Seems like every time you turn on the CNN there is Barack Obama in his shirtsleeves or John McCain and his sidekick Sarah Palin (or is the other way round?) visiting a small town diner and pestering some poor retiree who’s just trying to drink his coffee before it gets cold and gum a piece of lemon meringue before it congeals.
And the closer it gets to election day, the more the assaults on America’s diners intensify. Here’s just a sample from the recent diner-loaded itinerary of both presidential campaigns: On August 12, John McCain and his wife Cindy had pie at the Red Bank Diner in Trenton, New Jersey. Two days later, John and Cindy (the latter nursing a hand mangled by an over-zealous supporter) stopped by the Kerby’s Koney Island Diner in Bloomfield, Mich. Obama, Joe Biden and their spouses showed up August 30, at the Yankee Kitchen Diner in Boardman, Ohio, while that same day McCain and Palin stopped by Tom’s Diner in Pittsburgh. On Sept. 5, Obama greeted patrons at The Avenue Diner in Wyoming, Pa., while on Sept. 10, McCain chowed down at the Down Home Diner in Philadelphia, his schmoozing interrupted by Obama supporters standing a ways off yelling “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma!” which shows that if you are going to visit a diner, it’s best to stick to small towns where people still have some manners.
Both campaigns have hired crack teams of diner-locating agents armed with strategic maps and GPS devices that can pinpoint every diner in every small town in every battleground state. It’s all part of their take-America-by-diner strategy. Those towns without diners are hastily crossed off the itinerary, unless they happen to have a Slinky factory the candidate can tour, though it must be said that American factories making American products are considerably harder to find than diners. Once candidates would visit local elementary schools, but neither campaign seems much interested in talking about how six years after No Child Left Behind we are still leaving many kids behind, and neither candidate has a clue what to do about it.
WHAT IS IT with candidates and diners? And what have they got against McDonald’s or Fuddruckers? Obviously candidates need a picturesque, friendly place where there can reliably find lots of working class voters which isn’t a saloon, a place they can pop into quickly, get a few good photo-ops, pretend they are listening intently to the concerns of a couple of retired farmers, trade some jocular banter with a sassy waitress named Flo, and then get out. The diner is perfect for this. With fast food chains you not only don’t get a wise-cracking, bubble-gum popping waitress serving you coffee, but you get an anonymous, sullen, pimply high school girl behind a counter who can’t even vote. And there are no menus with Barackburgers named just for the occasion.
As a bit of Americana, diners also capitalize on Americans’ nostalgic yearning for a simpler time, when we didn’t have to fear terrorists deploying nuclear weapons in our streets, just the Soviet Union deploying nuclear weapons in our streets. The diner would seem to be home territory for a conservative war hero, more so than for an elitist “candidate of change” and an African-American to boot, who fifty years ago would not have been allowed in most diners, but who today is serenaded by Barbra Streisand at a $2,500-per-person reception at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. McCain, however, is no conservative, and if there is one thing retired farmers are serious about it is government programs like Social Security and farm subsidies, and they remain highly dubious that Republicans will continue to prop up the rotting corpse of the New Deal.
Actually, most of eateries that go by the name diners do not really fit the bill, and are more likely cafes or bistros, both of which — with their French-sounding names — are considered too precious and, well, French for small towns. The first diners were in fact decommissioned railroad dining cars, and remained mobile, available to be picked up and rolled down the highway to a new and better location whenever necessary. Like anything else that inspires affection, diners have their rather nerdy and obsessive aficionados, who cannot agree on what constitutes a genuine diner. There are those who say a diner must be a long, narrow prefabricated structure, containing lots of stainless steel, and a counter with swivel stools, not unlike the diner in the Barry Levinson film of the same name. It must also be family-owned and serve unpretentious, inexpensive meals. Some say if a diner doesn’t serve breakfast 24/7 it’s not a diner. You can also tell a real diner by the colorful lingo of its staff, one famous example (remembered from a Three Stooges’ short) being: “Adam and Eve on a raft and wreak ’em,” which is, of course, two scrambled eggs on toast.
The diner’s heyday came to an end with World War II, as post-war suburban sprawl bred chain fast food restaurants faster than guppies. Occasionally a retro-cafe opens in an old storefront somewhere, calling itself a diner, but lacks the look and charm of the genuine article, and a real devotee wouldn’t be caught dead in one.
Back in April Obama stopped by the Glider Diner in Scranton, Pa., for a quick bite. After the candidate left, an industrious patron scooped up the scraps and later offered the leftovers for sale on eBay. One bidder offered $20,000 for Obama’s half-eaten waffle. With five weeks left in the campaign season and both candidates hitting the diner circuit hard, there is a potential fortune to be made by scrappy entrepreneurs. We may turn this economy around yet.