If you ain’t got religion, you got Denny’s. Hear me out. Church, at its best, is a fortress of folks who care about you in an otherwise blasé world. Similarly, Denny’s is a bastion of community open to dang near everyone. Both attempt to wipe your worries away, for the hour or so that you’re there, while getting a little money outta ya.
Hell, I want your money, too. Or at least I used to. I worked at Denny’s, that King of all-American diners (only rivaled by Waffle House), for six years from high school through a smidge of college. It was a phenomenal experience that taught me a high-level of organization in a fast-paced environment and, when I worked graveyard shift, I felt like I was swaggering into a Tom Waits song. The only downside were the jackasses who thought they were so original by making a joke
Never been to a diner in the wee hours? Hey, I ain’t judging. Means you probably sleep better than me. But you’re missing out. There’s a sense of community, a civility of service, and a slash of the extraordinary that happens in the early morning hours at places like Denny’s.
Cheap coffee and seasoned fries, my perfect midnight meal on Saturday in Durango. I was in Nick’s section at Denny’s. He’s a tall, slim fella who was working the 10 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. shift. He was kind enough to spend his break talking with me about late-night diner life.
When do y’all get busy around here? At about 1:20 [a.m.]. Last call for alcohol is at 1:45. Pisses some people off, so they leave and come here. Always in a big flock.
Folks can get kind of wild in the middle of the night, even if they haven’t been drinking. What kinda stuff do you see? Depends on the night, you can usually feel it. There’s a certain energy in the restaurant. Right now, it’s OK. It feels OK.
Occasionally, you’ll get the couple who comes in all drunk and horny and they’ll be in the back, in the booth in the corner, thinking they can get away with something.
Then you get the drunks – usually girls – whose inhibitions are down and the clothes start falling off. That actually happens very rarely. Usually Snowdown, New Year’s Eve, or Halloween.
Any fights? I’ve only seen a few fights. Mama, the manager, she makes sure they don’t happen. She has this place on lockdown. But there’s always the few stragglers you can’t control. The second she gets a hold of them, they’re gone. Usually just for the night. If you’re in that mood, you’re going to stay in that mood. Sleep on it.
I almost got into a fight on Halloween. I was in Section 1, by the door. The amount of people crushed in, I couldn’t serve the first three tables. Then people sat down at a table without going through the proper channels to get it. I told them, “You gotta get up and wait your turn.” The guy had a mouth on him and wasn’t having politeness. I don’t like to get in fights, but I’ve been in prison and I understand the respect thing that goes with it, but I don’t play that. Just respect everybody, there are people who were waiting before you. You didn’t earn this space. Get up.
What do people get banned for? For continually walking out on tickets. Then you get 86ed. There’s a few of those. Everyone who’s been on this shift knows who they are.
It feels like diners breed good conversation and especially between people who might have not otherwise known each other existed.
Yesterday, I had an eight-top in the back and they were a bunch of cowboys, good ol’ boys, and we we’re getting along and I sat down with them and all of a sudden my whole life story came out. We just started talking. That talking – I do that with a lot of tables I feel comfortable with. You can usually tell who’s up to meeting someone new. That’s what I love about this job. Meeting new people.
Do late hours open up interesting conversation easier than day hours?I’ve always thought that in the middle of the night, my mind was more at peace than in the middle of the day. There’s always so much going on in the middle of the day. You got all these errands and things you need to take care of. All your priorities. What are you gonna do in the middle of the night? There’s only one place open and it’s a diner. You have nothing to worry about until later. Worry about it later. It’s the one time that you can really focus on what is going on right now. Which is all we will really have in this now – what we have right now.
Do you think that’s why folks come to places like this in the middle of the night?I think it is human nature to congregate. To be honest with you, we grow up and everyone thinks you have to go to college to prepare for your future, nobody ever prepares for what’s happening right now. Nobody focuses on what’s happening right now. It’s harder to see the gift that is going on right now.
In the middle of the night, at places like this, there’s a peace. Worry starts to go away – unless you’re drunk enough to bring all that worry back.
What’s a pet peeve about waiting tables? I have a flow. There’s a certain way I do things. Everything will get done. Patience, please. That’s one of my biggest things. People don’t have patience.
What’s something behind the scenes that people wouldn’t expect about your job? I think people become oblivious to the stress and strain that is put on us. The cooks feel it the most, however, they push that on us and then the customers push it on us and it clashes to create a big stress level and everyone who works here starts arguing. During bar rush, we’re no longer friends. Afterward, whatever happened, nobody takes personally, we forgive each other, and we smoke a cigarette and we’re good to go.
What do you love about your job? I’ve worked a few different jobs. Like a call center. It was so scripted. You have to do it one way and that’s the only way. I couldn’t be myself. That’s what I love most about this job. It allows me to be me at any time of the day with everybody. Do things my way. The fact that I can, and choose to be, genuine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer