It’s around three in the morning and, for the first time in two decades, I’m hanging out in a lonely booth at a random Denny’s, nursing a cup of black coffee and reading a slightly-used book. This time, however, I’m not surrounded by goths, punks or other societal rejects that sleep all day and mope all night…all that’s here right now are a couple of cops on a dinner break.
Man, are things different now.
Once upon a time, there used to be Denny’s 24 hour restaurants littered all up and down Oklahoma City and the surrounding areas; the N.W. 63rd and May establishment was my own personal Zion where, in my teens and some of my twenties, I had a somnambulistic romance with the harsh coffee and harsher waitresses there, loitering until the cracks of morning began to show.
These days though, Denny’s diners seem to be few and far between; even worse, it’s as though kids—the true tastemakers and policy-breakers of the day—have found someplace new to camp out at until the darkness takes them. When did Denny’s quit being, for lack of a better word, cool?
Denny’s at 3 a.m. was a stylized ritual for many of us, a place to go when everything else in this big league city shut down for the evening. Spending only a few dollars on a cup of coffee (and a Grand Slam if you just got paid), we would sit around smoking cigarettes and making nice with the server, both of you knowing full well you’ve got only a few measly coins for a tip.
We were part of the problem, but Denny’s seemed okay with it.
My favorite Denny’s of years past has long-since been demolished, but the one I’m at tonight looks moderately new. It actually smells new, like a fresh grease-trap or something. A few cops filter in and out, but, otherwise, the place is dead on this late Friday night.
I started off with a cup of darkly ominous coffee—some of the best around, natch. Yet even after desperately mainlining the caffeine, I still wanted to go home and just crash my troubles away; maybe some food will perk me up?
Back in the day, I would Grand Slam it like nobody’s business, just me and the Sandman running out the clock and running up our cholesterol. There’s no way you could beat two pert buttermilk pancakes, a pair of bulbous eggs, a couple of tight bacon slices and the load-bearing sausage links, all for $5.99 and some change.
The waitress here—the only one, it looks like—isn’t as matronly as they used to be either; she’s young and hip, with a crooked smile and an outgoing attitude to match. Handing me the menu, she tells me how she’s working until four or five a.m. the next couple nights; when prodded, she goes on to tell me that kids don’t come in anymore and it’s kind of lonely on nights like this.
Glancing at the menu, my heart sighs with a slight stabbing sensation if I even start to think about ordering the Grand Slam these days; instead, this bleary-eyed buffoon does it up Fit Slam-style, featuring scrambled egg-whites with spinach and “grape” tomatoes, two slices of turkey bacon, a toasted English muffin and a bowl of what they call seasonal fruit, but in reality it’s just grapes and possibly cantaloupe.
Unless I choke on a tomato, it probably won’t kill me, right?
I read my book about curanderas as I partition bits of egg white onto my English muffin; I look over at the empty booth across from me and picture myself, far younger and mostly fatter, lighting up a Lucky Strike and shooting me a damnifying look, pissed at what I would become. I return a momentary glance of pity however, mostly for who I once was.
Getting up to pay the check, I know I will always have a spiritually well-worn spot at any of the interchangeable Denny’s in Oklahoma City, even if they don’t. Those of us that fought the war of sleep for many years, unheralded veterans of a wasted youth that, quite honestly, should’ve been spent doing something more productive, will always have that black coffee and those cigarette burns.