Grilled Cheese Dreams In America's Highway Diners

I'm a Brit living in the mid-west of America and I'm fascinated by the weird minutiae of American life. Specifically diners - lonely places populated by society’s castoffs...
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I'm a Brit living in the mid-west of America and I'm fascinated by the weird minutiae of American life. Specifically diners - lonely places populated by society’s castoffs...

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This may sound like a strange claim, but I’m in love with American diners. I don’t mean the pseudo-50s stainless steel-infested tourist traps from Back to the Future wet dreams. I don’t mean pretentious artisan post-diners, with their organic hamburgers and homemade ice tea. And I certainly don’t mean those awful chain diners that pepper the suburbs. I’m talking about the run-down, harshly lit, odd-smelling boxes that populate America’s small towns; the ones that squat on the sides of forgotten highways, luring in truckers and unsuspecting travelers with all-you-can-eat pie and burnt coffee.

The word “diner” is like a beacon, calling to me through the fog. It’s late, I’m with a friend driving back from Chicago to my current home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I’m hungry. In fact, I’ve never been this hungry in my life. All I want is a grilled cheese sandwich. I can almost taste the fake cheese, the weird butter stuff they cook it in, the cloying beauty of it all. But there’s nowhere to satisfy my craving. The highway is populated with terrible chain restaurants and dodgy-looking motels. Then, after mile upon mile of unchanging asphalt and huge fast food billboards veering out of the landscape, a sign appears: “Arlene’s truck stop, next exit.” Praise be!

We pull into the parking lot, next to the shiny big rigs, and gaze at Arlene’s, with its bright windows and strange, bulbous roof. Inside, the air is cold, a bit of a shock after the dark humidity of the night outside. Our waitress brings coffee and shiny menus, but we already know what we’re having. There’s something oddly appetizing to me about grilled cheese from a diner. Something about the saltiness of the sandwich, the butter-stained bread, the oozing “American cheese”. It’s perfect. I’m home.

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks gave another perspective – of diners as lonely places populated by society’s castoffs. Personally, I much prefer this second viewpoint. For me, diners are indicative of the loneliness of traveling, especially in America.

The universal fascination with diners has a long history. Usually viewed as an optimistic central tenet of Americana, diner nostalgia is rooted in the modern mythologizing of the 1950s, a time when the American middle class was great and life was wonderful. Norman Rockwell’s paintings embodied this rosy-eyed reminiscence, but Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks gave another perspective – of diners as lonely places populated by society’s castoffs.

Personally, I much prefer this second viewpoint. For me, diners are indicative of the loneliness of traveling, especially in America. Coming from Britain, the vast distances between towns here is staggering. Highways can go on for thousands of miles, with very little to see en route. The diner, then, is a stopgap, a place to rest and recuperate – to gather the pieces of yourself – before continuing on your absurdly long journey. The ever-present truckers, usually alone, usually silent, expands this loneliness.

I prefer the ones where the coffee is terrible, the food is cheap and the lighting is fluorescent. I love that these places exist, still, today, in a country obsessed with convenience and big shiny arches.

It makes for great theatre, watching people eat alone. There’s something beautifully unselfconscious about an enormous man in a Texas baseball cap relentlessly working his way through an enormous meal without once looking up, concentrating solely on the job at hand. The muzak coming through hidden speakers, the smell of fried food, the slowly prowling waitress: it can become quite hypnotizing.

Of course, highways and small towns aren’t the only places to experience the diner’s special charm. 24-hour diners are an essential part of city life, a place for insomniacs, revelers and the unemployed to wile away the hours, a place for night-workers to have breakfast before dragging themselves home. They also double as neighborhood meeting places, where locals can debate the important topics of the day over bottomless coffee cups.

These diners, however, are not the ones I’m interested in. I prefer the ones where the coffee is terrible, the food is cheap and the lighting is fluorescent. I love that these places exist, still, today, in a country obsessed with convenience and big shiny arches. I love that you can pull in from five hours of relentless driving, find safe haven in a little box with little booths in the windows, spend your time gazing either out at the flow of traffic or, if you’re me, at the people around you, and then leave and rejoin the endless surge of moving cars.

America is a gigantic country, overwhelming in its vastness. But one thing links this continent, state by state, town by town. The fact is that at four in the morning, wherever I am, I can find a tumbledown roadside eatery that will serve me pie and let me sit and watch the night slink by outside. Sure, there are regional varieties, slight changes in menu or accent depending on where you are. But that’s the point – every diner may be different, but the experience will by and large be the same. It’s comforting to know that there’s always a place to go, wherever you happen to find yourself.

We finish up at Arlene’s and pay our bill. It’s not open all night, but Arlene – or whoever is her emissary tonight – will be here a while. Then it’s on out into the night, processed cheese heavy in our bellies, to drive the last hundred or so miles home.

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