I like diners. Well, generally, I do. I do not care for diners that are filthy, smell too much like diesel, are overly fluorescently-lit, or that serve burnt watery coffee. But most of the diners I have been in, I have enjoyed. There is something comforting in knowing that anywhere you go in the United States, somewhere at any hour of the day or night, you can get a good greasy breakfast or a kickass patty melt. With grilled onions, of course.

The first diner I can remember ever going to was Woolworth’s, sitting at the counter on a sparkly red stool that I would obsessively turn around and around, legs dangling nowhere near the floor. Way way way in the recesses of my mind, I see a plate with a hamburger, hot fresh hand-cut golden fries, some dark green lettuce, a slice of red tomato, and a long garlicky pickle for garnish, and a small glass of Coca-Cola, in the Coke glass with the white swoosh, and a white bendy straw. If there was time, a tiny hot fudge sundae after with a maraschino cherry on top. I would watch the counter waitress in her green and white uniform take the orders, writing on a green and white pad, then post the ticket on a revolving metal order holder, which I also wanted to spin around. Steaming coffee would be poured into thick white mugs, people coming and going. I can still feel my legs slightly kicking, moving the seat slightly back and forth, listening to the pop music on the radio sitting on the back counter, sucking the last bit of the Coke up, then bending the straw up and down, stealing a sugar packet when my mother wasn’t watching and pouring it on my tongue, little devil.

On trips to Indiana, we would pull over at the highway oasis stops, the ones that hung over the freeway, a big concrete block floating over the traffic. I would press up against the big floor to ceiling windows and wave at the cars and trucks as they just kept coming, then disappeared under my feet. My most vivid memory of the oasis was usually how badly I had to pee by then.

Later as I became a teenager and started going out to clubs and concerts in Milwaukee or Waukesha or friggin’ Stone Bank or something, it became a tradition for us to stop at a diner on the way back and get breakfast. This was always a complete riot. We’d laugh and smoke and gossip about the cute guys in the band, ears ringing, dressed in whatever goofy rock and roll clothes, oblivious to the truckers and old folks and rolleye waitresses. The coffee would kick in, counteracting the night’s beers, and we would sit and yabber, sometimes until it was almost light out. To this day, I don’t feel quite right not going to a diner after a concert. It’s just the thing to do.

Diners I do not like: the pseudo-'50s theme diners. I mean, I like the food usually but the whole set-up depresses me, the fake nostalgia, the tin signs, and the wiseacre waitresses. God, what a horrible job, having to chew gum and call yourself “Trixie” and take the order of some family with a screaming baby, when you were born in 1988 and could give a shit about some old ass crap. Ah, well. There seems to be no limit in the money one can squeeze out of sentimental baby boomers.

I wish I could remember all the diners I have been to around the country, but for the most part I guess I have forgotten. I remember one in San Francisco where there was a long line to get in for breakfast, and once you got in the door, you were treated and seated with military precision. It seemed like they were timing you – OK, sit, order, eat, out in 30 minutes, next! They did have really good crepes, though. I sat in a diner in Houston and allowed someone to convince me that grits contained pork grease, while he laughed convulsively. I remember one where we talked and talked and talked as it rained outside, until the free refills of coffee stopped and the bill was long paid. I remember another in Columbus, sitting next to my favorite rock star, and being slightly taken aback at how fast and sloppily he ate, and how he hesitated just a second before picking up the check.

I think what it is that I really love about diners maybe isn’t the food or the atmosphere or even a fabulous chocolate malt, it’s the people I have been with and the good times I have had in them. No amount of shiny new tin Coca-Cola signs can capture that.