The Diner



85 Broadway Brooklyn, NY 11211

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Williamsburg

The Diner in Williamsburg is a 21st century institution now, I guess (just celebrated its tenth anniversary)—you can get arugula there! And the rest of their food is good too. It’s pleasant at their sidewalk tables if the weather’s fine, though you have to watch your step if you don’t want to trip over two dozen artists. Me and Jean de la Fontaine went there last fall to drink a beer and recruit two strangers to match some images with text for an artist’s book we had in progress. This book, entitled Rien à Voire involves three sequences of images paired with texts that have nothing to do with each other. I paired one sequence, Jean another, and we wanted a third to be done by monkeys but it was easier to make it happen with Williamsburg artists hanging out at the Diner.

I had to use my Firm Resolution not to bore these beautiful strangers to death with first-settler stories of back in the day.

The day being the late 1970s, under very different conditions in Williamsburg, when I lived in a second-floor apartment overlooking the diner from across Broadway. I owned an indestructible 69 Dodge Dart which usually slept quietly, unmolested, somewhere in New Jersey. Once in a while (rarely, trepidatiously) I did park that car in my Williamsburg nabe, where the local thieves were so very dexterous that they managed to use an inch of play in the chain that locked my hood to walk the battery all the way over the engine block and drop it out on the other side. From this experience I learned to take the battery up to the apartment whenever I left the car—a bit of trouble but it did make for a surer start on cold mornings.

The diner was open then, under previous management, with no arugula or anything like it—you could get fried eggs and hash browns there, and strikingly lousy coffee. It was cheap! No customers though. The owner-operator-cook had the look of a recently retired All-Star wrestler—styled long hair and a brown Van Dyke, his bull neck festooned in gold chains. Despite his powerful build he always closed up and left the area before dark. There were no white people living around there then (okay, me, my roommates and one other 20-something boho I tried to follow home, out of harmless curiosity, the night I saw him get off at the same subway stop as me. The other guy grew ill at ease, picked up his pace, eventually climbed atop a dumpster. I passed by without attempting any conversation….)

The diner guy was a shade of pale that probably commuted from Bensonhurst. Or maybe once upon a time Williamsburg had been more like Bensonhurst than what it had become at the time that I lived there. Back when a tree grew in Brooklyn. Indeed the same indestructible acanthus that gave that novel its title were still omnipresent, seeming to nourish themselves on root-crumbled cement. The diner guy fried eggs and slopped coffee, and appeared to be waiting for the fog to clear and the planet he came from to reconstitute itself under his size-eleven feet.

So one day around dusk I happened to be looking out the window and out comes the guy—he inserts his bulk into this hulking yacht of a beat-up seventies sedan, then presumably turns the key. Nothing. Out he gets, pops his hood, guess what?

The guy stands for a moment between his vehicle and his enterprise, staring down, ham fists cocked on his meaty hips. Then he shrugs, goes to the car that’s parked behind him, steals that battery, installs same into his automobile, and off he goes into the gathering night. I’ll vouch for it.

The beautiful simplicity of this solution improved on an idea I’d had earlier—to wit, I could probably have bought the batteries I’d lost back from the guys who stole them at half price, probably more than they’d get from fencing them anyway. But now I realized: this neighborhood didn’t need all its batteries all the time anyway! Hell, it probably didn’t need half of them. And we could have put the rest into a fund to support the arts, or maybe educate a few children….


Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels. His most recent book, Toussaint Louverture A Biography was published by Pantheon in 2007.

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