Anchored Relationships, Quick and Delicious

October 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Quick and Delicious is on the outskirts of Oberlin, Ohio, a burg of 8000 in a depressed county in a depressed state. You may have heard of the town, because there’s a famous college located here. When I lived in Oberlin, Quick and Delicious was my favorite place in town. I would go to the strip-mall diner between mealtimes, when it’s slow. I would park in the lot and walk to the entrance with the kind of steely eyed determination I usually reserve for walking into a classroom to give a lecture, or to a podium for a conference presentation. Work mode.

When I entered, the staff greeted me. I always hoped  it’d be Shondra.

“How you doing today, honey? Is it a busy morning for you?” she’dl ask, then head towards the coffee stand.

By the time I got to my booth in the corner, my cup and coffee and little bowl of plastic ribbed creamers were waiting for me.

Then I’d start my ritual. I push the paper placemat, that ubiquitous golden-brown faux Greek bordered type, across to the other side of the table, free the fork, knife and spoon from their napkin cocoon, take out my laptop, push a start-up button, hear it bling. Then I scramble through my bag, find my Marlboro Lights and lighter, light one, hear it sizzle.

And then I would write (so good for me, so hard to do) and smoke (so bad for me, so easy to do) in the only place in town that allows me to pit self-satisfaction and self-loathing together in a game that always seemed to end in a zero-sum tie (I make meaning=I make myself sick).

No where in town lets me do that now.

But the ritual involved more than me and my demons; it was about Quick and Delicious, too. And Quick and Delicious (never mind whether it lives up to its name) made me feel, as the title to that sociological study put it, “together alone.” It was my mid-morning version of a neighborhood watering hole, a more complex and rooted version of Starbuck’s, a 21st century strip-mall small town diner.

Shondra’s grandson and my son were in kindergarten together, so we’d talk about them, and the school system, and she told me when her mother was ill, and she was worried. When a customer has a birthday, they sing a special Quick and Delicious rendition, a schooled, church choir belting of the classic. I haven’t figured out all the kinship lines yet, but the relationships between the staff aren’t anchored or modern but good old-fashioned blood ties.

In small towns, there are a lot of anchored relationships, places where we can be together alone, places where I can received external verification of my continued presence in the world. I would chat with Dave Gibson at Gibson’s Grocery every morning when I picked up my New York Times. “What’s the good word?” he invariably asked as I scanned headlines. The woman at the dry cleaners wrote my name down on the ticket without asking me for it. The video store clerks accessed my account without asking for an account number. The barrista at the coffee shop said “large au lait to go?” when it was my turn in line..  People all over town confirm my existence in a beneath-notice daily ritual of hello how are yous.

Of course, all this cute small town anchoring can cut the other way. When I’m depressed, I don’t want to see familiar faces. When I’m alone on a Saturday night, I don’t want to go into the video store and announce it to everyone. When I have a date, I hold it out of town.

Every time I left Quick and Delicious, though, after paying the tiny bill and overtipping my server, a few hundred new words on my laptop and the scilla in my lungs coated and aching, whoever is at the register invariably wished me “a blessed day.”  The slightly coercive tone of this send-off rankled me at first. But I learn to just to say thanks, push the door open, and promise to try.

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