I do not perfectly remember the Mirage Diner, the restaurant I ate at throughout my childhood. Despite the neon signage and the chrome accents mirroring and amplifying the 24/7 fluorescent lighting, it is still possible-in many respects, uniquely possible-to find darkness in my Mirage; I fail to see each detail, I forget certain corners. Was the lunch-counter curved or did it come to an angle? Was the accessibility ramp on the side of the parking lot or the street side? What cakes were always in the dessert display? I could run around and collect as much information as I could find; Old blue-prints, photos, menus, track down old employees and ask them questions. But what would be the point? It was just a diner.
Oh but you should have seen it. All formica and chrome, all teal and green neon. It looked better than a 1950s Googie vision of a sci-fi future, because it was a 1990s retro call back to that aesthetic, and it had removed all the Cold War paranoia and uncertainty. And the menu! Abundant as freedom, plentiful as fear. It was in the Mirage I learned the fundamental freedom of America, the freedom of the rich man’s son in America, the freedom to buy whatever you want and shove it down your throat.
We are a ravenous nation, an endless maw, and in front of the Mirage’s sticky, over-laminated menus, between the ages of 8 and 25, I was the very image of the empire that bore me. Platters were massive, and I would polish off cheeseburgers, cups of chilli, omelettes, pancakes. My go to order, the order I ate an average of once a week for the last 8 years of the Mirage’s existence, was a tuna melt on rye toast with a grilled tomato under the cheese, please, and a side of onion rings instead of french fries, and instead of coleslaw, could I get potato salad? Thanks. It is etched by muscle memory into my tongue and throat.
I needed to repeat it for a variety of reasons. Mary, the creaky, nonagenarian Irish waitress who worked the right side of the restaurant could never hold onto it, and who could blame her? How many decades of regulars had she seen come and go, expecting their order to make an impression? But Edie, the butch mother of three with the chinese dragon neck tattoo who worked the left side sometimes recalled it. But Edie became manager and was always busy fighting with Chris, the effusively warm Greek owner, and so she never had time to go back to tables. So a variety of waiters over the year had to be told about my tuna melt, and then brought it to me with a sharp bend of the wrist underneath its weight, gestures calculated to convey the proper mix of servility and cheerfulness as if to say “Well sir, you’re the boss but it’s not so bad, we like working for you.”
Somedays, I’d think for a while about Mary creaking away at 90 to pay for god knows what medication. About Edie’s constant battles with Chris, her actual boss, about hours and wages. I’d think about those carefully performed gestures of class and servitude. I’d look down at the glowing yellow of the american cheese and the hyperviolent red of the edges of the tomato, garish against the subtle pastel beige of the rye toast. And then I’d stop thinking, and start eating.
I was a fearful child, raised by a fearful mother, and although the diner was just 6 blocks from our house, I wasn’t allowed to walk there, or anywhere, on my own until my tween years, which is also when my parents started giving me money if I asked nicely, and also when they started getting fed up at my frequent panic attacks about food. I do not recall my first solo walk to the Mirage. Eventually I would take the walk in all weather, at all times of day and night, in all seasons. In the fondness of memory, I can recall the cool slate sidewalks that passed by the local private catholic college, the shady green of the maple lined streets, the golden suburban sunlight. I recall freedom, not just the greasy capitalist freedom of devouring a sandwich the size of my head. I recall the sour-sweet pleasure of knowing time was moving on, that I was growing older and stronger and more independent.
When I found myself living at home in my early 20s, trips to the Mirage gave me time to ruefully dwell on my mental health difficulties, my personal setbacks, all the time I was losing. As I passed my cash over the counter to Chris, I would think guiltily about how my father had to support me. This is the tuna melt of a failure, I’d morosely think, as I shoved it down. Then, my mood already improving as my blood sugar rose, I’d laugh bitterly at the ridiculousness of that sentiment.
The diner was not only an experience I had alone; I would often meet friends there, have family dinners, I brought my ex there so many times that when she found out it closed a year after our break up she called me to offer her condolences. But in my memory of it, I am alone, a precocious tween, a moody teenager, a depressed young man, pounding down onion rings and glugging fountain coke. Just me on a busy Sunday lunch hour, squeezing between the post-church brunch attendees. Just me on a lazy Wednesday afternoon, sprawled out in a booth. Just me at 3 in the morning, huddled up at the lunch counter, back to the dark, thinking about how I must look like Edward Hopper’s nighthawks.
Eventually Chris made a deal with the private catholic college, which was and is expanding. They tore it down and built dorms above it, but there’s still a restaurant space below, recently renamed the Mirage, after its 5 year absence. I don’t know if Chris still owns it. I could go back, order a tuna melt. I tried to, once. It came out different. I briefly thought, maybe I could order it better, or even make it myself. But then I thought, what would be the point? It was just the Mirage.