By Marina Wolf
THE COUNTER is the lonely spot of the 24-hour restaurant, the wall of shame, the place where there is no getting away from the fact that you are alone, and you do not expect that to change over the course of your stay. This is where hollow-eyed men sit over their egg breakfasts at 11 at night and stare at the waitresses; where the waitresses sit during their too-short breaks and stare at the walls; where wide-eyed writers whose usual spots have been taken sit and stare at everybody else. We have all committed to eating in solitude.
Physically it has very little charm, this stretch of wood-grain counter that, like the free refills that slide across it, seems endless. It's barely enough room for four diligent students, but a bunch of loud bikers who know the manager and like hanging out five minutes before closing time will fit there quite comfortably.
Actually, then, the counter-dweller isn't alone as much as ignored, a ghost to all who pass. It's true that being a ghost entails some inconveniences, like waiting forever to get a glass of water, but there are benefits, too. One can walk around behind the counter, for example, and pull out some of the day's used newspapers while waiting for the glass of water that never comes.
The veil between the worlds is very thin here. At the counter one gets a glimpse of what really goes on in the world of food service. Nothing shocking, just demystifying, like Penn and Teller taking apart a magic trick. Here is visible the flotsam of normal restaurant flow, indicators of what should never be ordered here: the little-used stainless-steel gravy boat, wicker baskets for under the fish and chips. There are even some plastic-wrapped fortune cookies to go with the Asian chicken salad. If you look hard enough you can almost see the film of dust over those cookies.
This is the backstage, where behind the curtains, the waitresses' cheerful smiles vanish into bitter thin lines, and the syrup is dispensed without ceremony from a spigot on a plugged-in canister marked, prosaically enough, "hot syrup." From the counter one can see that the toaster oven is always left on, a magnificent display of indifference to matters of electricity usage. People want their toast now. When the toast burns, as it inevitably does, the smoke rises up like a spirit in a shaft of light from the recessed ceiling lights.
That's about as spiritual as it gets over here. Otherwise, all the plain sides show. The chintzy sales-goal flyers, the screws that hold the pastel prints to the walls, the scuffs in the sides of the counter attesting to years of bumps and splashes. On the other side of the row of heat lamps bob the paper chef hats of the two cooks on duty. One hat is crisp and unwrinkled, another looks like a reused grocery bag, crumpled and then shaken out. I wonder if the workers have to buy these hats for themselves. The two heads are busy scraping, slapping, and banging cheap metal implements together in unknown, but vigorous activities, a counterpoint to the hum from the ventilation hoods that almost blocks out the pop tunes on the sound system.
The waitresses do side work back here, adding pepper to shakers from a one-pound bag of ground pepper, more than one person could ever use in a lifetime. They combine ketchup bottles, a slow and painstaking process that is better imagined than observed. The counter-dwellers get to see it all. It's not a privilege, just a fact of the ghostly life.
From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.