Roadside Attraction

(THE EAT-RITE Diner, Seventh Street and Chouteau Avenue)

We're sitting here, that guy over there and I, listening to the onions and burger patties sizzle on the grill in front of us. We're sitting on these swiveling, metal-rimmed diner seats that are bolted to the linoleum floor.

In walks a second guy, dressed in the uniform of middle management: over-machine-washed white-gone-off-white dress shirt; dress pants slightly too tight, making the pleats tug open; lousy tie — fashionwise, the yawning personification of an overcast day. His head is shaven, he wears wire-rimmed glasses. His expression: good-natured, comical, somewhat knuckleheaded. He wants six hamburgers.

A sign in the window advertises six hamburgers for $4.50. The rest of the menu is written on placards behind the counter, above the grill. On the counter, a tower case displays tired slices of pie behind smoky glass.

We're in a kind of living, breathing, interactive museum, inside a display case. We're in a Robert Frank photograph circa 1950s. Here you can order authentic greasy diner food, drop quarters into the jukebox, buy a pack of cigarettes from the cigarette machine, play pinball on machines with vintage pedigrees emanating from beneath the layers of grime and dust.

"How old are these machines?" I ask the waitress, who's nursing a cigarette.

"I dunno. They're pretty old."

Indeed! The guy with the six burgers asks for ketchup packets.

"I already put ketchup on 'em," the waitress assures. (True; I watched her generously squirt swirls onto six upturned buns only moments before.)

He exits very pleased. The other guy never looks up from his plate.

 
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