Thursday, November 6, 2008
Diners I Have Known #3
Somewhere in the agricultural wilds of Davis, CA there used to stand an odd little diner known as Mr Ed’s. I know it was in operation as recently as 1988—I guess that’s not so recently, is it? When I hear the date 1988 it seems like it wasn’t so long ago; when I think about the events of that year, they seem to have taken place “in a galaxy far away….”
& I don’t recall specifically when I discovered Mr Ed’s was no more, but that was also a looong time past. But I do recall you could see it from I-80, zooming west toward Baghdad by the Bay or, as I did the first time, zooming east toward the pastures of Davis. That was a different lifetime—a story that’s too distant & too complicated to tell here: a flight out of Dulles I almost missed; some confusion at SF International involving credit cards & car rentals, a cream-white Ford Taurus, a warm California evening, a drive just long enough to get interesting from San Fran to Davis….
In an earlier post I talked about a trip when I fell passionately in love with the West—this was that trip. Mr Ed’s, a diner standing in a palm grove, played some small role in that. What else do I recall? Outside the diner, the scent of unfamiliar flowers…. it was March, & coming from Virginia it didn’t seem unusual to encounter blossoms…. it did seem unusual to encounter palm trees, tho of course the NorCal palm trees are all introduced, not native. There was the big sign, & a phone booth…. a small parking lot with a view of the interstate…. inside there were two rows of booths in a rectangular building, with the grill, the soda machine, etc. facing the doorway…. was the upholstery some sort of red Naugahyde, or have I made this up 20 years later? Were my companion & I—a gal friend from a different era—really the only folks in the joint? It was dark outside, & may have been late…. it’s possible.
Improbably enough, I do recall the evening’s fare—for both of us, because we both had the same thing: grilled cheese & fries & Cokes. How did I drink so much Coca-Cola in those days? It sets my teeth on edge now….
When you’re in the midst of life, at any given moment—but always looking back & looking ahead—every event seems inevitable; all the actions you’ve taken to that moment have led you there. If you’re inspired by the moment, you take that inevitability as providential, as a sign of some larger plan, the meaning of which is being revealed to you at that very instant: you can see the plan like a book that falls open to a certain page, & all you want to do is read on because this is the story you’ve been living all along without knowing it. Looking back at any event like this from the perspective of 20 years, one realizes it wasn’t inevitable at all—it was one more occurrence based on a series of both choices & circumstances: there was really no inevitability at all to my sitting in Mr Ed’s drinking a Coca-Cola from one of those large fluted Coke glasses. I could just as easily have been sitting with someone else in a night spot in Charlottesville, or in an apartment in Burlington, VT—especially given my predilection for chemical excess as a young fellow (a past that was only eight years behind me at that point), I could have been non-existent—in a word, dead. Also, it’s true that this trip to California, with its heady moments at Mr Ed’s (can a dinner of grilled cheese & fries be “heady”?—well, of course) was a crucial moment in the future I’ve actually lived, tho not in the way I believed it would be at the time.
Waking up early to roosters crowing; a jaunt to gold country; a jaunt to Bodega Bay, & then down 101 to Baghdad by the Bay itself—an evening in Caffé Trieste looking out at the North Beach traffic—lattés in bowl-sized white cups—the tawdry wild west splash of lights on Broadway, the inviting yellow glow from inside City Lights bookstore, a Chinatown neon sign reading “Buddha Cocktail”… all these sights & the feel of a place insinuating themselves into my soul for reasons other than those I believed…..
I only went to Mr Ed’s one other time, just a couple of months later, at the end of an east-west road trip. That’s when the rather under-exposed pic above was taken. My old Charlottesville poebiz pal Jonah Winter & I had set off toward the sunset, each on mapcap romantic adventures that ultimately took us to far different locations—both at the time, & (in retrospect) since. I started out from Charlottesville on an early evening, leaving from another diner that lives mythically in my memory, the College Inn—made it to a Motel 6 in Knoxville—next day made it to Dallas, & collected Mr Winter who was there—on to some good-forsaken motel in the mountains of New Mexico—on to some chain motel in Barstow (after a delightful supper involving coconut cream pie at a diner in Needles)—& leaving Barstow & somehow taking a wrong turn we were headed for LA—& for complicated reasons, I tried to talk Jonah into going there so I could visit someone else—but couldn’t talk him into it, & so went on to Davis, & Mr Ed’s, where Jonah & I had supper & we got a vegetable soup to go for the gal friend who for complicated reasons chose not to join us. I’m sure I had a grilled cheese, fries & a Coke; can’t recall what Jonah ordered. But he was traveling on to other parts, & I stopped over for a complicated stay in Davis, that culminated in a Greyhound bus ride back to Charlottesville….
The bus ride ensured that I was in love with the West.
As for the rest, it’s mostly a closed chapter in the story—a cul-de-sac of sorts, but also a thru route into what happened later; a bit more than a year later, in an overloaded 78 maroon Bonneville, with another gal friend & a dog, & all the possessions we could cram in, moving to San Francisco. Was that when I found out Mr Ed’s was out of business, or was it later?
I could say more—how Mr Ed’s particularly charmed me because as a young lad I was obsessed with the talking horse show, Mr Ed. I could talk about the gray light in the early morning in an upstairs “in-law” apartment in Davis, or hearing the Abecedarians song “Spaghetti Western” on the radio, or the brisk golden wind swirling off the breakers at Bodega Bay. But as so often happens, I thought one thing was happening when another was; & in between those two, Mr Ed’s disappeared.