Roadside Attraction

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

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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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