I’m going to explore why diners fascinate me so much. They’ve inspired me since childhood. Their ambiance elicits a delicious blend of sweet nostalgia, tasty food, classic sci-fi, trains, jukeboxes, checkerboard floors, chrome plated, red-topped, swivel stools, mystery noir, neon, Cokes, malts, coffee, cigarettes, and writing.
Topping my list are the Skylark Diner in Vestal, NY and Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, MN. The Skylark, founded in 1956, was our entire family’s favorite diner, too. Often, I’d be accompanied by Dad, Mom sometimes, Uncle Bobby, Auntie Sara, and later in life, my wife Thyme when we were in town. I loved the town I grew up in. The Skylark is one of those treasures that has withstood the march of time.
A treasure lost is the old Vestal Theater across the street. The same year the Skylark was established, the first movie I ever remember seeing came out. It was the early sci-fi flick, The Forbidden Planet, featuring Robbie the Robot. I fell asleep in the car on the way home, and was still dreaming about Robbie when Mom and Dad carried me up to my bed and tucked me in.
You can go to the Skylark website (below) and in their photo album is a picture of the old theater. Here’s a clue. In the photo of the old Skylark logo, the movie theater’s just to the right of the the Star Cleaners. Let me know if you find it or if you have any memories about the Vestal Theater.
Thyme has also been with me every time I’ve visited Mickey’s, made famous by Garrison Keillor in his Prairie Home Companion movie. My most recent visit there was after attending a concert by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. More on Mickey’s in a future blog.
My memories of the Skylark food mostly entail eggs over easy, hash browns, triangles of buttered toast and strawberry jelly, ham, OJ, and a bottomless cup of coffee. Served up on the classic blue-striped, white enamel dinnerware with matching cup—diner Nirvana.
We met there during our last visit to Vestal before Mom and Dad moved to Arizona—the next to the last Christmas of the 20th century. Auntie Sara, matron of the local clan, held position at the head of the table. And, you know, that was okay. She was one of my two favorite aunts. I delighted in hiking over the hill from Echo Road, where we lived, to her house on Torrance Avenue.
There were a couple of times I even stayed at the house overnight. Auntie Sara made up a bed for me in the basement. I remember one night reading the entirety of the children’s book Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars. I think that was my first foray into a science fiction chapter book. Quite different from the Flash Gordon comics and TV show I dug so much.
Another time I stayed there, I built a plastic model plane, a Piper Tri-Pacer, and it turned out pretty good—until I painted it. All I had for paints were green and gray—blech! When I took a flying lesson at Tri-Cities Airport as a teen, I flew over her house. Man, the look on her face when I told her about it. She was nearly as excited as I was.
It was at her Torrance Avenue house that we celebrated my great-grandfather, Uncle George’s, 90th birthday. The “9” and “0” stuck into the top of the cake reminded me of a pair of scissors. Some of this will be coming out in a future novel, especially the part about Uncle George lounging in the back seat of his Buick, decreasing the rat population with his .22. It’s nearly done, and shines an historical spotlight on my eccentric Uncle George Larrabee. He was a quirky inventor and Tom Watson’s tool-and-die man in the early days of IBM. I don’t know if Uncle George ever frequented the Skylark. I’ll have to ask someone in the family before anyone who could remember forgets it. If you’re curious why I called my great-grandfather Uncle George, you’ll discover why when you read the book.
The last time I saw Auntie Sara was after Dad’s memorial service in 2003. She was well into her nineties by then, and in the hospital. I’d never seen anyone look so stately in the hospital before, but she pulled it off.
Next time I’m back in Vestal, I am paying a special visit to the Skylark to report on their cheeseburger, curly fries, and chocolate malt.
I think it was in the fall of 1991, about a year before I moved to Minnesota, that I experienced the quintessential diner hamburger. I was riding home with the president of GTE’s New England Division from a visit to the Northeast Division headquarters in Johnstown, New York. It was an excellent fall day, and halfway through Vermont on our way back to Concord, New Hampshire, we spotted a fine diner.
“Hungry?” Chuck chimed.
My drool machine went into overdrive. “Sounds good to me,” I replied, attempting to be cool and nonchalant about the possibility.
The heavenly smell of hamburgers on the grill greeted us as we opened the diner door. I felt set up like I was having my fortune told. “You shall meet the hamburger of your dreams,” the Gypsy smell foretold.
And the prophecy was fulfilled at that diner. But the quest to repeat the experience continues to this very day. More next week.
Please share your own out-of-this-world dining adventures with us!
More on the Skylark Diner
More about Space Larrabee: I was made manifest in a book called By the Time I Got to Woodstock—or Space Meets Thyme in the Shadow of Atlantis. I am Space Larrabee, and in Lunch on the Moon I share tasty delicacies I’ve found in the experiential arts. Join me every week or so and share your experiences, too!