At 8 a.m. the streets are nearly deserted. From the Seventh Street Bridge you can look down a block to the county courthouse and count every meter, every crack in the asphalt. The sun looks glassy on the sidewalk. It’s cold, maybe 16 degrees above. The remnants of an earlier storm sit in lumps of frosted glass, drawn into themselves like the few pedestrians who hustle by. The scene resembles an image taken before the war, rows of hump-backed cars lining the street, the crenelated church in shadow, the stores in relief.
The restaurant belongs in a city far larger than this, to a time just as remote. Inside the smells of bacon and baked goods rise up like old friends from a couch. Sunlight paints the tile and turns the wooden chairs to brass. Art Deco lamps hang like hatboxes from the ceiling and paintings line the wall. Columns in dark pink divide the bricked entryway from the tables. Through the portholes in the wall crystal stars dangle like an afterthought.
The hostess, a woman in her early twenties with pale skin and black hair pulled behind her neck, hands me a menu and says to sit anywhere. She’s wearing seasonal red and black with loops of gold chain in her ears. I imagine her name is Tiffany.
A woman enters carrying a boy who looks about a year old. I’ve seen her on previous visits. She’s worked here as a hostess. She might be the owner. She’s middle-aged, her thick hair pulled back in a crush of waves and fastened with bobby pins, a style from the 1940s that matches the decor. She, too, is wearing red and black, and when the younger hostess sits with them, the resemblance is striking: mother, daughter, grandson.
The waitress is in her early twenties, dressed completely in black, with fly-away blonde hair. She brings coffee and asks what I’d like. Corned beef hash, eggs sunny side, and wheat toast.
“Is that all?” she asks, holding a pad she doesn’t use.
What more could you want besides a warm place to sit at 8 a.m. on a day when even the sunlight seems frozen to the sidewalk? I open a paperback and try to read but the people at the next table prove a pleasant distraction.
Even this close to the holidays, the breakfast trade is slow. Tiffany slides onto a chair across from her mother. She smiles at her son and leans in close, her elegant neck as thin as chalk, her eyes black with mascara, the golden loops swinging beneath her ears, forward and back, following the arc of conversation. The grandmother cuts a ginger carrot pancake into small bites, skewers a piece with her fork and offers it to the boy, who opens his mouth in a wide O. At the last minute she draws the fork back and pretends to eat the pancake, then laughs at the boy’s expression of surprise, finally popping the morsel in his mouth with a cooing sound. The diamond and silver rings on her left hand shine like silverware. She finally gives a spoon to the boy, who taps it on the table to the tune of “bah, bah.”
A woman wearing a gray coat and red knit cap walks into restaurant. Her black heels tick on the wooden floor like an ancient radiator. She removes a tight-fitting red cap, her ball-shaped earrings tangling with long brown hair.
Another waitress, tall with a pageboy and supermodel lips, asks what she’d like to drink.
“Water and chamomile tea,” she says, slowly peeling off her gloves and settling them on the table. She has thick lips and heavy cheeks. In a few minutes she’s joined by a man in a red shirt and corduroy slacks, his silver hair swept back along the sides of his head, his back rounded as he hunches over the table. They talk about a conference she’s organizing for their company, maybe for him. Her voice is soft. I can’t hear his. I decide her name is Holly and that she likes to date older men, maybe gangsters.
The waitress with the flyaway hair has disappeared into the ether, taking the coffee pot with her. As if in her wake, the movers and shakers swoop down on the table nearest the kitchen. It is unofficially reserved for the United Way, where those who’ve led the campaign gather for breakfast. Usually there are at least four—Chuck the builder; Paul the merchant; Ray the finance guy and a fourth man, small and dark, who I recognize but can never identify. Sometimes they’re joined by a woman. Today it’s Chuck and another man, broad and gray. They are the volunteers who keep the community alive, gangsters in their own right.
Holly and her companion leave, a tattoo of heels across the planks. Grandmother wraps her neck in a scarf and swaddles the boy. Tiffany drifts behind the breakfast bar. The waitress with the flyaway hair approaches, pad held in front as if she’s about to pray. “Do you have any plate presents for me?”
That gets a smile. I glance around the restaurant, not quite half-full, and ask, “Is it all right if I stay for a while?”
“You can stay as long as you like but I’m going home at three.”
I don’t think it’s an invitation to follow but I smile and nod and go back to the book. As the clock approaches ten she materializes twice to fill the cup and I decide to leave an outsized tip, even though she’ll never wait on me again. I’m not in Tiffany’s that often.