It’s not like that at all. But it does anchor the neighborhood — a neighborhood of working stiffs and church ladies, with a few art students and adventurous yuppies and miscellaneous other outliers mixed in. So I guess it comes down to what your expectations are in terms of local color.
I humbly offer the following:
You enter the diner and turn left past the bulletproof cashier’s cage, past a booth where three old black ladies in church hats are saying grace over their eggs. You sit on a stool by the picture window and order a cup of coffee. The door swings open and in comes a bona fide South Philly alpha female: leather trench coat, stiletto-heeled boots, Tammy Fay makeup. Her perfume overwhelms the room’s ambient septic/antiseptic smell. Her hair, of course, is big big big. She throws herself onto the next stool with a sigh and pulls a cell phone from her comically oversized handbag. A pause. Then she erupts in a maelstrom of activity, holding four simultaneous conversations.
To a waitress walking toward the kitchen with a tray of dirty plates:
"Is Jimmy working today? Tell him it's Sandy…Billy's cousin. He knows, he knows."
Into her cell phone:
“Hi, honey. Yeah, it’s me. Listen, hon, DO YOU HAVE A TUX? Because it’s BLACK TIE, that’s why. Because it’s the MAYOR. Hang on a sec."
To a waitress behind the counter:
“Can you ask Jimmy to make me an egg white omelet? You’re a doll.”
To an old guy who's wandered in selling Eagles swag — he's holding up a jersey for her to inspect:
"Let me see the back, hon.” (Makes a twirling motion with the crimson-taloned index finger of her non-phone hand.) “Do you have that in a small in a pink? I need three pink smalls."
To the counter waitress again:
"You know what, sweetie? Never mind. Just bring me half a grapefruit and some hot water with lemon."
She goes on like this for maybe ten minutes, the star of the show, seizing the attention of everyone in the diner either actively or passively. Suddenly, she jumps up and rushes through the turnstile and out the vestibule, past the fat, ruddy halfwit to Broad Street, where she flags down a taxi with a wave of her enormous handbag. A ten-dollar bill sits next to her untouched grapefruit.
It’s not Fried Green Tomatoes
, but believe me, we’ll look back on it in a few years and wonder what happened to the real America, the place we loved.
* * *
I probably jinxed the diner. Certainly, I didn’t put my money where my mouth was. I’d be out of coffee, and I’d think of popping in, and then the thought would cause my stomach to make a funny noise. Or I’d have someone over and we’d want to grab a bite, but I couldn’t be bothered with explaining about Hamburger Alley or listening to them complain about the waitresses, so I’d suggest going around the corner for a bowl of pho instead. At some point, I noticed the diner wasn’t open all night anymore. Then it started closing at 9, then 8, and then it became a “breakfast and lunch only” place. Sometimes, though, it was still closed when I walked past at 8:30 or 9 AM. I mentioned it to a neighbor. “Oh, they sold it to some Chinese,” she said, as though this explained everything. One day it didn’t open at all. It’s been closed for over a year now. A handwritten sign, taped to the vestibule window near the fist hole, says, “We Will Grand Opening Soon.”