Weekly Writing Challenge: Nighthawks

Untitled1You’ve seen the picture; everyone has. It shows a diner almost empty but for a couple leaning on one end of the counter and a lone man with his back to the viewer. Both appear to be watching the soda jerk behind the counter, the only subject in the picture moving.

What didn’t show up in the picture was me. I’m sitting on the bar stool just to the right of where the picture starts, invisible from the angle Hopper used. I didn’t make the cut. It’s the story of my life. I’m the guy who checks out 2 people ahead of the millionth customer, the sap who watches the winning home run ball bounce over his seat; just close enough to see something great, but never able to be a part of it.

Working behind the counter is Stan.   Back then he was the night manager. That’s not as impressive as it might sound; he was also the night cook, the night dishwasher, and the night cashier.  He’d grown up in the city, the oldest son of an immigrant family. When this picture was painted Stan was at City College, working nights and going to school during the day.   In a few years he’d be back at the diner, but as its owner.

The guy sitting with his back to the window was Jim, one of the regulars. Jim was a lush, what we used to call a booze-hound and now, in far less poetic language, an alcoholic. He was sobering up before heading home and to bed. This was back when Jim was still hanging on the perception of being in control of his life, still with a wife waiting for him at home and a job he’d show up to late the next morning. It wouldn’t last; within a few years he’d lose both, and the ability to blend in with everyone else. No matter how low Jim got, and he got plenty low, the night staff had standing orders from Stan to let him have coffee and a sandwich.

The couple were relative newcomers, young marrieds that had moved to the neighborhood just a few weeks earlier. They were theater people, used to having dinner long after most folks had gone to bed, and were ordering a meal from Stan. They’d just reached the point where their names were known; soon they’d be regulars, sitting down at the counter and more comfortable eating there than in their own dining room.

Edward Hopper, the artist, was another regular. He and his wife lived in the neighborhood, and came in often. Nice folks, not pretentious or “arty” in the least.

As for me, well, I was the one who, a few nights earlier, had suggested to Ed that this place would make a swell night picture. I was right, but I still didn’t get a chance to be in it. But then, as I said earlier, that’s just the story of my life.

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