I’m sitting at the counter in Dorcho’s on 139th and N Vorschein. It’s been around since the late 20s. The decor clings to the epoch when diners “mattered” (something an arthouse punk I know said to me), which might make it post-war 1950s. The brown floral linoleum peels at the edges, reminiscent of a dried lakebed, or withering bouquet. The entropy is most visible near the entrance, around corners of the booths, and beneath the door to the bathroom, exposing the burgundy-painted concrete lying beneath. The walls are covered in a crude wood panelling, sections of which have warped around the ventilation system of the exposed kitchen. At night, when the room is colored in tungsten, the walls nearest to the storefront windows show how faded they have become from UV radiation. The two-tone quality accentuates the aesthetic binary of the diner, the counter to the front, the booths to the back.
Dead-center, the kitchen consists of one large blackened griddle with sundry knobs and compartments housing various thawing meats and variations of starchy sides. The decades of grease, dirt, fluids, anything transmitted through the conduit of ill-washed hands have formed a thin coagulum. It gives off a certain blue-collar sheen, or in other words: filthy luster. The health inspector’s grade “Q-” hangs alongside the framed pictures of the past: headlines from local newspapers spanning the centuries next to photos of past store owners as they age, their families, a collage of human continuum.
Blue vandas perch on the windowsill facing the street, and on rainy days (like this one) they produce an exquisite sadness, looking almost longingly out at the rain drops as they hit the glass and fall in sporadic patterns. They are well-cared for, the flowers. Their petals environ the white plastic vases that hold them forming a purple canopy (dark blue in the shade of thunderclouds) with starlight pistils at the centers. Their beauty invokes an emotional, intellectual response, some natural provocation similar to staring into flame.
My waitress, Madonna, tells me they’re the current owner’s favorite. She has a garden of them atop the building. “Cuts ’em every Sunday or so and puts new ones down.” That’s a lot of flowers. “You better believe it.” Madonna tells me some other things, opening up as women do once we realize the other isn’t a threat. This impromptu civility transforms from blue vandas, to awful weather, to my order, to Madonna complimenting me on my glasses and necklace, to a brief conversation about cervicoplasty, and then a historical account of the place: It opened the week the market crashed. It changed hands a few times, from one relative to another, but has been under the ownership of this little ole grandma named Barney for the past fifty years. Her father had a heart attack at the griddle and she inherited the business at nineteen. Flash forward a few decades, add a couple of kids and ex-husbands later, she now spends most of her days sitting in one of the few booths towards the back speaking Portuguese to the Angolan immigrants who live around the area.
Madonna motions and I turn to notice Barney sitting in the back speaking with an Angolan? as she sips on her coffee? tea? from her skylight blue mug.
“A Love Bizarre” by Sheila E. plays. I know now because Madonna tells me—it’s her iPhone playlist.
I steal looks over at the old owner of Dorcho’s. Her eyes are fixed on her interlocutor. Her lips move calmly as she explains? argues? jokes? with the other person. Her face and hands hint to at least four? five? decades of labor. The word “velleity” pops into mind, though I can’t quite imagine why. Then I look back at the photographs and newspaper clippings over the years, all spread across the wall behind me. Customers conversing, eating, ignoring the captured past hanging muted above them. I look at the stories of the pictures and headlines, I follow them from the door, flitting from framed image to article and other, children growing old, interchangeable men and fashions from one frame to the next, “Best Diner” “Best Burger” “Dorcho’s Fights Back” “75 Years and Counting” “Local Diner Does OK”, all the way to the back where Barney sits.
I follow the points and I counter-reference them with Barney. And I wonder about the in-between moments, all the pluses and minuses that make the sum, the production not the product, those ignored or forgotten moments that are almost as important if not more than the important ones. And for a moment, I start to pull away from myself, staring deep into Barney’s sad beauty, overcome and alive, and start to understand something until Madonna sets my meal down in front of me.