Cafe Society

Nothing Could Be Finer

At the table behind me, two girls are talking about Jesus. In front of me is a plate of chicken-fried steak that could send me to meet him real soon.

It's the third chicken-fried steak I've eaten in less than 24 hours. I have the meat sweats. My heart is pumping sausage gravy. I feel like I might die. And I hope they're right, these girls. I hope God's boy is as nice as they say -- as forgiving as advertised -- because an argument could certainly be made for my having done this to myself. The sin of gluttony has always been the one that's tripped me up. I'm not a killer. I'm not a thief. I covet like a motherfucker, but I always feel badly about it afterward. I make no graven images (provided you don't count my occasional Richard Dreyfuss-in-Close Encounters impressions, giving Laura the crazy eye and sculpting mounds of mashed potatoes into a likeness of Devil's Tower). But gluttony? Yeah, I'm screwed.

Still, if there is a heaven (a theory on which I remain stubbornly unconvinced), and if, as some philosophers have opined, heaven is a personal construct of the soul's desire for peace, and if said construct is truly unique to the individual, then my heaven -- that eternal hangout for my immortal whatsis -- will look a lot like Davies Chuck Wagon Diner. Forget the clouds and harps, and never mind the communion with the Almighty. Just give me vinyl seats and lots of chrome, clean ashtrays and some pie. Let the Baptists, the Catholics and their ilk slug it out over matters angelic. All I care about is Friday-night meatloaf and chicken-fried steak on Sundays.

Marc Cohn once said that if there's a God in heaven, He drives a silver Thunderbird. What Marc left out was where God was headed. I'm pretty sure it was Davies. Maybe not directly, but He was surely on His way.

It's early, and the dining room at Davies is still in the clutch of a post-holiday breakfast rush. Most of the booths and tables are full, as are all of the stools at the counter, and the kitchen -- a bunker at the center of the floor, square and cramped and built like a Nazi pillbox overlooking the Omaha beachhead of the front door through a narrow slit -- is roaring with activity. The air is close, humid with bodies, heavy with smoke and the sounds of frying oil, pans hitting burners, plates hitting stainless, and dozens of conversations.

There are scuffs on the tile floor (white, spotted with custom pieces showing cowboys and injuns in the classically tacky Old West style: Frederic Remington on acid) and stains on the walls, tar and grease and nicotine, like a slow sepia-toning of the world inside. The building seems to breathe -- taking in drafts of cool air from outside, exhaling customers -- and nothing is ever still. Tables turn fast. Coffeepots make the rounds.

When I'd ordered my chicken-fried steak and coffee and toast, I'd set the timer. Even with a full house, the toast and coffee had come in about a minute, the chicken-fried steak, eggs and hashbrowns in just over six. In twice that time, I've barely made a dent. The steak is nearly an inch thick, milk-soaked and tender enough (after having been beaten into pudding with a mallet) to be cut with a cheap tin fork. It's jacketed in crisp breading, topped with an amorphous blob of scratch-made white gravy (just flour, butter, cream, pepper and probably sausage grease) that's pure white death, and it crowds to the edge of the plate two eggs over so easy that the yolks broke just because I looked at them funny.

Behind me, the girls talk about Jesus. A waitress sits down at my table, sighing, puffing out her cheeks without looking at me, resting her legs. Then she smiles, asks if there's anything else she can get me, holds her pad poised just in case. I say no, thanks. She calls me "hon" and from somewhere in the ether, the Muzak pulls down a scratchy version of Elvis singing "Hard Headed Woman." That would make everything perfect except that the last song in the rotation was Night Ranger or Mister Mister or worse -- both dating from years when Davies was in operation, but not the period I care about.

Davies Chuck Wagon was built in 1957, maybe one of the best years for diners, definitely one of the last. It's a Mountain View, constructed in Singac, New Jersey, and the name is appropriate, because from the sidewalk out front (if you lean a little and look west), you can see the foothills rising over a hump in the land. It's doubly appropriate, in fact, because of all the diners bolted together on those grimy East Coast assembly lines, all the Valentines and Belaires and Indian Chiefs, Mountain View #516 traveled the farthest. Brought by train at the height of the boom and settled delicately onto a foundation laid on West Colfax, no other East Coast diner made it as far as this one did.