From Dallas Doctor’s collection of short stories “How to Organize and Orgy & Other Stories” (Pages 7-12):
Breakfast in America
By Dallas Doctor
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was written prior to the author finding the courage to question the ways his behavior was affecting rest of the planet and his fellow-earthlings, but if you look closely, you can see the seeds of that courage starting to grow.]
Nick had been in Paris three months before he felt his first pangs of nostalgia for home. It happened unexpectedly. The twitch reached up and grabbed him late one night as he was staggering back to his rented loft after a night out drinking with friends at Place de la Contrescarpe.
Nick estimated his awareness level at about 30% as he stumbled down Rue des Écoles in the general direction of the Seine, but he wasn’t sure if it was quite that high, when he happened to pass by what looked like a diner–a 1950s-era-stainless-steel-diner–right in the heart of the left bank in Paris. Despite his stupor, Nick suddenly became aware of an undeniable (and growing) urge for a chocolate malt. So he made a fuzzy mental note of the approximate location, as best he could, and resolved to store the image in his memory for later recall.
Nick’s hangover the following morning came and went the way hangovers do (with the help of some fizzy French aspirin), but the lingering idea of a chocolate malt (with whip cream, sprinkles, and cherry on top) began to haunt him over the next few days. It was an idea that wouldn’t let go. The more Nick thought about it, the more he embellished and even imagined he might like a nice greasy cheeseburger as well. And Fries! Yes, real French Fries! Nick had been perfectly happy with all the wonderful new cuisine he’d been experiencing since he’d arrived in Paris (he was enjoying French food very much as a matter of fact) but after three months with nary a milkshake, Nick was becoming increasingly aware of a hankering for something more familiar and comforting.
After a few more days on a steady diet of espresso, baguettes, cheese, pâté, chocolate, and wine, Nick could no longer resist the nagging hankering for some far-less sophisticated fare. Finally, hoping he’d remember the location correctly, Nick set out in search of the diner he couldn’t get out of his imagination. Although he was off by a couple of blocks (and it wasn’t stainless steel, but just a shop with a sign out front), he eventually found it.
When Nick spotted the diner, his heart skipped a beat.
He stepped eagerly through the front door and took a moment to survey the atmosphere. He was not disappointed. The decor was right out of a James Dean movie. Nick grabbed the first round stool at the end of the counter and settled in. The metal napkin dispensers were authentic tin. The salt and pepper shakers were made of cheap glass with clogged metal tops. Ketchup and mustard were available in label-less, generic, soft-plastic, red and yellow squeeze bottles just exactly the same as the ones Nick’d known in his youth.
Then the menu. Yes! There it was! Cheeseburger. Club Sandwich. Patty Melt. Bacon Burger. Mushroom Burger. Double-Deluxe-Bacon-Blue-Cheese-BBQ-Burger (okay, that last one might’ve had a little French in it), but Nick was delighted as he continued searching for more oh-so-familiar delectables. And they were all there. French Fries. Onion Rings. Cherry Coke. Root Beer. Banana-Cream Pie. And Yes! Chocolate Milk Shake! (Malt 20-centimes extra!) Nick wanted to take his next ten meals right there on that very stool, even if it meant he’d gain 10-pounds in the process.
And the waitresses? All friendly-by-design college girls from the Sorbonne who spoke perfect English. Nick was in heaven. One of the young waitresses approached. She surprised Nick when, instead of standing to take his order, she placed herself right beside him on the adjacent empty stool.
“You look right at home,” she smiled.
“Oh, you have no idea,” Nick laughed. He assumed her seated position and easy familiarity were signs he could open up with her, “I spent many of the best nights of my life in places like this,” Nick remembered aloud. “After a gig, … somewhere, … anywhere,… it didn’t matter, … could be New Mexico, .. could be New Jersey, … we’d find a Bob’s Big Boy or some greasy-spoon just like this and settle in. Oh, those were the days…”
“Well, what’ll it be?” The waitress nodded like she’d heard it all before and played her part like she was reciting a line from a movie.
“Cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate malt,” Nick snapped out of his past and prepared to face his immediate future.
“Comin’ right up,” the waitress stayed in character and made a few scratches on her order pad.
But as she stood up to leave, Nick stopped her. “Wait,” Nick suddenly wanted one more thing. “Do you have coffee?”
“Of course we have coffee,” she grinned.
“No no,” Nick clarified, “I don’t mean espresso or Café Americano–which is just espresso with too much water in it–I mean do you have real American-style-filtered-coffee from a pot served black with no sugar or cream in a large ceramic cup? Something I can wrap my hands around? Do you have that?” He was almost sure he was hoping for too much.
“It’s our signature dish,” the waitress winked and sauntered away.
Nick couldn’t believe his luck. And yes! When the coffee arrived, he was amazed. It came from a pot; not a machine. It was the first real coffee Nick’d seen since arriving in Paris. He sniffed it. He swirled it. He savored the aroma. He cupped his hands around it. He felt the warmth and wonder of it. He memorized everything he could about the experience and then took that first wonderful sip.
“I’ve seen this before,” the waitress reseated herself next to Nick, “you miss American coffee, don’t you?”
“It’s embarrassing to admit,” Nick chuckled, “because your coffee’s so good over here, … and don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, … Paris is wonderful, … And the food, … well I don’t have to tell you, … but the coffee here is strong and small, … it’s just that it’s so, … well, … unsatisfying sometimes,… I mean, … it’s so robust and compact that it’s just over too quickly, … sometimes a man wants a great big giant tanker-truck full of black magic that he can refill and keep drinking all day long. You probably think I’m crazy.”
“No, not at all,” the waitress, “shook her head, “we hear it all the time. That’s why we brew our coffee in that great big tin can in the back. Unlike most Parisian restaurants, our business model is to keep our culinary standards as low as possible.”
“But I see you also have an espresso machine, as well,” Nick noted sheepishly.
“Oh, that? It’s strictly for the locals,” she waved the notion away, “we keep a giant tub of filtered coffee in the back for when the Americans come in. They always say something about it. Don’t feel bad. You’re not so different. You like weak coffee. It’s okay. We’re used to it.”
“I didn’t realize I was such a cliché,” Nick laughed.
“So you miss home then?” The waitress guessed.
“Not even a little,” Nick shook his head, “I love it over here. I’m definitely going to try to work out a way to stay if the French will have me.”
“Won’t you miss your precious Freedom?” The waitress laughed facetiously.
“Over here you have to settle for Liberté,” Nick saluted her sarcasm, “but in France, in spite of your struggles, at least you aspire to Egalité and Fraternité as well–two things Americans don’t seem to have much use for these days.”
“Plus in France,” the waitress reminded Nick, “it’s still fashionable to be smart.”
“So you’ve been to America then, I take it,” Nick understood.
“Oh yes, and don’t get me wrong,” the waitress clarified, “I love America and I love Americans. You have many, many wonderful people. I just don’t understand why you tolerate so many who are shamelessly proud of their ignorance.”
“I can see how you’d be confused by that,” Nick accepted the criticism on behalf of his countrymen, “over here, you tend to hold yourselves to higher standards. I think that’s why I like it better over here. Especially now that I know I can get a cheeseburger and a milkshake anytime I want. Wait? Do you guys do breakfast too?” Nick suddenly wanted to know, “what time do you open in the morning?”
“7 am every day,” the waitress stood up to continue her duties. But before she disappeared, she tempted Nick with a lengthy list of greasy-All-American-high-fat delights: “We’ve got waffles, pancakes, fried eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage, anything you want… even dry white toast, … and you can put ketchup on everything, … and don’t forget, there’s always plenty of filtered-watered-down American coffee in a great, big, giant pot.”
“Damn?” Nick marveled silently to himself as he took a second sip of coffee, “every short-sighted, unhealthy, immediately-gratifying thing I love about America right here in the center of Paris. And they say you can never go home again…”
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