Every suburb has one: that late-night, bad-coffee refuge of shift workers, frustrated poets, and bored teenagers alike. Zim’s. Lyon’s. International House of Pancakes. In my suburban hometown, it was Denny’s.
A few days ago on my way to visit an old friend, I drove past the Denny’s of my youth. Except it wasn’t there anymore. The building remained, but the illuminated rooftop sign was gone. From across the freeway, I could see the discolored patches on the roof and walls where the cheerful signage had long beckoned passersby to get off at the next exit and come on in.
In my teenage years, I probably spent more waking hours at Denny’s than I did at home, especially on weekends and during the summers when curfews were relaxed and setting an alarm clock for the morning was unheard of. Denny’s wasn’t a place I ever planned to go to, but I always seemed to end up there. It was open. It was cheap. There was nowhere else to go. And most of my friends were already there. Countless times, I eavesdropped on conversations over the stalls in the bathroom only to realize that I recognized the voices:
“Oh my god, John Gorman is so hot in black jeans!”
“Jenny, is that you?”
“Oh my god, Lisa?” (followed by a round of echoing giggles.)
My friends and I gorged on chalky milkshakes and oily grilled cheese sandwiches. We learned how to hang spoons from our noses and build French fry sculptures. We slipped coffee mugs, long-handled spoons, and ashtrays into our purses. We had creamer fights with the Mini Moos* and on a few occasions, were asked to leave for being too loud or too messy or (I suspect) just for being annoying. We drank a lot of coffee, and then couldn’t understand why we felt so shaky and nauseous, why we couldn’t get to sleep…
I recall one evening in particular when my friends and I were a little short on cash, so in lieu of leaving a reasonable tip, we scrawled onto a napkin: Some Tips For Our Waitress, followed by such colorfully reinvented idioms as A man in the hand is better than two in the bush. Certainly our waitress was thrilled by this wit.
When we finally peeled ourselves up from the vinyl booths and made our way home, amped up on coffee and nicotine, I would smoke cigarettes out my bedroom window (sorry Dad!) and stay up until dawn writing absurd short stories about demonic rose bushes and killer cucumbers. I wrote fearlessly and without regard for others. I think it was during this time in my life that I enjoyed writing the most: unfettered by worries about getting published, wondering if my time would be better spent doing something else, or questioning if my writing was actually any good. None of that mattered. I wrote because it was fun. Period.
Although I hadn’t set foot onto my old Denny’s faux tile floors for 20 years, I liked the idea that the generations of bored teenagers that came after me were still haunting those brown vinyl booths and thieving the signature coffee mugs. But suburban teenagers are different these days, so I’m told. A friend with two small children recently complained that she couldn’t find a high school student to babysit, since they all have internships and too many extracurricular activities.
So I guess teenagers don’t go to Denny’s anymore, which makes me a little sad. We have our whole adult lives to grapple with the burdens of ambition and responsibility, but only a few short years to eat bad food, to gossip with our friends over the bathroom stall, to stay up too late. To live fearlessly.
* Prick a small hole in the center of the sealed cover and then squeeze the plastic cup. This will give you about a three-foot launch radius. Best to test this out in the backyard or the shower.