Morning at Mama's Cafe is all business. Eggs and more eggs, pancakes and waffles, toast and toast and toast. The kitchen is tiny, a steel box full of line cooks and fire, with room for one guy to work comfortably, two if they're close as ballet partners. Put three in there and it starts to look like Thunderdome time: a constant battle, no victors, only victims. They put plates out a half-dozen at a clip — not just fast, but fast fast, filling the pass rail quicker than the waitresses can empty it. The place smells of onions and peppers, char, sweet wafts of hot sugar, powerful industrial cleaners, the thick meatiness of eggs scrambling on the flat top. But the ham-and-cheese omelet is awful — a three-egg envelope fold that's a flavorless mille-feuille of dry, gray egg, clotted cheese and scant ham — and I wash it down with dishwater coffee that's sour and thin.
Lunch at Mama's Cafe, on the offside of the rush, is almost sedate, the room relaxed and half committed. I order more weak coffee and decent cherry pie — my own private Twin Peaks special — and watch as the two waitresses work the floor in a near-pantomime of small-town-diner charm, breezing quickly down the narrow aisles between the tables with plates stacked up their arms, picking up and putting down with veteran speed. They call you sweetie, they call you hon. But like catching the flash of a gun beneath someone's sport coat, like suddenly noticing the bob of an Adam's apple on the girl you've been chatting up all evening, you know there's something more to the waitresses at Mama's — iron beneath the polyester. Sit close enough to the service station at the top of the main dining room, and you can hear their conversations: talk about tables, about checks, about kids — and every now and then, "Are you ready for tonight?"
No one is. At night, almost any night, Mama's Cafe is jumping, full of sound and fury and the very specific strangeness native only to this particular stretch of Colfax Avenue. There are hipsters and geeks with bad ink, facial piercings and twitchy fingers; street people having hissed discussions with their silverware about sprawling government conspiracies; blasted night creatures hanging desperately on to their plates of pancakes, walleyed with drink and that queer, tunnel-vision focus that comes from concentrating all your scattered energies on just not barfing on the table.
A few blocks east, a few blocks west, the crowd is different — weighted by the environment, the magnetic pull of certain corners, certain neighborhoods, certain tastes. Taxi drivers, prostitutes, cops, cowboys, frat boys, skip tracers, strippers, ambulance drivers and ambulance chasers, and dealers in powerful chemicals — everyone in Denver's vampire community has his own hangout on the other side of midnight, a regular haunt, a favorite plate of steak and eggs. But Mama's is a rare gathering place, the watering hole in the jungle where jaguars and monkeys and elephants and the rest of the Lion King cast all call a temporary truce from the predator-and-prey game so they can eat, drink and chill for an hour.
I come late on a Thursday looking for tamales — middle-of-the-night tamales, the best kind — but after my breakfast and lunch at Mama's, I decide my stomach can't take the tamales and order pancakes instead. Mama's does pancakes well. Big, fluffy, golden-brown, with just the right amount of sweet in the batter, a huge gob of lardy butter on top and a plastic cup of warm maple syrup on the side. And then I order some pie, because I'm a black-coffee-and-pie kind of guy when I've got a few drinks in me. But the coffee is still bad, and this time the pie is, too. The blueberry tastes of tin; the huge, quarter-pan slice of lattice-topped apple is gooey where it isn't tough and has no flavor save for mealy apple and a sour wisp of cinnamon.
From my lonelyheart's booth against the center wall, I have a good view of the waitresses who operate like commandoes now, an elite night-shift unit accustomed to the fragile, freaked-up peace of the place, burning through tables fast and paying special attention to their regulars. There's a pissed-off paraplegic in the back parking lot, bumping his motorized wheelchair over the shattered pavement, demanding change from passersby while he chain-smokes cigarette butts, and every minute or so, a fire truck, an ambulance or a prowl car blows past outside the big front windows, lights and sirens blaring. At night, Mama's looks battered — rough not just around the edges, but straight through: cheap paneling, floral wallpaper, fake tile, booths patched with black electrical tape, walls patched with whatever was on hand the morning after the night the holes were punched, kicked or burned into them. The fake potted plants hanging from the ceiling and lacy curtains tied back around some of the windows do not help. It's less like putting lipstick on a pig than it is pancake makeup to cover the bruises on a corpse.
The toughest time at any all-night diner is the weekend bar rush, from about 1:30 a.m. until three. I've always been a night creature, the 24/7 diner my natural habitat. When I was a kid still living at home, my mom — in a fury over my breaking curfew time after time after time — would demand that I explain what it was I could do after midnight that I couldn't do before. The answer was so simple, I was never able to come up with it on the spot.
Everything, Ma. Everything.
I've spent nights at the diner hanging out with musicians, drag queens and criminals; made hash browns for Tom Wopat; been punched in the face for reading. I worked an open-kitchen short-order diner gig in Buffalo years back — 26 seats with a line out the door and down the block every weekend night at 4 a.m. — and got to see one of my waitresses nearly stab a customer to death with a broken ketchup bottle. In another kitchen, I watched one of my cooks, in a Friday-night bar rush of panic, plunge both hands into a 400-degree fryer, trying to catch something he'd carelessly knocked into the scalding oil. He burned himself so badly his fingers melted together. He was probably crippled for life. I've been drinking off that story ever since.
After midnight Saturday at Mama's, the floor is on a wait. The glass on one of the front doors is shattered, with spidery lines emanating from a point of impact high on the bottom pane: made by a boot, maybe, a head. The crowd is mostly drunks, depressed baseball fans, club kids on the bubble between the early party one place and the late party someplace else. Part of it is a spillover crowd from Pete's Kitchen across the street, where a mob is gathered out front, smoking cigarettes, laughing, waiting for a table. I have friends — people whose opinions I trust when it comes to food — who swear by Mama's, insist that it's a must-stop after a night of drinking along Colfax when they're in dire need of salty French fries or onion rings, chilaquiles and breakfast burritos. But I don't buy it. I've had a breakfast burrito at Mama's, and it's nothing more than dry wrapped in stale juiced with bland. Maybe I've just never been drunk enough to appreciate it.
The second-toughest time at any diner is Sunday morning, between the end of the sunrise service at the nearest church and the end of the regular Sunday mass. So I'm back at Mama's at ten, not exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but there because I have other friends who insist that they're addicted to the early breakfast, to the pies, pancakes and sausages. I'm seated by a waitress who remembers me from earlier in the week but not from the night before. She asks what got me up so early. "Hungry," I tell her. She says I've come to the right place. I keep my mouth shut.
Across from me, a man is talking movies with his obviously hung over, obviously completely disinterested girlfriend. He's talking almost exclusively about the oeuvre of John Cusack — from his early work with Savage Steve Holland (whom this man incorrectly identifies as John Hughes) to his later work in movies like Being John Malkovich (which this man incorrectly claims was directed by Jim Jarmusch) and Adaptation (which John Cusack wasn't in at all). He will not shut up about John Cusack. He is on didactic autopilot. And behind him, there's a girl — eyes rimmed with smeared kohl, glitter paint sifting off like fairy eczema — whose cell phone rings every thirty seconds as she rants, "I fucking told her I'd fucking be fucking home last night, and now she fucking can't stop calling? I'm not fucking picking that motherfucker up."
The church crowds start pouring in about the same time my steak and eggs arrive, and my breakfast does not have a prayer. This is the worst steak I've ever seen, ever tasted, the worst I've ever had to pretend to eat while surreptitiously shoving chunks of it behind the booth and into my napkin. The menu calls it a "house steak," but it's really just cheap stew beef — an inch-thick whack of rump or shoulder, striated, bloody, full of connective tissue and knobs of white fat. The hash browns are crisp, my three eggs are nicely over easy, but the steak is a horror of stinginess and ugly thrift, undercooked (even for me) and sour from sitting too long in the low boy in its own leaking blood.
At the service station, the waitresses are laughing about last night's business, how wild, how fun. The girl with the cell phone is now yelling directly at it. The film scholar is scratching something onto a napkin. The church folk are saying grace. The crowds are starting to back up at the front, parties stalled as tables are wiped and reset, the cooks spinning in place like robots. I am done with Mama's. As long as there are long nights and church services, this place will keep turning tables.
But I am out the door.
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