Fiction: Birdie McColl’s Blue-Plate Special

May 25, 2018 Fiction , POETRY / FICTION

Shelby L Bell photo



Sarah Ito




Clanging, banging, pots and pans loaded into a commercial dishwasher, off-white restaurant quality dishes piled high, awaiting a sizzling short stack of buttermilk pancakes dripping with imitation syrup, and a side of bacon…aroma of percolator coffee, decaf and leaded, wafting above the counter where a steady drone of chatter cuts the air like an unwashed butter knife, greasy and dull…big-assed cops deposit their hulking selves on the stools, sitting holster to holster, weighted down by Kevlar vests and chunky-handled Glocks and too much leather…envious cowboy hustler wannabe eyeing said NYPD leather jackets and boots while hoisting a chipped mug to his mouth, and of course, the obligatory bum/drunk/crackhead, with just enough panhandled cash to float a scrambled egg special with hash browns, no juice.


Every night, every single stinking night, rain or shine, snow, ice, melt-your-soles heat and humidity, it never changes. Never. The coffee shop rocks to its own beat, and my shift is the shiftiest – roll in at 7pm, grab an apron, and “Honey and Dear” you until 7 am the next morning, when the Slovakian girl gets off the bus right outside our door and limps in to relieve me. Petra, that’s her name, but it’s not important. She gets here on time, every time, that’s all I care about. Me, I got a life outside of Dewey’s Diner; not much of a life, but still, a gal’s got to get off her feet at some point, and even a career hash-slinger like me needs a serious cup of Joe in the morning, served up by someone else. Petra gives me mine in a to-go cup, Styrofoam, to drink on the bus ride up Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue, over the Prospect Expressway, back to Greenwood. It’s not too bad riding the bus at that hour. Not too many people heading in that direction, away from the city.


Petra, she’s not one to cozy up to the customers that much. Don’t get me wrong, she’s friendly and all that, but let’s face it – a little butt wiggle and a cheeseburger with a dash of “Honey and Dear” gets you a bigger tip. I know this to be fact. I’ve tried to explain this to Petra, how Americans like to be talked to when their waitress puts that three-egg special down in front of them, but Petra, she says, “Americans? What Americans? I don’t see no Americans in here, Birdie. I see Greeks, I see Mexicans, I see Nigerians, and Paki’s…Look, see all those taxicabs parked outside? Those drivers, they’re all in here, and Birdie, they are Paki’s. No Americans in here…”


Petra is all squared off like a phone booth, a little boxy, maybe, but she wears her pull-on jeans and pink nylon sweater well, and always got that starfish broach from the dimestore on, too. She got her limp from some childhood accident, she says, and the doctors over there couldn’t do much for her, but that doesn’t slow her down much. Never misses a shift, never. Petra hasn’t been in Brooklyn too long and she thinks Americans all have blue eyes and blonde hair, kind of like Paul Newman. She’s watched too many Hollywood movies, I think. I tell her all the time, Petra, what you see in here are Americans, and they ain’t all blonde, this being Brooklyn and all, and if you ever want to get more than a fifty cent tip, you better learn how to say “Honey, how do you like your hamsteak?” and “Apple pie, Dear?” Sweetie, too. You have to say “Sweetie” a lot, even to the Pakis. You’d think it would be simple, just let it roll off your tongue nice and easy, but no, not her. She won’t say, One meatloaf, naked, either…Always “Meatloaf dinner, hold gravy, please!” She barks like some Eastern bloc border guard issuing an order, but she avoids certain words… Something about saying “naked” out loud, I guess. You get these thick-headed folks from the old country; some things they won’t change, not for nothing.


Me, I’m a lifelong Brooklyn gal, always lived in Greenwood, and I keep an open mind. Change with the times, I always say, otherwise you get left behind, crying in your suds. I tried changing it up a few times; in fact, a few years ago, I took the R train over to midtown and hosted in a real classy place, steak and shrimp cocktail and a full liquor bar, the type with those signature cocktails that taste like liquid candy. And cognac, too, the thirty dollar imported French snifter stuff, and a cigar lounge to boot. The joint took American Express and Diners Club; never saw anyone pay in cash. Hosted there for six months. That train ride, it nearly did me in. Never got a seat. Usually had to hang on the strap coming and going. Tried typing in the pool at the Savings and Loan, once, too, but office work bored me. Only good thing, I wasn’t on my feet all night. But I missed the tips, and the different people…I even missed the cops, especially the old ones who always seemed so sad. Kind of depressed me, but I’d kid around with the boys in blue and get them cheered up before they hit the bricks again. That always made me feel good. So I went back to the diner, picked up the overnight shift, and bought myself a few pairs of really high end sneakers, white with that swooshie thing stitched on the side, because that’s important when you work the counter and the tables both; you GOT to be comfortable on your feet.


These days, though, my dogs are screamin’ a lot more than they used too, come seven a.m. And the ankles, puffy like those cheesy appetizers they serve at a Flatbush Bar Mitzvah. I’m feeling my age now, and those trays of omelets and club sandwiches are getting mighty heavy, let me tell you. Mighty heavy. Got me to thinking about retiring, maybe heading down south, Florida probably. Thinking about taking my savings and buying a real nice trailer in an old folks park, nice and quiet and sunny, maybe with a few of them palm trees around for shade…My cousin has a cute little trailer around Tampa, with lots of palm trees, and the ocean is down the street, and I wouldn’t mind living near her. Always good to have family nearby when you’re old, I say. Only thing is, I’d have to buy a car to get around, and I’ve never driven much, living here in Brooklyn…but we’ll see. Just have to get used to the idea of leaving my walk-up in Greenwood. My grandmother lived there, and my mother and dad, when they were alive, and did I mention it’s rent stabilized? You don’t give up a rent stabilized apartment without a boatload of worry, absolutely not. But deep down I know it’s time; I’m thinking, maybe one more year here, and then I’ll cut the cord. Or maybe, the chain. ‘Cuz sometimes I feel like I’m chained to this place.


Petra, she says, “Birdie, this is America. You don’t want be here no more, you go.” But it’s not that easy, it really isn’t. I’m not some displaced person that blows like a tumbleweed from east to west. No Ma’am. People like me, we’re born here, we live our entire lives here, and then we get buried here, in a shady spot in that nondenominational cemetery over by the expressway. Roots. We got roots. Maybe we take a spin out to Atlantic City every now and then, or a weekend in the Pocono’s, but then we come home, and we pick up our marbles exactly where we left off. That’s life, right?


But Petra and her kind, they’re different, and I kind of like that. They got that work ethic, you know, and they take chances and branch out, try new things, new places, when they got to. Too damn late for me…Us old gals, we’re set in our ways. But I did make an appointment to talk to a travel agent later, ‘cuz I may want to take the Greyhound down south to Tampa and check out a few trailers pretty soon. Like I said, my feet hurt, real bad, all the time, and I don’t want to keel over here underneath a tray of liver and onions, and I don’t want the bug zapper on the ceiling of Dewey’s Diner to be the last thing I see on this earth. Nope. I got Petra and all the other newbies to thank for that, I guess, for my new attitude. And maybe there’ll be a truckstop down there that could use a part-time hash-slinger. But anyway, let me stop bending your ear and I’ll freshen up that coffee for you, Sweetie. Just wanted you to know, one of these days you’re gonna pop in and I won’t be here, but not to worry. I got Petra trained pretty good, and she’ll serve you your eggs like you want, and if you chat her up I’ll bet she’ll start talking to you more. That’s what I think. And here’s a tip, Sweetie…tell her she reminds you of that actress Paul Newman was married to. Yeah, that one. She’ll give you a slice of pie for nothing if you tell her that, just saying…And don’t say nothing about her wiping the table with her apron, okay? Anyway, gotta go, Theo’s dinging that friggin’ bell at the window. Your omelet’s coming right out, Hamid. Whole wheat toast, fries, no sausage. Oh, and have a great day.






Sarah Ito

I am a novelist (GROWING UP GREENWICH, Outskirts Press), blogger and essayist, and occasional poet.

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